Friday, September 8, 2017

Wheeler: Blues in the Schools and the Graveyard - Part 2

Wheeler and the grave of SBW II after he
and his team cleared it in 1990.
T.J. Wheeler's 1990 Blues in the Schools (BITS)
and the Graveyard Tour: Part II
Did you get to read Part 1?

Written by T.J. Wheeler
Edited by T. DeWayne Moore

Thanks to a “seed” project grant from the Ben & Jerry’s foundation, my first national “Hope, Heroes’ & the Blues” (in the schools) tour allowed me to bring the program to a cross section of co-sponsoring blues societies, foundations and clubs across America. Destinations included (1) Portsmouth, New Hampshire, (2&3) Boston & Worcester, Massachusetts, (4&5) Springfield & Chicago, Illinois, (6) Davenport, Iowa, (7) Memphis, Tennessee, (8&9) Clarksdale & Tutwiler, Mississippi, (10) Helena, Arkansas, (11) Atlanta, Georgia & (12) Seattle, Washington.

The mission of BITS, in essence, was to break down the encrusted and malicious negative stereotypes about the blues in the public's memory--black & white and all shades in between. One of my personal missions was the eradication of all notions that "the blues was the Devil’s music” and that "its originators had accommodated Jim Crow, standing passively by as the New South industrialists pushed their products onto consumers using horrid caricatures" of African Americans. An anti-drug abuse theme was also part of the program, which partially came out of the CIA's intentional dispersal of cocaine in black communities. It also addressed the advent of crack cocaine and the damage it was doing in those neighborhoods.

The BITS program itself never depicted country blues artists as saints. I did (and still do) maintain that the actions and music of blues artists was heroic in many ways.

As opposed to only being “crying in their beer” music, the Blues could just as rightly be called music of transformation, music of the survivor, and indeed a music of hope--"the sun is gonna shine in my back door someday." The majority of students (and often their teachers & other adults), however, seemed unable to see what I could see in this music. I identified this disconnect early on. The Blues was and is, and always will be, music that developed not inside the African nor the American consciousness. It is intrinsically tied to the experiences of the formerly enslaved and their descendants--African Americans. That simple fact seemed to get so lost in America. I wanted to get it on home.

HH&B informed them that the Blues was the bedrock of so much American, and arguably a good percentage of world music. It's one of the exquisitely American influences in the world of music, and one certainly to be proud of. Instead of starting with the origins of the Blues (such as work songs, field hollers, spirituals, underground railroad, and old string band music,) I started with contemporary popular music, or “back chained” the limbs & branches of the music back to the roots. By starting off with music familiar to the students, it helped me gain the trust of my young audiences. I reaffirmed that their musical tastes were valid, and made my respect for this product of acculturation most visible, which seemed to get them on board mentally for the journey back to the roots of where “their music” came from.

Wheeler at a club gig during the 1990 BITS tour
Randy Labbe was friend and a booking agent from the pine state of Maine. He was a liaison with most of the Blues societies/foundations; he helped set up some gigs along the way to help subsidize the tour, (plus I love playing for adults as well as kids.) Booking the club gigs was also supposed to help in getting the school gigs lined up. If the club owners/managers used their local contacts and booked a school for me, we would list them as a supporting co-sponsor for the tour. Buddy Guy’s Legend’s Club in Chicago and Blind Willie’s in Atlanta both signed on to this arrangement, (to the best of my knowledge.) 

Unfortunately when I arrived in both locations, the schools had not been arranged. In Chicago the bar manager told me “Oh yeah…that’s right. We were supposed to do that weren’t we? Well, don’t worry, you’re going to get paid the same. So relax…less work for you!”

He seemed surprised, though indifferent, when I told him that he was missing the whole point of the tour. It was only about 2:30 PM or so when I’d arrived in Chicago, and I had several hours before my set at Legends. Determined not to have the mission of the tour even partially unfulfilled, I got back into my rental car and started driving down Michigan Avenue. After a couple of miles, I saw a sign for an after school program. Taking with me a small brochure for the HH&B program, I parked and approached the front door, a very heavy metal door, with no window except for a small two inch opening covered by a sliding metal bar, straight out of an old Untouchables episode about a Prohibition era speakeasy. Looking back at it in my mind, it clarified the meaning behind the term "blind tiger," which was another slang term for such gin joints back in the 1920s.

