Closing the American Historical Association Grant
June 24, 2023
By Corey Crowder
This blog post details some of the
final projects in the final month
of the grant we received
from the American Historical Association.
On June 1, I scheduled an invited talk for MZMF Executive Director DeWayne Moore in Oxford, Mississippi. Since I started working with him in late 2021, I have told any and everyone about our work, and I managed to book a lecture for him with the Wise Guys and Wise Women, two groups of Oxonians with progressive values which have been a force for change in the community (fore more on the Wise Women, click HERE)
The Wise Guys and Wise Women periodically meet, share meals together, and invite authors and changemakers to speak at their luncheons. Dr. Moore invited them to the memorial dedications over the weekend, and he detailed the development of our WebAtlas of African American Burial Grounds. He distributed promotional material to the groups and fielded numerous questions about the future expansion of the WebAtlas into Lafayette County. The talk was very well received by the Wise Women and Wise Guys.
We even got the chance to speak with LaVera Hodges, the daughter of local civil rights stalwart, Nathan Hodges, who owns a funeral home in town.
On the morning of June 3, 2023, Dr. Ajibola and I drove to Clarksdale to pick up Omar Gordon, one of the musicians scheduled to perform later that day at the headstone dedication ceremony for Jim Jackson, whose smash 1927 best-selling record “Kansas City Blues” changed the recording industry forever. In Clarksdale, we visited the alleged “Crossroads” at the intersection of State Street and Desoto Avenue (the former alignments of U. S. Highways 61 and 49).
Then on to Delta Avenue and 2nd Street, where we witnessed a unique blend of cultural attractions, venues and storefronts with catchy names, elaborate murals displaying vivid colors, and a couple of larger, decaying structures awaiting their turns to be restored. My feet and my iPhone camera had a brief but spectacular workout.
In Clarksdale we picked up blues musician Omar Gordon, who would perform at the Jim Jackson memorial dedication. He packed his guitar and amp in the back of Abdul’s car, and we drove north on U.S. Highway 61, Mississippi’s “Blues Highway.” We drove past the little Delta towns of Lyon, Moon Lake, Dundee (which still has its own Post Office).
Omar told us about his life in Clarksdale and realizing his dream of becoming a blues musician. He had been homeless for a time, but his work as a music teacher and recording artist had enabled him to have a home built. Omar spoke earnestly of his plans to perform at the Chicago Blues Festival. He would be following famous blues artists who traveled extensively outside the South to achieve financial stability and national recognition in a time when life in Mississippi offered few, if any, advantages to the transmitters of the state’s rich cultural heritage. Increased societal awareness and connectivity can provide Omar’s generation with better opportunities to perform blues music where the blues began.
Ancestral Burial Ground
Upon arriving at Hernando Memorial Cemetery, I immediately spotted MZMF Field Researcher Shannon Evans diligently photographing gravesites and the general conditions in the historically African American section near Jim Jackson’s grave.
The Second Baptist Church of Hernando had started to clear the cemetery over the past three months, leaving a surface of dust and broken roots revealing that the area had been completely overtaken by the forest. Some headstones lay broken on the ground and others were visible in the distance where larger trees remained on the cemetery’s periphery.
At 5:00 pm the ceremony kicked off with the keynote address by DeWayne Moore, who spoke about the historical legacy of Jim Jackson as well as the trajectory of the project, which took almost five years to complete.
Chip Johnson, the mayor of Hernando, also spoke at the event, as well as Pastor Quinton Taylor, of the Second Baptist Church. Alderman Andrew Miller also offered his remarks over the phone, as he was unable to attend in person.
In addition, Brian Mitchell, the director of research at the Abraham Lincoln Library & Museum in Illinois delivered a brief speech about the importance of historic preservation in African American communities. Robert Long, curator of the Desoto County Museum, moreover, discussed the significance of Jim Jackson in local history, and he invited everyone to visit the museum for a reception after the dedication. In addition, the caretaker of the burial ground, Quincy Randle, served as the guest of honor. Mr. Randle was crucial to the success of the project, and Dr. Moore handed him a $1,000 check from the MZMF to support future maintenance efforts at the cemetery.
Mr. Randle turned right around and donated the money to the Second Baptist Church, and he joined Dr. Moore in pulling the shroud off the beautifully crafted monument, featuring a verse of “Kansas City Blues” and a guitar figure perfectly designed by MZMF partner Jim Branch was unveiled at Jim Jackson’s gravesite. The unveiling was followed by the soulful sounds of Omar Gordon and the inticate guitar picking of Jontavious Willis, who performed a couple of Jim Jackson’s most famous tunes on the guitar.
While taking in the sights and sounds of the early evening, I glanced toward the “white section” of the cemetery with its green carpet of manicured lawn and well-maintained grave sites. My mind veered abruptly into questioning mode. It took a dedicated team of professionals and community-based volunteers to locate a grave forgotten for nine/tenths of a century. Only after the gravesite had been located could the land be cleared, and a headstone installed. Why must it take such a concentrated and devoted team of advocates to rectify such injustice in the year 2023?
On the return trip to Clarksdale, Omar and I discussed the experience of, in his words, “being sold a dream.” I had not heard it put that way before. I felt an immediate connection, realizing that the blues depicts a collective human experience that includes being “sold a dream” at some point. Jim Jackson, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, and numerous others had big dreams which they worked hard to realize with limited amounts of time as well as social and financial support.
I had begun my day visiting a large sign conveying images of mysticism, individuality, hopes and dreams for success. I departed Hernando at the end of the day with an increased realization of the truth about the lives of extraordinary human beings who struggled against seemingly insurmountable odds to tell the story of life in Mississippi. Much was accomplished that day with the unveiling of Jim Jackson’s headstone and during the preceding days of site preparation.
However, the sites and the sounds of that warm Saturday afternoon in the bluff hills of northwestern Mississippi and insights gained from my work with the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund remind me that much remains to be done in Mississippi to shed light on the truths defining the blues experience in this land. I am regretful of the past, yet optimistic about participating in positive change through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund’s increasing scope of research and preservation. Each and every day I celebrate the blessings of working with such a remarkable team!
Sadly, I was unable to attend the final event of the week: a ceremony observing the placement of a historic marker near the burial site of Mississippi John Hurt at St. James M.B. Church Cemetery in Avalon (Carroll County, Mississippi). Shannon Evans worked to ensure that the Jim Jackson headstone and the Mississippi John Hurt memorial would be completed as planned and placed in their intended spots. Shannon, DeWayne, Abdul, and MZMF Minister of Culture and Grammy nominee Jontavious Willis were present to celebrate both achievements in preserving blues cultural heritage in Mississippi.