Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Friday, January 27, 2017

Welcome and Project Updates

Mount Zion Missionary Baptist (MB) Church (f. 1909) 
The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund (MZMF) is a Mississippi non-profit corporation named after Mount Zion Missionary Baptist (MB) Church (f. 1909) outside Morgan City, Mississippi. Organized in 1989 by Raymond ‘Skip’ Henderson, the Fund memorialized the contributions of numerous musicians interred in rural cemeteries without grave markers, serving as a legal conduit to provide financial support to black church communities and cemeteries in the Mississippi Delta. The MZMF erected twelve memorials to blues musicians over a 12 year period from 1990 to 2001

Deacon Booker T. Young and MZMF director DeWayne Moore in
front of the present day Mount Zion MB Church on the same site

The renewed efforts of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund since 2010 have been spearheaded by T. DeWayne Moore, a historian and scholar based out of Oxford, Mississippi. The relatives of Tommy Johnson and other interments in Warm Springs CME Church Cemetery obtained a permanent fifteen foot wide and half-a-mile long easement to the important site due in large part to efforts and compelling arguments of Moore, who took over as executive director in January 2014.  Under his leadership, the military markers of Henry "Son" Simms and Jackie Brenston were located and restored.  The MZMF has dedicated five new memorials--the headstone of Frank Stokes in the abandoned Hollywood Cemetery, Memphis, TN; the flat companion stone of Ernest "Lil' Son Joe" Lawlars in Walls, MS; and in Greenville, MS, the flat markers of T-Model Ford and Eddie Cusic, and the unique, yet humble, headstone of Mamie "Galore" Davis.  In addition, the MZMF monitors legal actions involving cemeteries and provides technical assistance to cemetery corporations and community preservationists in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Mississippi, and South Carolina, such as the Friends of Hollywood/Mt. Carmel Cemeteries, which assists in restoring these two massive and abandoned African American cemeteries in Memphis "back to a beautiful place of rest for all" interments, including Frank Stokes and Furry Lewis.

The Grave of Tommy Johnson was Always Marked:
Unnecessary Roadblocks, Legal Solutions, 
& the Religious Syncretism of Warm Springs Cemetery

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

Jontavious Willis, Blue Metamorphosis, & "Columbus GA Blues"

"Life is the blues. Not necessarily all good. Not necessarily all bad. It's a feeling that can't be faked." - Jontavious Willis - His first recorded album, Blue Metamorphosis, is available now on his website. He's also got Jock Webb on there, which should have an effect similar to telling Jules from Pulp Fiction that Winston Wolf is coming. Do you feel better about grabbing a copy of his debut knowing about the appearance of Jock Webb? [grinning] "Shit, yeah! That's all you had to say!"
Track #6 - Columbus GA Blues - Upon reading the title, it comes to mind that the city along the Chattahoochee River was home to Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, one of the earliest and most influential blues singers of the 1920s, whose home is now a museum due to the determined campaign of so many people over the years, namely local preservationist and outspoken advocate in the black community, Florene Dawkins. Though the song does not refer to either of these self-assured, talented, and guileful personalities, Willis is singing about some woman in Columbus and smashing that guitar with his open hand, talking about no hard feelings for the city but deuces to the rest of y'all...
When I left Columbus, Georgia
Left my ole girl in her doorway cryin'
I would still be in her arms
If she didn't take up cheatin' and lyin' 
I shoulda,...shoulda noticed
When that talk was all around
That you were just like a virus
And catching all over town

If you still got a jones and need to get a little taste, check out this extended, laudatory video review by Brock Lightning. He examines the liner notes, plays a few clips and waxes nostalgic about his personal knowledge of the Georgia-native.

Dizzy Gillespie at Thomas Wiggins' Grave
outside Columbus, Georgia, May 1979.

Columbus also boasts one of the most significant, meaningful stories of honoring an African American musician during the black freedom struggle. Some local historians located the grave of Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins on the old Westmoreland Plantation just outside of Columbus, Georgia in the 1950s. The state erected an historical marker near the site in 1954. In late 1975, the 34th Medical Battalion at Fort Benning took up the task of marking his grave as a Bicentennial Project--a national celebration that failed to invoke patriotic sentiment in most black folks, who considered the American ideals of freedom and equal treatment under the law at best an absurd hypocrisy. Armed with a handful of donations, project officer Bill Walton approached Ed Stovall, of Columbus Marble Works, who told him, "Give me what you have and go out in the yard and pick out any tombstone that you like. I will engrave it and place it on Blind Tom's grave. I am happy to be able to help in a project like this."  He installed the marker, and it remains on his grave, despite a very convoluted and tangled web of affidavits and burial records, which suggests his remains never left Brooklyn, New York.  It, nevertheless, attracted Dizzy Gillespie in 1979.

