Longtime MZMF Member Takes His Exit in 2017

Longtime MZMF Member Takes His Exit in 2017

Mt. Zion Memorial Fund board chairman Euphus "Butch" Ruth is stepping down from a position he has held more or less for the past twenty years.  As a farewell to a stalwart of cemetery preservation in Mississippi and Louisiana, I have prepared and submitted his application for the illustrious Oakley Award from the Association of Gravestone Studies. (You can read the application, which lists some of his many achievements, below).  We wish him luck in his future endeavors and anxiously await news of his award. Join us in celebrating one hell of an ambrotypist, coimetromaniac, and friend to blues musicians and blues enthusiasts alike.

How does the nominee's work or achievement reflect the Association for Gravestone Studies (AGS) mission statement?

Considering that the mission of AGS “is to foster appreciation of the cultural significance of gravestones and burial grounds through their study and preservation,” photographer and tapophile Euphus “Butch” Ruth certainly qualifies as a strong candidate for the Oakley Award. Since moving to Greenville, Mississippi in 1980, he developed many tendencies reflective of so many coimetromaniacs through his love of photography. Ruth travelled throughout the Mississippi Delta, searching for rural and abandoned graveyards, documenting all the "blockage, decay, endings, loss, neglect, and ruin,” all of which reflects the historic migration patterns of Americans who often “abandon, erase, forget or move away from habitats, memories, people and ways of life in search of something supposedly better, often in the name of progress.”[1] He has racked up quite a notable amount of guest exhibitions as well as lectures/demonstrations of contemporary tintypes and ambrotypes, which represent a memento mori and certainly foster appreciation of the cultural significance of gravestones and cemeteries.

In addition, Ruth has since the late 1990s worked with the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund--a Mississippi non-profit cemetery corporation organized in 1989 by Raymond ‘Skip’ Henderson to preserve rural African American cemeteries in Mississippi and memorialize the contributions of numerous musicians without grave markers. He provided crucial assistance in erecting grave markers for such artists as Sam Chatmon (Sanders Memorial Cemetery in Hollandale, Mississippi), diddley-bow specialist Lonnie Pitchford (Newport Baptist Church cemetery in Ebenezer, Mississippi), James “T-Model” Ford (Greenlawn Memorial Gardens in Greenville, Mississippi), and his good friend Eugene Powell, whose grave sits strategically on the edge of rural Evergreen Cemetery, in Metcalfe, Mississippi, adjacent to a cotton field. Through his work erecting monuments to musicians, Ruth managed to save several African American burial grounds—many with only a few grave markers—from being plowed under and planted with row crops.

How does the work or achievement benefit the community?

Many of the graves erected by Ruth and the MZMF have become popular tourist sites for blues pilgrims who visit the Mississippi Delta. In his establishment of such pilgrimage sites, Ruth’s work has benefitted the rural church communities and municipalities of the Delta through increasing tourism and generating much needed infusions of capital into this largely agricultural and poverty-stricken region. Ruth has examined many AGS publications and attended workshops organized by the Arkansas Historic Preservation Special Projects division, which forged a vigilant and outspoken advocate of practicing proper gravestone conservation techniques. His excellent reputation in the Delta allows him to authoritatively share hands-on lessons with aspiring tapophiles, who wish to positively impact their local community cemeteries. The headstones of blues artists also serve as a jumping off point for historians to educate visitors and students who want to engage with the region’s rich heritage. 

What are the lasting contributions to the field of gravestone study and preservation made by the nominee?

His work concerning the documentation and preservation of rural cemeteries provides opportunities for future generations to further “foster appreciation of the cultural significance of gravestones and burial grounds.” Several burial grounds that would most likely be gone in the agricultural region are not due to the work of Euphus Ruth and the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund. Not only does he continue his work with the MZMF, which, under new leadership, has discovered several supposedly lost grave markers of blues musicians and provided crucial assistance to abandoned cemetery groups—such as the Friends of Hollywood/Mt. Carmel Cemeteries in Memphis, Tennessee—Ruth’s almost incessant visitation and documentation of rural cemeteries continues to fill up much of his calendar. “It's not for just anyone,” explained Ruth in one Associated Press article.[2] Indeed, it is not. Not only is this dedicated cemetery preservationist part of a growing national movement in wet collodion plate photography, his contributions to gravestone studies reverberate as loudly as the darkbox hearse, in which he drives around documenting and protecting the decayed and abandoned church cemeteries of his Mississippi Delta home—epitomizing the very spirit of the Oakley Award.

[1] Euphus Ruth, “Pertra and Other Pictures: Wetplate Collodian Photography,” http://galleryatwiljax.com/euphus-ruth-tintypes/ [accessed Oct 3, 2016].

[2] “Old School Collodion Photos make a Comeback,” Nov 7 2013, The (NY) Epoch Times, 1.

Eugene Powell - Evergreen Cemetery - Metcalfe, Mississippi

 Sam Chatmon - Sanders Memorial Gardens - Hollandale, Mississippi

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