|(L to R) Rosetta Patton Brown (daughter of Charley), Roebuck "Pops" Staples,|
John Fogerty, and Skip Henderson, founder of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund
The organization was officially incorporated as The Robert Johnson Mount Zion Memorial Fund in the fall of 1989 to raise money to save the 114-year-old Mount Zion Church (founded 1909) from foreclosure and to place a cenotaph historic marker (not a headstone as is often mistaken- the monument bears no birth/death dates) in the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church cemetery in honor of Robert Johnson whose death certificate lists "Zion Church" as a burial site. The decision to place the memorial where it is at Mt. Zion was made to keep the rest of the cemetery from being trampled by visitors, and to have the song titles, some of which mention the devil, facing away from the church itself in deference to the church congregation. The unveiling took place on April 20, 1991, in partnership with Columbia Records through the work of Columbia A&R man Arthur Levy, with the support of Columbia President Don Ienner, and with the cooperation of the Mt. Zion congregation under the guidance of Pastor Rev. James Ratliff. The ceremony was attended by over 300 people and was covered by Billboard Magazine, Rolling Stone Magazine, Newsweek Magazine, Guitar Player Magazine, and numerous local media. The granite obelisk has a central inscription by Peter Guralnick, side inscriptions by Skip Henderson which were later used with permission on the Robert Johnson marker in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, and all of Johnson's known recordings added at the behest of Columbia Records. This marker has been vandalized on at least three occasions, apparently by souvenir seekers.
Shortly after the Robert Johnson memorial was placed, John Fogerty, after meeting Henderson in the Mt. Zion cemetery, agreed to fund a headstone to be placed on the grave of Charley Patton at the New Jerusalem M.B. Church in Holly Ridge, Mississippi. The Patton ceremony took place on July 20, 1991, the same weekend as the Pops Staples Festival in nearby Drew, Mississippi and subsequently Roebuck "Pops" Staples was in attendance joining Fogerty and three generations of Patton's family including daughter Rosetta Patton Brown, granddaughter Martha Brown and great granddaughter Keisha Brown at the ceremony.
In early September 1991 after reading an article about the Mt. Zion ceremony in the May 11, 1991 issue of Billboard Magazine, Phil Walden of Capricorn Records contacted Henderson and commissioned a bronze sculpture mounted on a granite headstone through the Mt. Zion Fund in honor of Elmore James. This memorial was placed on James' grave in the Newport Baptist Church Cemetery in Ebenezer, Holmes County, Mississippi on December 10, 1992 with several members of the Mississippi State Legislature in attendance along with Dick Waterman, Phil Walden, musician Marshall Crenshaw, James' one time producer Bobby Robinson, members of James' family, and many others. Henderson was presented with a cultural award from the State of Mississippi at that event.
Several months afterwards, with the help of Dick Waterman and attorney Robert Arentson, a memorial was placed on the grave site of Mississippi Fred McDowell at the Hammond Hill Baptist Church cemetery in Como, Mississippi, on August 6th, 1993. The ceremony was presided over by Dick Waterman and the memorial with McDowell’s portrait upon it was paid for by Bonnie Raitt, a one time student and friend of McDowell’s. In this case the memorial stone was a replacement for a damaged and inaccurate marker (McDowell’s name mis-spelled) and the original stone was subsequently donated by McDowell’s family to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
The following year a large gravestone for Big Joe Williams, who lies buried in a rural pasture outside of Crawford, Mississippi, was purchased through a collective effort of musicians led by California music journalist Dan Forte while gathered at Clifford Antone’s nightclub in Austin, Texas. The memorial was unveiled on October 9th, 1994 with a moving eulogy by the former sideman of William’s, harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite. At this time a donation was made to William’s disabled sister Mary May and one of Williams’ converted 9-string guitars was donated to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi where it is now on display. The inscription on the memorial for Big Joe Williams is by Dan Forte and reads: “King of the Nine-String Guitar”. “Big Joe sustained the longest recording career of any Mississippi bluesman spanning seven decades (1929-1982). He was a true American Original.” Following these memorials, a headstone was erected to honor Mississippi Joe Callicott, an original Memphis Minstrel, with the help of Callicott’s former student, blues musician Kenny Brown on April 29th, 1995 in the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Nesbit, Mississippi. This marker was financed through the Mt. Zion Fund by Chris Strachwitz, Arhoolie Records and John Fogerty. Callicott’s original marker was a paving stone which read simply “Joe” and this was also subsequently donated to the Delta Blues Museum. The inscription by Skip Henderson reads: “Jesus on My Bond” “An original medicine show songster who played throughout the vast delta from 1918 until his death. Recorded for Arhoolie Records”. For work with the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, Henderson received the W.C. Handy award for blues preservation, “Keeping the Blues Alive”, in May 1995.
Memorial headstones were added for James ‘Son’ Thomas, a much beloved blues man and noted folk sculptor on March 9th, 1996 at St. Matthews Church in Leland, Mississippi and for Memphis Minnie at the New Hope Baptist Church Cemetery in Walls, Mississippi, on October 13th, 1996. Both memorials were paid for by John Fogerty and Bonnie Raitt respectively. The ceremony for Memphis Minnie was recorded by the BBC and attended by 35 members of the extended Douglas family, many of whom had no idea of their relative’s musical legacy. The headstone inscription was written by Minnie biographer Paul Garon: “The hundreds of sides Minnie recorded are the perfect material to teach us about the blues. For the blues are at once general, and particular, speaking for millions, but in a highly singular, individual voice. Listening to Minnie’s songs we hear her fantasies, her dreams, her desires, but we will hear them as if they were our own.”
With the help of Greenville, Mississippi photographer Euphus ‘Butch’ Ruth, the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund dedicated memorial headstones for Sam Chatmon in Sanders Memorial Cemetery, Hollandale, Mississippi on March 14th, 1998 and Eugene Powell “Sonny Boy Nelson”, on November 4th, 1998 at the Evergreen Cemetery in Metcalf, Mississippi. Both memorials were funded once again by grants from Raitt and Fogerty respectively.
On October 8th, 2000, a memorial was placed on the grave of Lonnie Pitchford near Elmore James at the Newport Baptist Church cemetery in Ebenezer, Mississippi. This headstone is designed to have a playable, one string diddley bow mounted on the side as per the family’s wishes. Pitchford who recorded for Jim O’Neal’s Rooster Records, was also a skilled carpenter who constructed folk instruments which he played with great skill and dexterity. His death of AIDS at the age of 43 was a blow to the hearts of those who knew and loved him. The memorial was paid for by John Fogerty and Rooster Blues Records.
In April, 2001 a memorial for Tommy Johnson was commissioned by members of his family and paid for by a grant from Bonnie Raitt who has recorded several of Johnson’s songs. As of 2010 the large, granite headstone engraved with Johnson’s portrait and the names of his songs running down each side has not been placed on Johnson’s grave in the Warm Springs Methodist Cemetery, a site recognized for its importance by the State of Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which is located in a rural, unincorporated part of Copiah County. The headstone remained on view in the Crystal Springs, Mississippi Public Library until October 2012. For the rest of the story, please visit the memorial page of Tommy Johnson.
In December 2013, Mount Zion Memorial Fund founder Skip Henderson decided to step down as director after almost twenty five years. He now serves on the unofficial board of directors, steering the ship from behind the scenes and splitting his time between his longtime home of New Orleans, Louisiana and is adopted home of Vicksburg, Mississippi.
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.