Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Grave of Tommy Johnson was Always Marked

The Grave of Tommy Johnson was Always Marked: 
Unnecessary Roadblocks, Legal Solutions,
& the Religious Syncretism of Warm Springs
by T. DeWayne Moore

The publicity concerning Crystal Springs resident Claude Johnson being legally recognized as the son of Robert Johnson, and receiving millions of dollars in royalties, set the stage for this whole ordeal. The Coen brothers decision to include the character of Tommy Johnson in the film Oh Brother Where Art Thou? set the stage on fire. The Johnson name started to make little green dollar signs pop-up in the eyes of folks around Crystal Springs.


The daughter of Mager Johnson subsequently founded the Tommy Johnson Blues Foundation (TJBF) to promote the musical legacy of Tommy Johnson, who stayed around Crystal Springs for most of his life. The TJBF immediately solicited the help of Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, which commissioned a large, five hundred pound headstone and dedicated the marker in the town's railroad park instead of Warm Springs Cemetery. Since the original unveiling in October, 2001, the MZMF founder Skip Henderson sent out several press releases, looking for answers as to why the headstone remained in the public library. He listed the names and contact information for everyone in local governance, some of whom allegedly tried to broker a deal in which the landowners sold the blues singers’ descendants an easement to the cemetery. For the next eight or nine years, the situation devolved into hopeless stalemate, as the musician's descendants and others hurled baseless accusations at everyone in municipal (Crystal Springs) and (Copiah) county governance. The problem, however, was not local officials so much as it was an absentee landlord who lacked sympathy for the descendants of the former congregants of Warm Springs CME Church. 

In the summer of 2011, current MZMF director DeWayne Moore worked with attorney and historian Al Brophy to gather research and prepare a legal argument against the landowners on behalf of Johnson's descendants. Brophy contacted his former student Matthew Reid Krell, who filed suit on behalf of Johnson’s descendants, seeking a permanent easement to the cemetery. The landowners decided to settle the case out of court and grant the descendants of those interred at the cemetery a permanent easement. Armed with legal access to the site, Moore made an appeal to the Copiah County Board of Supervisors, which had previously promised to re-establish the road to Warm Springs Cemetery, located through a forest about a half-mile off Henry Road, if the families obtained a legal easement. It took a little longer than the month initially predicted by District 5 Supervisor Jimmy Phillips, but he eventually reconstituted the road (easement) and marked it with a road sign. The easement's entrance to the forest is marked and guarded by an iron gate. It's letters at the top spell out its name: Warm Springs Cemetery. The easement to the cemetery is private. It is not open to the public, only the descendants of those interred at Warm Springs Cemetery.

Having resided safely for the past decade in the Crystal Springs Public Library, the Tommy Johnson Blues Foundation hired some one local to relocate the five-hundred pound headstone of Tommy Johnson in October 2012. Alan Orlicek designed the tall headstone for a simple burial installation (ie the six foot tall stone needed to be stuck in the ground at least two feet.), but this did not occur. In February 2013, according to a sheriff’s report, the headstone “fell over by wind or accident and broke” off the top portion, which featured an engraved portrait of the only known picture of the blues singer. The report also noted that “there were no marks…to indicate that it was hit with a hammer or any type blunt instrument.” While stating that they “didn’t find anything to indicate foul play,” the investigating deputies did report the theft of an estimated $1,620 dollars in fencing supplies from the site. It is, therefore, possible that the alleged thieves also pushed over the tall headstone, which, according to most sources, “was improperly mounted on slab pins too small and too short." The marker was poorly attached to a concrete slab with two small pieces of rebar, which all but assured its broken fate. 

Ever since it fell, the Tommy Johnson Blues Foundation has charged that, "on the night of Saturday, February 2, 2013, the headstone was desecrated, apparently smashed by a sledge hammer or some similar device."[NOTE] The statement in the police report that “there were no marks…to indicate that it was hit with a hammer or any type blunt instrument," however, was subsequently confirmed upon independent examination. Yet, the sensational desecration narrative remains on the wikipedia site of Tommy Johnson. With the heavy bottom portion of the marker remaining on site, and the upper (still repairable) portion safely lodged in its creator's workshop, the offer to repair the marker and install it properly on his grave was declined. The plan at the time was for the foundation to design and install a new marker in the future. As of January 28, 2017, the easement continues to provide unfettered and open access to the descendents of those interred at Warm Springs.



A Conclusion


MZMF executive director DeWayne Moore kneels beside the improperly mounted and broken 500lb. headstone of Tommy Johnson. It sits underneath a large white oak on the periphery of the burial ground. The actual grave of Tommy Johnson, however, according to his younger brother, Mager Johnson, is located at the foot of a cedar tree behind the church. Warm Springs CME Church and Cemetery were abandoned after 1969--the most recent date of death on a grave marker. The secluded church and burial ground subsequently became a lover's lane of sorts, as evidenced by a host of liquor bottles and pull-top beer cans piled up alongside the old wagon road. An unidentified group of people purportedly burned the church in the 1970s. All that remains is a vacant power meter box and sheet metal. The forested burial ground, however, contains only two cedar trees, both of which sit at the epicenter of many graves (or in the middle) of Warm Springs Cemetery. 


David Evans, Tommy Johnson, 86-87.
The two cedars stand out among all the pines, having grown almost unrestrained for many years. When the salient strain of animist religion that existed in Copiah County, in such disparate locales as Bayou Pierre, is taken into consideration, the use of a cedar tree as a grave marker reflects the West African veneration of nature. The cemetery is located in the dense forest, and random burials are identified as grave depressions, worn and tilted concrete slabs, upright military and custom headstones, and living markers, in this case two cedar trees. Howard Divinity, a former Confederate body servant who lived in Bayou Pierre, possessed an unswerving faith in West African animism; he had spent much time alone in the wilderness, observing the workings of nature. He mastered the art of tree-talking, or jiridon, the whispered wisdom of the trees. Hazlehurst teacher Ruth Bass extracted as much information as possible about the elder animist and his quest to become one with his natural surroundings. Though he never had the time alone to learn jiridon, Tommy Johnson believed in the power of his grotesque rabbit's foot, a hoodoo charm perhaps procured in Bayou Pierre. "His life was never in conformity with the standards of the church," explained David Evans, and he clearly made a serious investment in the truth of animism. 

The living cedar trees, therefore, serve as perhaps the most fitting type of marker for his grave, making any further adulteration of the burial ground unnecessary, even outside the demands of cemetery preservation. Indeed, the interments at Warm Springs Cemetery exhibited, what some anthropologists called, "egalitarian" death, which reaffirms communal values, making a collective statement on equality in the afterlife. The burial ground is no longer in danger from outside developers and included forevermore in the National Burial Database of Enslaved Americans.
The grave of Tommy Johnson is marked with a cedar tree, two of
which are now located near the center of Warm Springs Cemetery.
His burial location has been marked very clearly all along.
Photo copyright 1970 - David Evans