The grave of Ma Rainey was marked already with a flat stone when local music lovers erected the upright marker, only one of the many memorializations of the blues singer since the 1970s.  The controversial decision to stabilize her dilapidated home is the subject of a forthcoming article in a series on early blues tourism efforts and the black freedom struggle... TDM

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Warm Springs Cemetery - The burial site of Tommy Johnson

Warm Springs Cemetery In rural Copiah County, MS Close to Terry and the Hinds County line 1) Tommy Johnson 2)...
Posted by Mt. Zion Memorial Fund on Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Vintage Photo Identified

Born in 1914, R.P Murray was the son of Peter (b. 1873) and Rosa M. Murray (b. 1892). He had an older sister Anna (b....

Posted by Mt. Zion Memorial Fund on Sunday, January 22, 2017

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Michael Cala: Respect for the Dead, the Living, and Honoring the Blues

Michael Cala and the marker that helped restore
Grasmere music journalist Michael Cala deserves the utmost in recognition and respect from us all after initiating a campaign to mark the grave of blues singer Mamie Smith and realizing that helping the struggling caretakers of the entire burial ground was not outside the purview of his endeavor.  The campaign was so successful that he not only honored a legendary recording artist but also contributed thousands of dollars to the caretakers of the Frederick Douglass Memorial Park. "The cemetery is rather cash strapped," Cala admitted in one interview, revealing an inconvenient truth that extends much farther than the boundaries of the memorial park to neglected and abandoned African American burial grounds across the country.  "They don't have much money," Cala explained, "and what they wanted to do was...right headstones and foot stones that were moved by Hurricane Sandy."  It's difficult to argue with him regarding his decision to donate excess funds to the caretakers to help refurbish the burial ground.  Cemeteries are as much about respect for the living as they are about honoring the dead.  Michael Cala made his effort an inclusive one, and he provided an example for the rest of us to emulate in our everyday lives.

You can read more about the campaign and the dedication of the headstone of Mamie Smith here and here.  

It's difficult to get the mainstream media to cover similar campaigns to preserve abandoned African American burial grounds from behind the Magnolia Curtain in Mississippi, so please visit our website to learn more about our constant efforts to maintain historic abandoned cemeteries and markers of blues musicians.  

Currently, we need help to mark the grave of Bo Carter and preserve Nitta Yuma Cemetery.  You can view the video for our campaign here.

Brian Palmer makes the compelling case that "neglected black cemeteries deserve the same level of care that their Confederate counterparts get" in his recent article in the New York Times.  

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Warm Springs in the NBDEA

Several of the cemeteries we submitted to the National Burial Database of Enslaved Americans (NBDEA) were accepted and are now included in the report, "Memory & Landmarks: Report of the Burial Database Project of Enslaved Americans." Its hard to explain how difficult it is to dig up and compile evidence linking mostly unmarked burial grounds to the antebellum period. Not all submissions made it into this initial conglomeration, but Warm Springs CME Church Cemetery outside of Crystal Springs--the burial ground of blues singer Tommy Johnson--did make it into the report. It's now marked on county and state road maps and archived in the NBDEA. His ancestors settled in the community after fleeing the plantation of James Wilson, who committed suicide by wading into Copiah Creek. Wilson's headstone (left) stands in Old Crystal Springs Cemetery.

Please help us mark the grave of Bo Carter and preserve Nitta Yuma Cemetery

Click on the link below to view or download the document, which does not list it by name only city and religious affiliation.

Memory & Landmarks

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Fred McDowell Biography

"Shake Em On Down" TEASER from The Southern Documentary Project on Vimeo.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017: Opening Nights Performing Arts/Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, 7:30 PM ET
Thursday, February 2, 2017: North Central Louisiana Arts Council, Ruston, LA, 7:00 PM CT
Friday, February 3, 2017: Arts Council of Central Louisiana, Alexandria, LA, 7:00 PM CT
Monday, February 13, 2017: Tropic Cinema/Key West Film Society, Key West, FL, 6:30 PM ET
Tuesday, February 14, 2017: Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, GA, 7:00 PM ET
Thursday, February 16, 2017: Broward College Foundation, Davie, FL, 7:30 PM ET
Friday, February 17, 2017: Miami-Dade Co. Dept. of Cultural Affairs/South Miami-Dade Cultural Center, Cutler Bay, FL, 8:30 PM ET

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Joanne Fish - W.C. Handy Documentary Promo Page

Corporation Jeopardizes Future of the Pennington African Cemetery

By Angela Jacobs, Dec 20, 2016

Typically few, if any, people come to Pennington Borough’s Planning Board meetings, but seats were filled and tensions were high as attendees waited for the board’s ruling on whether to grant an extension of time for J&M Schragger LLC to file a Minor Subdivision Deed on its 417 South Main Street property. Though the request was more of a formality, as Municipal Land Use Law NJSA 40:55D-21 mandates the extension, several supporters of the Pennington African Cemetery Association (PACA) spoke out against ruling in favor of the corporation. In the end, a six month extension was granted.
Historical Context
In 1863, African American residents of Pennington purchased land adjacent (serving as a long driveway) and a large plot of land behind 417 S. Main Street. The purpose of the land was to create access to a cemetery they built for African American residents who were prohibited from burial at white cemeteries. Though the Pennington African Cemetery (PAC) is no longer an active burial ground, it is revered by its volunteers who are members of the Pennington African Cemetery Association (PACA) and who maintain the fenced-in area and its driveway. For at least the past 60 years, owners of the home at 417 S. Main St. had been informally allowed to use the driveway in order to park behind their home. In return, the homeowners cut the cemetery’s grass and removed snow from PAC’s driveway.

