Miracle in Mississippi
The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund (MZMF), Historic Preservation, and Provenance of African American Blues Communities
An Epic Journey
It was still dark on the morning of January 4, 2023 when the University of the South’s Dr. Tiffany Momon climbed into her vehicle and headed towards Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The director of the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), Dr. Carroll Van West, had asked her to accompany him on a trip down to Glen Allan, Mississippi, a small town that sits on the edge of Washington County on the banks of Lake Washington. It was a seven hour drive, but the two historians beamed with excitement about a once in a lifetime opportunity.
They had been asked to establish the authenticity of a structure that had not only served as a jook joint prior to World War II, but had also been built and operated by one of the most famous recording artists of the period. No other such structures were still standing in rural Mississippi, and it was pretty much impossible to establish the provenance of such historic properties. Even the alleged cabin of Muddy Waters from Stovall Farms, which now sits in the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, had a highly questionable provenance. Yet, Dr. West and Dr. Momon made the seven hour drive down to Glen Allan hoping to achieve the impossible.
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In the summer of 2022, Dr. West received an email from a former MTSU graduate student soliciting his advice about the historic preservation of a structure linked to recording artist Alonzo Chatmon, who fronted the Mississippi Sheiks in the 1930s. Now working as an Assistant Professor of History at Prairie View A&M University, a Historically Black College/University in Texas, and serving as the Executive Director of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, Dr. DeWayne Moore believed that he had located the jook joint operated by Chatmon and his wife in the 1940s. Dr. West had been impressed with Dr. Moore’s 2020 article in the Public Historian about the Mississippi Blues Trail marker in Moorhead, Mississippi. Thus, when he asked for help establishing the building’s authenticity, Dr. West immediately offered to conduct a historic preservation assessment and made plans to visit the site over the winter break of 2022/2023.
The Nephew of Muddy Waters
The building is owned by Ollie Morganfield, who happens to be the nephew of legendary blues artist Muddy Waters. He enjoyed a long career in the military, and he also worked at the Yazoo Delta National Wildlife Refuge until his retirement in 2012. His decision to purchase the lot in 2000 was important for its historic preservation. Though some folks thought he should tear it down and put a trailer on the lot, he decided to preserve the original wood frame of the building, because it remained strong. Since he purchased a separate home on the next block, Mr. Morganfield primarily used the building as a community center and game room. In fact, it sits at the corner of a vibrant neighborhood, which holds a lot of history for the Morganfield family.
Attic View into the Past
The original wooden frame of the structure can best be seen through the small opening into the attic in the middle living room, which also contains a wood burning stove that Mr. Morganfield added after purchasing the property in the early 2000s.
Dr. West took measurements of the structure to include in his historic preservation assessment, which will serve as the foundation of the nomination we plan to submit to the NRHP.
Jook Joint to Community Center
Mr. Morganfield often entertains guests in the three room shotgun house. In the front room, he has a pool table. In the middle room, he keeps a record player and musical instruments, and in the kitchen he keeps plenty of snacks for folks in the neighborhood.
Mr. Morganfield is also an avid chess player, and he offers anyone who visits Glen Allan a shot at the title.
National Register of Historic Places
As part of our grant from the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund also hired an experienced public historian from Oregon, Milo Reed, to work with Dr. Brian Mitchell to write the nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. We also plan to work with filmmaker Dr. Augusta Palmer, the daughter of New York Times music critic and author Robert Palmer, to create a storyboard for a film about the project.
Success and Forward Progress
Dr. West and Dr. Momon verified that the structure was built sometime between the 1920s and early 1940s. Thus, the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund can move forward with our fundraising efforts to raise $3,000 in support of the project.
With the help of Dr. Abdulrahman Ajibola and MZMF Vice President Shannon Evans, we hope to expand our scope of activities and mission to prevent the erasure of African American Blues Communities in 2023.