The voice of a woman who stood on the other side of the door shouted, "How can I help you?" So I explained my dilemma and I handed her a small brochure about the HH&B. Once she had a minute to look it over, I asked if there was any chance I could do a short concert or perhaps a workshop with their kids. She said she'd be right back and slid the metal bar back. Within a couple of minutes she was back, and this time opened the door and brought me to the director’s office. After a short chat, she took me to their gym where a bunch of youths were playing basketball. She helped get the young athletes gathered around my makeshift staging on the slick floor, and I played for all of them for about thirty minutes or so. The kids were engaged in the songs and stories, sang along on choruses, and asked a few questions about Jesse Jackson and what Blues players I knew. I answered them all, and then as I still do, almost 30 years later reminded them again of the 3 principals of my HH&B program:

1) the Blues essentially was & is a music of hopeful resistance, 2) how it's original African American pioneers could be viewed in many ways as heroes; and 3) that the Blues was the primary foundation of American Roots music. 

Wheeler delivers his BITS program to a group of students
Though the stop in Chicago, was less than auspicious, if by nothing else than mule headed stubbornness, a HH&B program was accomplished (in spite of the cavalier “tude” of Legend’s bar manager.)

While some programs in some cities proved a challenge, other programs, especially for ones for the Mississippi Valley Blues Society (MVBS) of Davenport Iowa, the Springfield, Illinois Blues Society, and the Sonny Boy Williamson Blues Society of Helena, Arkansas, went much better. Some schools had developed concomitant programs of their own to supplement mine, included library presentations and jam sessions, and had been well-publicized in advance and scheduled in a smooth, cogent fashion.

I drove my rental from Chicago to Memphis, is essence, retracing the steps of so many black folks during the Great Migration. I arrived and realized the program had morphed from a hurried 3-day event to a week of mostly waiting for the (as they were known back in the day) W.C. Handy Blues Foundation to book a venue and schedule a time for its presentation. Each day some snafu kept postponing the BITS program. One of the more positive early highlights was meeting Paul Averwater, who, with a few friends started the Beale Street Blues Society. We had both been invited as guests to a Blues Foundation board meeting. Finally after a week, I did two programs, one for an elementary school and one for another after school program. (From that time forth it was Paul Averwater & the BBBS that organized all my BITS programs in Memphis.)

My next stop was Helena, Arkansas to do some BITS with the Sonny Boy Williamson Blues Society. A couple of very successful school presentations had been organized as well as a meeting with their board, and a jam session.

Randy had communicated my dismay at how their namesake’s grave site was in such pathetic condition.

His grave site looked awful. They agreed and were excited about my idea to put an all day concert in Tutwiler to raise awareness about the gravesite of Sonny Boy Williamson II as well as raise much-needed funds to cleanup and allow for future maintainance at the site. By the time I arrived a flier had been made and KFFA’s “Sunshine” Sonny Payne had me on to publicize the event and my BITS programs. Sonny had been a friend of SBW II, and they had worked together during Sonny Boy’s stint as the “King Biscuit Boy” during his daily show back in the late 1940s. 

Randy and the Sonny Boy Blues Society had cleared the event with the mayor of Tutwiler, a local man named Gary Shepherd, who, in addition to his role as mayor, served a multitude of roles in his hometown. He was the president of the Tallahatchie Industrial Development Authority, president of the Tutwiler Lion's Club, and council chairman of the Lion's Club of Mississippi. He worked as the general manager of the Tutwiler Grain Elevator Company, and he served as treasurer of the Webb-Sumner Elevator Company. He was elected to the mayor's office of the second largest town in the county in a special election in 1987.

[On November 22, 1990, the Charleston Sun-Sentinal announced that the first Tutwiler Blues Festival would be held in honor of SBW II the following weekend, and all the donations received would go towards a memorial. "We plan to buy a bronze plaque," Mayor Shepherd imparted, "to go in the park in his honor and to put up road signs on the highway showing how to get to the place he is buried." The short article said not a word about the current state of the burial ground. 