The Issue
John and Michelle Schragger (owners of J&M Schragger, LLC) purchased the home at 417 S. Main St. for their own residence, in April 2016, intending to then subdivide the back half of the lot, which borders PAC, for development and resale. Both lots would require use of PAC’s driveway in order to park behind the homes, so a formal easement, allowing its use, was sought from the cemetery association. At the June Planning/Zoning Board meeting, the board approved the applicant’s request for a minor subdivision, with the requirement that a legal easement be obtained from the cemetery association. With easement in hand, the applicant would then be required to file a minor subdivision deed, 190 days from June 8th. 

Though efforts were made to agree on easement terms, Angela Witcher, on behalf of PACA, notified the applicant on July 7th that they would not grant an easement. In response, on August 11th, the applicant filed a lawsuit against PACA, as well as individually against sisters, Angela and Susan Witcher. The suit is scheduled for hearing at Mercer County’s Superior Court in March. At the December Planning/Zoning Board meeting, just shy of the 190 day deadline, the applicant requested an extension to file the minor subdivision deed in hopes that they are granted the easement in March.

Angela Witcher speaks to planning board
The Problems

At the May Planning/Zoning Board meeting, Susan Witcher, a member of the Pennington African Cemetery Association, happened to be in attendance and was asked to testify on the status of the easement. At the December meeting, her sister Angela testified that Susan was unprepared to speak for PACA and unfamiliar with the legalities being discussed. Susan’s testimony was pivotal in the board’s decision to grant the applicant’s application for the subdivision. 

PACA has no formal leadership. Over the course of the past eight months, questions of who has the authority to speak for the organization and sign legal documents have repeatedly been asked without clear answer. Though PACA retained a lawyer in the spring to guide them through that issue, the attorney apparently did not fully represent PACA’s wishes in regards to discussions about the easement with the applicant. Instead, the attorney drafted a letter outlining general terms needed for an easement to be possible in the future and asked for money upfront, something like a promise ring. According to Angela Witcher’s December testimony, PACA never considered granting an easement. 

The applicant claims that its corporation purchased the property based on assumptions made that an easement was forthcoming, and proceeded with the purchase with the aim of subdividing the lot.


While it may be unfortunate that the applicant believed they would be granted an easement, PACA asserts that there was no indication on the part of PACA that they would be amenable to one. Events did transpire that led them in this thinking. Instead of parting ways, albeit unhappily, the applicant seeks compensation for lost wages on their potential investment property in upwards of $20,000. If damages are awarded, Witcher sisters indicate that this would most likely bankrupt them personally and make any upkeep of the cemetery impossible. 

The issue is not merely about a piece of paper, the easement, but about Pennington’s African American community feeling unheard and unprepared to fight the legal system, according to many vocal members of the community. PACA had an informal relationship with the prior neighboring property owners, allowing them to use their driveway to access the back of their lot. However, the association adamantly denies an interest in waiving legal rights of their driveway. If an easement is forced by the courts, the sisters and cemetery would potentially have to obtain a lawyer for every facet of the litigation, resulting in a high cost to PACA, an organization that has very little resources. 

To help with PACA’s many needed projects (i.e. stabilizing leaning and overturned headstones, leveling sunken graves, and placing headstones on unmarked graves) or contribute to their legal defense, go to PACA’s GoFundMe page.

Disgraced Cemetery Manager to Pay $15,000 in Restitution for Nine Headstones

By Jennifer Waugh

JACKSONVILLE, FL - The former manager of a local cemetery has agreed to pay back money he is accused of taking from some of his customers for services never provided. Nader John Rayan’s attorney told a judge Tuesday morning that his client will pay $15,000 in restitution to nine families.

The families accused Rayan of taking money for grave markers that were never delivered.

Rayan promised to repay the money by Feb. 2.

It was the latest development in an I-TEAM investigation that led to Rayan's arrest last July. News4Jax exposed dozens of complaints against Rayan and his wife, who owned Beaches Memorial Park and First Coast Funeral Home in Atlantic Beach.

Rayan is charged with 15 counts of grand theft. As a result of our stories, his wife, Amanda Rayan, was also arrested last August.

Amanda Rayan has yet to be arraigned on 47 charges. Prosecutors said she falsified names on dozens of death certificates.