Bessie Tomlin and the Ohio River Flood of 1937

When the Flood of 1937 hit Portsmouth, Bessie Tomlin, like others in the city's African-American neighborhood, first found safety on the second floor of the Booker T. Washington School. But soon she and the other refugees at the Washington School would run out of food and water, and heat, and would need to be evacuated by boat to the other refugee centers in the dry Hilltop neighborhoods. The story of Tomlin's death by drowning resurfaced in the 1990s and has since gone onto inspire local artists and musicians. Her grave in Greenlawn Cemetery was refurbished with a new engraved black marble stone, her image etched into its face. Robert Dafford's flood wall mural, perhaps more than any other image, commemorates the tragedy in the popular imagination. While Rob Black, a local musician with the Boneyfiddle Project, has written and recorded "Bessie Lift Your Baby Up," which tells the story in song. Her untimely demise, told here, has become forever linked with that of the Flood of 1937.

All the public schools in Portsmouth, Ohio, closed at the end of the school day on January 21, which, as luck would have it, was the last day of the semester anyway. Schools located in the flood zone were opened up for storing furniture (on the upper floors, of course), and all the students’ books were locked in one room. Hilltop schools, which still had heat, opened to refugees, and the students were asked to take their textbooks home with them, to free up as much space as possible.

The local schools utilized for refugee housing included: Lincoln, Highland, Garfield, McKinley, Roosevelt, and Rosemount. At one point, Lincoln School, located on the northwest corner of Kinney’s Lane and Waller Street, held about 1,600 people, before several hundred were evacuated elsewhere due to overcrowding. Highland, on the northwest corner of Hutchins and Logan streets, held as many as 1,300. Garfield, at the northeast corner of Gallia Street and Mabert Road, held at least a few hundred, and at one point a sandbag barrier was necessary to keep water out of the basement and keep the heat running.

McKinley, on Kinney’s Lane at the north end of Baird Avenue, held 400 people before being converted to a hospital on January 29. For a time, the Booker T. Washington School, located at the corner of Eleventh and John Streets, also held refugees, but it had to be evacuated as floodwaters quickly reached it.

During the evacuation of Washington School, the drowning of Portsmouth’s only 1937 flood victim occurred. On Monday, January 25, emergency workers were evacuating refugees from Washington School, which had been without access to food or fuel for a day and a half. One boat, commanded by a fireman named Walter Chick, departed Washington School around 7:00 pm that evening carrying eight refugees. The boat was rowing towards Waller Street, which it would then follow north to Lincoln School on the Hilltop. However, as the boat was turning left (north) from Eleventh Street onto Waller, a wave of water splashed into the boat. The splash startled one of the occupants, a 22-year-old African American named Bessie Tomlin, who stood up from her seat, making the boat unstable.

The boat then turned over, spilling Tomlin and everyone else into the cold, muddy floodwater. Chick recovered, either stabilizing his own boat or finding his way to another, in time to answer Tomlin’s cries of “Save my baby! Save my baby!” as she struggled to hold her 18-month-old daughter Alberta above the water. Chick grabbed the child from Tomlin’s hands but could not grab Tomlin herself in time, and she slipped away under the water.

Additional rescue boats picked up the overturned boat’s other occupants, which included Tomlin’s two sons and mother-in-law. Rescuers took them to an emergency hospital that had been set up at the Church of Christ, at the corner of Grant and Summit streets, where they were treated for minor injuries.

On February 1st, 1937, a week after her drowning, when much of the floodwater had receded, someone discovered Tomlin’s body at the corner of Tenth and Waller streets, one block from where her boat had tipped over. Tomlin’s funeral took place at the Emrick Funeral Home, at 2:00 pm, Tuesday, February 2, and she was buried in Greenlawn Cemetery in Portsmouth.

Her husband, William Tomlin, two sons, Herschel Lee and David Taylor, and her baby daughter, Alberta Madeline survived her.

Bessie Tomlin, according to Jerry Holt, a noted author and former dean at Shawnee State University, was “on the run from an abusive husband” and had been staying with relatives when the flood struck. According to the Portsmouth Times, Tomlin’s husband, William, was employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and “was helping move furniture from the first floor of the Second Presbyterian Church when the tragedy occurred.”