Thus, it seems a break down occurred along the line from Wheeler to Randy to the SBBS and then the mayor, because he is planning to use the historical marker to draw folks into town. The SBBS wanted to erect a series of signs that led blues tourists to Whitfield Chapel Cemetery, and Wheeler's original plan was to clean up the burial ground. Given the different agenda of the mayor, who had to consider the interests of folks in Tutwiler, and the SBBS, who later floated the idea of disinterring the remains and re-interring them in Helena, arguing that he should buried in a place where folks care about him and take care of him, there is no telling what may have happened to his remains had Wheeler and his buddies not went out there and cleaned up the site. Little did he know, but the cavalry was coming and of all places from New Jersey; see MZMF History page at] 

The event was held in WC Handy Park, located right outside of famous train depot where about the turn-of-the-twentieth-century, Handy had first heard the Hawaiian-esque sounds of the slide guitar. Instead of demanding a cover charge, we all felt it would be best to just explain to the largely regional audience in attendance the motives and mission of the event. We then humbly requested donations from the audience. [2]

The mayor hoped to attract thousands to the event and make it an annual affair. Another article in the November 29 issue of the Sun-Sentinel estimated that attendance levels were as high as 1,000 people. To put it plain, however, the estimate was highly exaggerated; the crowd contained no more than 200 people. The mayor reported that the the event had raised over $100, but he told one reporter that corporate donors also planned to contribute to the effort. [3]

Musical acts consisted of members of the SBBS, my longtime friend Blues harp man Rockin’ Jake who, along with three friends, drove up all the way from NOLA to attend. The headliner was a Blues singer, bass player and former member of SBW II’s band named Frank Frost. I believe Houston Stackhouse Jr. also attended (Senior was one of Sonny Boy’s most revered guitar players & Jr., though not a musician, was an avid member of the SBBS.)

I remember thinking that the crowd was confused, seemingly unsure of exactly why we were all there. 

Sure as the late November weather warms up in Mississippi, so did the audience. Some folks danced, other folks lounged in the park, and several stood appreciatively, diggin’ on the tunes that came through air on that unique day of festival in the rural hamlet. I'm sure some folks in attendance also appreciated the recognition given to the buried blues singer.

The whole event lasted roughly about six hours. Afterwards we took a caravan of cars stuffed to the brim with SBBS members, musicians and audience members out to the grave site outside of Tutwiler, adjacent to the old Whitfield Chapel. There were approximately 30 or so people who made the single line trek through the bushes, shrubs and overgrown grass to Sonny Boy’s resting place.

Frank Frost was overcome with emotion once he saw the tall, upright headstone that marked the harmonica player's grave. The experience proved very emotional moment for everyone. Through his tears, an unashamed Frank Frost solemnly admitted that he'd been one of the pallbearers at the funeral. He also nformed that it was the first time he’d returned to the burial ground since 1966. It was also, therefore, the first time he had ever seen the headstone.

The event did not draw a big crowd. The audience, by far, were locals; some had been there for generations; some lived there by choice; and some very well may had little choice and some very well might of felt trapped there. Most folks lived well below the poverty line , very close to the bone. Every dollar given was a “soul dollar.” That factor, to me at least, increased the value of the dollar that day--in that place. The experiences that I shared with the folks who rode in the caravan to his grave alone were priceless treasures--vivid memories carried only in my mind and imparted in this essay. 

We had put "boots on sacred ground."

Musicians had come and played for a cause that meant something to them. And not a single one vocalized any problem with the monitor mix on stage! The first step towards rehabilitating the cemetery was a success.

We were in the midst of another Blues revival in the early 1990s. Not since the mid 1960s had interest been so high about the blues. It was my hope that this time, that those benefiting economically from it, would include a greater percent of the people whose culture had created it. I was cautiously hopeful. As far as I know, the money raised was trustingly put in the care of Mayor Shepherd to initiate the hiring of a local person to clean up and then maintain the grave site.

By then Rockin' Jake and his friends, and myself, who hadn’t eaten since breakfast, were all in deep need of some manga. Knowing they, as well as me, were on a Blues budget, I asked some members of the Blues So. where we should eat. Unhesitatingly I was informed, without question, that a little restaurant in Moon Lake, “only a short distance away,” was the place to go. Jake and I rode together with the others following in Jake's old, battered, road band van. 

Forty minutes later we were still driving, sometimes in circles, often abrupt turn-arounds, that seemed to only be heading us deeper into the dark Mississippi night. Though Jake & I couldn’t hear them we could only imagine the sounds of our friend’s stomachs growling, and the overall kvetching that was going down in the van behind us. We finally came to a funky little shack, well-lit and decorated (outside & in), which sat shortly past a road sign saying “Moon Lake.” Though there was no sign advertising it as a restaurant, my gut told me that this had to be the place.

