Friday, December 22, 2017

Tommy Johnson's Grave: Ode to Singer Took Years of Wrangling

By Therese Apel – (Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger – February 5 & 7, 2013.

Click HERE for the follow-up article showing it was not vandalism

The 2001 Dedication at the Railroad Park
in Crystal Springs, Mississippi
The niece of a Mississippi blues legend was heartbroken Sunday morning to find the marker she and others had fought since 2001 to have erected for her uncle had been vandalized. Vera Collins Johnson's uncle is Tommy Johnson, a blues leg-end from Crystal Springs who was portrayed in the movie "0 Brother Where Art Thou." His family commissioned the headstone, and the nonprofit Mount Zion Memorial Fund paid for it via a grant from singer Bonnie Raitt. "They tried to take the headstone completely off the grave. It was screwed down, and it was kind of difficult to take off," she said. The vandals left tools and a two-by-four, but only after smashing parts of the headstone when they couldn't pull it up. "We didn't touch anything. There was one part that had his face, his picture on it, and they broke that into pieces," she said. "It was something that was deliberately done. They didn't mess with the rest of the graves." Collins believes the destruction is racially motivated. "The only thing I would have to say is that I thought Crystal Springs had outgrown their old tricks, and this kind of thing has been going on since I was a girl," she said. "This is an act of nothing but hatred."
"I thought Crystal Springs had outgrown their old tricks,” hurled Vera Johnson Collins.  “This is an act of nothing but hatred." Her statement in the wake of the incident certainly seemed to ring true in the one-time safe haven of the MWK, and a recent incident of unabashed racism shown by the congregants of Crystal Springs Baptist Church did little to dispel the bold claims of Collins.

Collins said she waited four hours by her uncle's grave for the Sheriff's Department to come out and take a report. No one ever came. Someone at the sheriff's department told her they were very busy, she said. Copiah County had three fatal accidents within 24 hours between Saturday and Sunday. "They could have come and just taken a report," she said. Copiah County Sheriff's Department officials said a deputy was unable to locate the graveyard on Sunday and that they are looking into the incident.
Johnson's headstone was dedicated at a public ceremony in Crystal Springs on Oct. 20, 2001, but it wasn't until last year that Copiah County was able [magically, or perhaps due to some act of God, apparently] to create an access road to the cemetery.
"I'm very weary of this. We've been doing this for so long. I've had to comfort Vera, who was weeping, understandably," said Skip Henderson, the director of the Mount Zion Memorial Fund. "I have to go back to Bonnie Raitt now; she's going to be very upset." [No one was too upset really except for one man from West Virginia who shamelessly pushed the desecration myth and dubiously left crucial pieces of evidence to the contrary out of accounts on his once very active blog, The Pomeroy Jazz & Blues Society.]
The Warm Springs Cemetery sits back in a rural area of Copiah County. It used to be next to the Warm Springs Methodist Church, which burned down in the 1970s. After the road was abandoned for a while, it became the property of the landowners.
A lot of politics and legal wrangling [Interviews with all involved and a lot of serious research, the solicitation of many different attorneys before finding one willing to work pro-bono, and the filing of a single, deliberate and strategic lawsuit against private landowners] finally restored the road to the county, said District 5 Supervisor Jimmy Phillips.
"This took several years. I worked on it for almost 10 years," he said, adding that the process sped up when Ole Miss doctoral fellow [DeWayne] Moore got involved a little over a year ago.
"I told him, 'All I want you to do is get me a right-of-way to that property, and I will build you a road,"' Phillips said. "As soon as he got the right-of-way, we built the road. It took up the biggest part of the summer." [We met with the County Board of Supervisors in October 2011, and the cemetery access road had not been added to the E-911 map of county roads at the time of the incident].
Moore said he worked with the Board of Supervisors to secure an easement. The matter was finally settled out of court after more than 10 years, Moore said. "One of the things I wanted to do was work with them and see what their actual argument was for why they couldn't protect a site that was recognized by Mississippi Department of Archives and History," he said.

According to Phillips and Collins, Moore basically saved the project.

It has only been within the last few years that Copiah County officials have known the historical gold mine they sit on, Phillips said. "We all grew up in this county and didn't know that much about blues." Former Cultural Affairs director Janet Schriver "sat us down, and we all went to blues school," Phillips said.
"Most of the people in this area don't understand the importance of the blues in Copiah County. We've got Tommy Johnson, and we also have Robert Johnson." Tommy Johnson's best-known songs are "Canned Heat Blues," "Big Road Blues" and "Maggie Campbell Blues." A recording artist for Victor and Paramount Records, he was born in 1896 in Terry and died in 1956. Phillips said he doesn't know much about the vandalism, but it made him angry. "I hope they find out who it is, and I don't care who it is and if they are white, black, green or purple," he said. "I hope they burn their butts. It's wrong to desecrate a grave." 

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