Tomlin, who was expecting her fourth child at any time, is hailed as the “only victim” of the 1937 flood in Scioto County. However, a second flood-related death did occur in Scioto County on Thursday, January 28, and for the sake of completeness will be mentioned here.

Everett Conley, a 32-year-old Franklin Furnace man, had made a bet with his friends that he could swim two hundred yards through the floodwater, fully clothed. Unfortunately for him, he became fatigued while still at least fifty feet from shore, and he drowned before anyone could help him. Perhaps secondary sources have ignored this second flood death in Scioto County because it was, in a manner of thinking, Conley’s own fault for making the wager in the first place, and so the accident was not entirely “accidental.”

Some later examinations of Tomlin's story have also noted the fact that the white fireman Chick acted quickly and without racially-oriented thought to save an African American child from drowning—and would have saved the mother, too, had he been able to reach her in time. According to Shawnee State University history professor John Lorentz, “The story [of Bessie Tomlin] was kind of lost to history. Race had something to do with it.” The painting of the flood wall murals and the recovery Tomlin's story helped retrieve this lost chapter of history. In June 2001, Alberta Tomlin Parker had a joyful meeting with David Chick, son of Walter Chick. She said, “When I met him, I was so thrilled. He said, ‘I have a black sister now.’"

The case of Bessie Tomlin was an isolated, unfortunate incident. Everyone else who was transported to the schools arrived there safely and found two good meals daily and warm beds. The American Red Cross provided most of the food, which they prepared at the schools, nearby churches, and neighbors’ homes. On Monday, February 1st, the refugee schools even began issuing meal tickets to those staying there. However, they soon became extremely crowded, as refugee numbers exceeded one thousand in schools such as Lincoln and Highland.

Authorities ultimately evacuated many refugees to other cities, to relieve overcrowding on Portsmouth’s Hilltop area. By Friday, January 29, they had reduced the total number of refugees occupying city school buildings to just over 2,060 people. However, the Portsmouth Times announced on February 1st that school children would remain on “vacation” for at least two more weeks, as schools continued to house refugees and store furniture, even as floodwaters were receding, while residents cleaned up their homes.

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared as "Living with the Flood in Portsmouth,” in Lisa M. Pasquinelli's The Great Ohio River Flood of 1937 (Dayton, OH: Wright State University, 2005), 12-15. You may read this and other bits of southern Ohio history on her blog, "Glancing Backwards" at


“1500 Taken Out of Town,” Portsmouth Times (27 January 1937): 2.

“2,062 Refugees Make Schools Their Quarters,” Portsmouth Times (30 January 1937): 3.

Mark Ellis, “Mural Tells of Disaster that Hit Portsmouth 65 Years Ago,” Columbus Dispatch (26 February 2002).

“Flood Victim’s Body Found on 11th St.,” Portsmouth Times, 2 Feb. 1937, 2

“Homeless Use City Schools,” Portsmouth Times (22 January 1937): 1.

“Housing Biggest Problem Facing Relief Leaders,” Portsmouth Times (28 January 1937): 3.

John Lorentz and Nathan Lorentz, River Voices: A Portrait of an American River Community (2002).

Lisa M. Pasquinelli, "Living with the Flood in Portsmouth,” in The Great Ohio River Flood of 1937 (Dayton, OH: Wright State University, 2005), 12-15.

“River May Go Over 62 Feet,” Portsmouth Times (21 January 1937): 7.
“Special Train Takes Group; More May Go,” Portsmouth Times (26 January 1937): 1.

“School is Made into Hospital,” Portsmouth Times (30 January 1937).

“Woman Drowned as Boat Tips Over; First Victim,” Portsmouth Times (26 Jan. 1937): 1-2.



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"Bessie Lift Your Baby Up," by Rob Black on "Welcome Back P'Town" (2015)
"Bessie Lift Your Baby Up" was written by Rob Black, president of the non-profit Boneyfiddle Project! It was produced by Nevada Hart and recorded at Nevada Hart Studios in the Historic Boneyfiddle District. Lead vocals and rhythm...
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