Still dressed in my Guitar Slim red 2 piece suit, red snakeskin shoes, and red hat I had bought on Maxwell St. in Chicago during my short stint there 3 weeks back, I parked and jumped out of the car, and went in to scout out if this was indeed the right place.

Self-assuredly I strutted right on inside. It must have been quite a surprise to the group of about a half dozen, white men sitting around a table, in front of a heat generating, pot belly stove, all immersed in a game of poker. No kitchen, no food, and no service at all. The real shock, for me personally, was the massive Confederate Flag that covered the east wall, which seemed to glare at me even more intensely than the poker players.

I stood speechless for only a moment, as if I were a deer staring dumbstruck into the high beam, headlights of an oncoming Easy Rider pickup truck. 

The seconds of silence seemed to stretch out over the flat Delta landscape and bend time back around on itself. Then, finally, one of the flannel-shirted and baseball cap-wearin’ good ole boys came out with a question: “Hey wasn’t that you that was just playing at that hullabaloo going down over by the Tutwiler train station, for that old Blues musician buried there?"

With the table of assumption being turned yet again, a smile of relief came over my face and I replied “Well was.” “Well it sounded damn good! Anyway, what can we do yah for?”

“Actually” I answered “I thought this was the Moon Lake Restaurant.”

Before I could say another word they all burst out in belly laughs as big as their actual belly’s! “No, this ain’t no restaurant, but it is just a mile or so up the road.” He then proceeded to give me specific few directions. I thanked them all and we were on my way. I’m still not all sure of what exactly I learned in that strange interlude, but the first thing that came to mind was a blues song by Bo Diddley: “ You Can’t Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover.”

I'm sure--in hindsight--that things may have been different had I not had been white. Or dressed like a badass pimp. Then again a white Yankee decked out from head to toe like a citified Southside Santa, in plenty of place's beyond Mississippi, would have been plenty enough cause for a heaping of good ole boy hazing, maybe even opening a can of whoop ass on someone. Not here though. Not on this day.

As soon as we came to the Moon Lake restaurant I understood what had cracked up everyone at the poker game. The cheap eats, imagined soul food diner turned out to be a five star fine eatery, in a white, Victorian-era house that wouldn't have been a bit out of place in the garden district of New Orleans. Between the five of us we had around $30. The management instantly recognized that we were a school of catfish out of lake water. There was an old upright piano not being used so Jake and I belted out a few Blues tunes. For the $30 bucks we were served 3 or 4 king size servings of appetizers and a endless supply of rolls and bread. My friends headed back to NOLA and I headed back to "Bessie's Room" (what Ms. Z.L. Hill called the room Bessie Smith died in at the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, which once was the African American hospital.

The graves of Z. L. Hill and her son Frank Ratliff, who operated he Riverside Hotel following her passing in 1997, are located in McLaurin Cemetery, north of Clarksdale on Highway 61.
I finished the last stop of the southern leg of the BITS tour with a stop in Atlanta. 

As I mentioned before, the good folks at Blind Willie's had been unable to arrange a performance at any local schools. In a conversation with Randy, they revealed the actual sticking point. "We don't need some white guy from New England teaching our kids about the Blues." Apparently I was good enough to play their club but not for their communities kids.

Hoping to repeat what I did in Chicago, but not really knowing where to start, early the next morning, after playing a successful gig at the club (with pianist Bob Page's trio) I went down to the Martin Luther King Jr. Research Center. Across the street were a few teachers, conducting a book sale for their school. "Wow," I recalled thinking to myself, "it's magic again." It was easy starting up a conversation with the school teachers. Before long, in fact, I was getting good with them, explaining the mission of BITS, and even venting a bit about my frustrations over the folks at Blind Willie's ("the Bluesier than thou "[atit]tude" that had been laid on me.") Due to the nature and demanding schedule of standardized testing, however, these educators of young minds could not squeeze a short BITS program into the daily schedule.

While they seemed genuine in their offer to have me back in a couple of days, when I could come in for the whole day even, my own schedule did not allow it. Both of them were visibly upset, not with me, but with the club owner. "Where does he come off telling you what the children of our schools need or don't need. Some of our children have little or no interaction with white people at all. Having an opportunity to meet & hear you play, tell your stories, let alone you praising Black culture and sharing how our history has affected music world wide would literally would be just a shock to them" When she saw a somewhat puzzled look on my face, she further explained laughing " I mean a good shock…surprise. We spend each day teaching them to be proud of themselves and where they came from, but they need to hear it from different people from different places, walks of life. "I thanked her and added how this would be the first place I didn't get to do a program. She paused and suggested, though it wouldn't be children, there was a nursing home just up the street.

Within a hour my voice would be heard singing blues was in front of an integrated, elderly audience of nursing home residents. probably semi-comatose, silently sitting in wheel chairs, each in their own world of memories, delusions or a mixture of both. The latter, making them not so different than most people.

Breaking out my 12 string, I announced that I'd be starting off with a song by Atlanta Bluesman and street singer Blind Willie McTell called "Blues Early in the Morning." By the second verse, the place resembled a Saturday night jook joint, as opposed to Death's Waiting Room. If a priest had been waiting to give everyone last rites, he left soon after I started up.

"Shake it don't break it boy," shouted one little lady, whose general rambunctiousness even had the blue-hairs laughing and carrying on. The same little lady swore that she remembered Blind Willie. Was it An actual memory or something else? It didn't seem to matter. The music sometimes brought people into the moment, sometimes dragging them out their beds at night.

Wherever they were before, they were here now.

Nothing but gratitude came from these fine folks who witnessed my final performance of the first HH&B tour. The teachers had done a good bit to reassure me about my mission, and the old folks...well the old became the new. The Blues was born to be played, but it was also essential for it to have a sense of play. Through the Blues you can lose your blues, but if you're really engaged in them, you'll never lose your sense of play, no matter how old you are.

Rockin' Jake ____, TJ Wheeler, and the late Tommy Ridgely perform
[in the 1990s] at Club Martgueritaville  in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Going Back to Tutwiler: An Epilogue

Five months later I did a follow up road trip. This time no waiting around for days at a time. Paul & the Beale St. Blues Society had a series of schools, and a concert lined up in Memphis, Joe Mills, the superintendent of Music studies for the New Orleans Public Schools scheduled me for up to 3 schools a day & Rockin’ Jake booked club work for us. Between Memphis and NOLA. I scheduled stops in Helena and Tutwiler to see how the grave site project was going. Before I left home, I called the Sonny Boy Blues Society and Mayor Shepherd. They both conveyed that not too much work had been done yet as they hadn't found a groundskeeper. Till that gets done, I suggested, let's just get a work crew of society members and myself to spend an afternoon getting the job done and then it should be easy enough to find & pay someone just to do monthly upkeep. We'll need basic yard/garden tools, and a nice variety of spring flowers to plant. Everyone agreed. I was assured that all of that was viable and that definitely a crew of volunteers (roughly about a dozen) would be expecting me.

Though I was promised all of the above, to play it safe, along the way I periodically called to check that everything was copacetic. The closer I got, the number of volunteers promised shrunk with each phone call. From 12, to 8, then a good solid half-dozen.

After the Memphis BITS and other gigs were completed, the next morning left for Tutwiler. Two final calls were made to reconfirm with the Blues So. and the Mayor. Apologetically I was informed, because of day jobs and other unexpected commitments only one volunteer would be able to assist me. I frantically called the Mayor, who informed me his feed & grain store could supply some tools but they were sold out of flowers (the fee for the flowers was supposed to come out of the $200 that the fundraiser had raised.) Upon hearing of the dismal news of the lack of volunteers, he said he'd make a few calls.

The supermarket had plenty of flowers and plants for sale. So I bought a bunch of assorted plants, and after rendezvousing with my gallant, and a bit lonely volunteer , Ted, we went to meet with the mayor at the Tutwiler Grain Elevator Company. The mayor delivered on his promise of the tools and even had a few workers to help out, though they weren't exactly volunteers.

Mayor Shepherd had taken two members of his flock that were residing in the local jail along with a third inmate who had trustee status. The trustee informed me that they all would receive some time off their sentence for "volunteering."

Though it was only the third week in April the temperature was already in the high 90s with a humidity index of "wet oppression." Once we arrived at Whitfield Chapel, I could tell that a couple of things had changed since I last saw it. The weeds and Johnson grass had definitely grown higher. Although I realize that is the natural course of things, I may have been hoping for a swarm of flying vegetarian insects to have come by and feasted before our arrival. No dice. So we all started working, and it was hot. It was hot and it looked like the cemetery was larger than before. Even though the heat never allowed us to forget about it, we started to make progress but it was slow best.

Ted, the twenty-something year-old volunteer from the SBBS, was worth his salt. Frankly the gents from jail at first demonstrated passive resistance. Who could blame them? Why knock themselves out in this type of heat, just for a day or two off of easy time to begin with? My attempts at engaging them in conversation fell on, what one would think were, deaf ears.

Finally I asked them "Do y'all know who this is that's buried here?" They answered negatively, but as if it was a contest to see who could use the least amount of syllables. "What would you say if I told you buried here is one of the world’s greatest Blues harmonica players and singers in the world?...A man who influenced Blues as well as Rock & Roll musicians from Eric Clapton to even the Rolling Stones?"

This time one of them smiled and replied sardonically "I'd have to say…if he was all of that...why then is he buried here in the middle of nowhere?"

None of them could repress a chuckle or two, at least.

"He's here because like so many other Bluesmen...he made the mistake of being born Black. The musicians of any color loved him, but the guys that control the major record companies, television and radio markets knew they could make more dough having white musicians copy him and steal from other, black Bluesmen & women. So, compared to some, I guess you could say he had a good run, but nothing like the rock stars he inspired. He played festivals all over Europe and other places. He made records and albums on small labels, and he had the respect of the fans as well as many of the biggest stars. Respect only shown in private, however, will not pay the bills, let alone get a black man buried in a white graveyard in Mississippi."

The trustee at the jail demonstrates to Wheeler
how a tractor can help clear a field of
overgrowth outside Tutwiler, Mississippi.
No one was laughing now.

They looked at his picture on the tall grave marker. The other inmate looked at the trustee and declared, "Even with all five of us working its going take us all day just to do this half right." The trustee nodded his head up and down and remarked, "Or we could do him really right in half the time...with the right equipment." The trustee smiled at me and Ted and said, “Y‘all start getting the flowers ready. We'll be right back."

Having no idea how a few extra tools could reduce the time needed to at least make the area look more presentable, I just trusted the trustee and got the flowers out of the car. Within ten minutes, I found out. Here came the three of them back, crowded together, driving a full size, industrial strength farm tractor wearing the kind of smiles on their faces that only come from a deep feeling of satisfaction.

In a little over an hour, the trustee had completely cleared a full 30 yard circumference around the grave site. The weeds and brush had been scraped down to the rich brown soil. Meanwhile, the rest of us manicured the more immediate grave area and planted the flowers. Pausing for a moment, I took my boom box out of my car (well, after all it was the early 90s) Turning it on, without even turning the radio's channel knob, the favorite spiritual of my dear departed friend and blues musician, Mr. B.J. Johnson, emanated out of the speakers. "We've got to walk that Milky White Way One of these Days." We had accomplished one the most important goals of my mission. So we all laughed; we all said our goodbyes; but we did not go for a quick bite or a drink. The prisoners went back to the jail, and I was headed back to experience more freedom in the North. It made me think that their was little difference between the lives of way too many blacks born in 1990 and those enslaved in 1840.

We were all covered with sweat, and none of us gave a damn.

In late 1990, Wheeler puts a few finishing touches on the cleanup efforts in the cemetery once adjacent to Whitfield Chapel, in which Lillian McMurry and the board of directors at Globe Music erected a symbol of their honor and respect for this man. Over the years, other folks such as Wheeler, Mt. Zion Memorial Fund founder Skip Henderson, Sister Anne Brooks, and the musician's late biographer Bill Donoghue have shown their respect through the maintenance of the site. The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund continues to maintain abandoned cemeteries in the Delta as well as over twenty memorials to blues musicians. Please donate today! Give us a boost if you can. 
I decided to stop by the Tutwiler Grain Elevator Company and return the tools graciously loaned out in support of the clean-up effort. The maintenance of cemeteries is also a task born out of respect for the deceased and appreciated (I like to think) by those interred at the site. In this case, I wanted to show the mayor how much we had accomplished in our brief endeavor, perhaps engendering in this community leader a little bit of my own reverence for this amazing musician, perhaps some of the respect I had for this man, as well as the folks who had spent their time and money on erecting such a fine stone atop his grave.

As I approached the mayor's desk, I received instructions to leave the tools sitting on top, and head on back to the storage room to find the mayor. I immediately noticed the great mass of flowers sitting in the middle of the room. I couldn't help but stop and stare in suspended disbelief. He noticed my perplexed stare and started walking over towards me, gearing up for an explanation.

I fired off a quick question. "I thought you were all out of flowers mayor Shepherd?" This time, I put my own question mark at the end of my sentence. Sitting there on the floor, between the both of us, was a display of at least five hundred flowers, all kinds, colors, annuals, perennials, and you name it.

A grin slowly crept across his face, as if to say, "Now don’t that beat all?" He eventually revealed that, when I had asked about the flowers earlier, he did not yet have anything. “They just came in within the last hour or so,” the mayor explained, “I knew you had gone ahead and bought some so I didn't bother with saying anything."

Shaking my head, admittedly a bit more than disappointed than normal, I felt like saying something. I felt that the situation warranted something getting said sometime, but I realized again at that moment that I didn’t have to say something. “Hey,” I remember hollering out, as if I was going to say something, “regardless of all that, I wanted thank you for such a hard-working crew; they not only worked hard, but they inspired me in their dedication to completing the task. With the money that is left over from the fundraiser, please get somebody to make sure that that man’s grave is kept up." The mayor promised that he would take care of it. He also seemed very busy. I wasn’t so sure, but I had to leave it with him. I had to move on.

The information on the MZMF's stewardship of the cemetery adjacent to Whitfield Chapel in the mid-1990s. Photo © Skip Henderson 1995


Gary Shepherd - Tutwiler Mayor
from April 1987 through Sept 1991.
Beginning in April 1987, Gary Shepherd managed to acquire almost one million dollars in federal and state grant monies for several projects, including housing rehabilitation and relocation. He inherited an estimated three hundred thousand dollars in debt obligations, but he eliminated two/thirds of the debt before the left office. He procured the city a new firetruck and organized several community pride projects, such as a Christmas parade and other recreational activities.

On October 1, 1991, the Tutwiler Board of Alderman convened for their regular monthly meeting and found a letter, sealed in an envelope and addressed to the vice-mayor, laying on the conference table in the mayor's office. It was the resignation letter of Shepherd, who cited that "personal and business reasons...would prevent me from serving the people of this town...My resignation is effectively immediately." While some folks attributed his sudden exit to a political defeat--citing that he had lost in a local election for a seat on the county board of supervisors recently--Shepherd denied that the loss had any impact on his decision. To my knowledge, he never installed the bronze plaque at the depot; he never put up the signs marking the way to the grave; and he never even visited the cemetery. I wish I had some evidence to the contrary.

Regardless of his resignation, the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund had erected its first two monuments that year, and Skip Henderson would soon find his way to the door of Sister Anne Brooks. Only then would Wheeler's efforts be picked up and expanded...


[1] The salient quality of “soul force” was evident in the civil disobedience of Martin Luther King Jr. as well as Mohandas Gandhi, a pacifist who argued that mankind would never know “absolute truth and, therefore, [was] not competent to punish.” Gandhi, therefore, developed a strategy centered on the concept of a shanti sena—army of peaceful warriors who excluded the use of violence and possessed the defining feature of “soul force.” One historian noticed the quality of “soul force” in the civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau, who maintained “the true place for a just man” living in a state complicit in slavery was prison. In his view, only through civil disobedience could he win the favor of God. The quality of “soul force,” therefore, was not “a weapon of the weak,” but rather a powerful weapon that dissuaded the enemy “from error by patience and sympathy.” See, Eric J. Miller Sundquist and Mark Crispin, King’s Dream: The Legacy of Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream Speech (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 116-117.

[2] "Blues Festival Saturday," The (Charleston, MS) Sun-Sentinel, November 22, 1990.

[3] "Blues Band Plays in Tutwiler," The (Charleston, MS) Sun-Sentinel, November 29, 1990.

[4] "Gary Shepherd Resigns as Mayor of Tutwiler," The (Charleston, MS) Sun-Sentinel, October 17, 1991.

© T. J. Wheeler 1990

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