The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund
for Blues, Music, and Justice
Raymond “Skip” Henderson officially incorporated the organization as The Robert Johnson Mount Zion Memorial Fund in the fall of 1989 to raise money to save the 114-year-old Mount Zion Missionary Baptist (MB) Church in Morgan City (founded 1909) from foreclosure. His plan was to place a cenotaph historic marker (not a headstone as is often mistaken–the monument bears no birth/death dates) in the Mt. Zion MB Church cemetery in honor of Robert Johnson whose death certificate lists “Zion Church” as a burial site. Skip made the decision to place the memorial near the road to protect the rest of the cemetery from visitors. He also planned to have the song titles, some of which mention the devil, facing away from the church in deference to the church congregation.
Shortly after the Robert Johnson memorial was placed, John Fogerty, after meeting Henderson in the Mt. Zion cemetery, agreed to fund a headstone to be placed on the grave of Charley Patton at the New Jerusalem M.B. Church in Holly Ridge, Mississippi. The Patton ceremony took place on July 20, 1991, the same weekend as the Pops Staples Festival in nearby Drew, Mississippi and subsequently Roebuck “Pops” Staples was in attendance joining Fogerty and three generations of Patton’s family including daughter Rosetta Patton Brown, granddaughter Martha Brown and great granddaughter Keisha Brown at the ceremony.
Several months afterwards, with the help of Dick Waterman and attorney Robert Arentson, a memorial was placed on the gravesite of Mississippi Fred McDowell at the Hammond Hill Baptist Church Cemetery in Como, Mississippi, on August 6th, 1993. The ceremony was presided over by Dick Waterman and the memorial with McDowell’s portrait upon it was paid for by Bonnie Raitt, a one time student, and friend of McDowell’s. In this case, the memorial stone was a replacement for a damaged and inaccurate marker (McDowell’s name misspelled) and the original stone was subsequently donated by McDowell’s family to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
The following year a large gravestone for Big Joe Williams, who lies buried in a rural pasture outside of Crawford, Mississippi, was purchased through a collective effort of musicians led by California music journalist Dan Forte while gathered at Clifford Antone’s nightclub in Austin, Texas. The memorial was unveiled on October 9th, 1994 with a moving eulogy by the former sideman of Williams, harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite. At this time a donation was made to William’s disabled sister Mary May and one of Williams’ converted 9-string guitars was donated to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi where it is now on display. The inscription on the memorial for Big Joe Williams is by Dan Forte and reads: “King of the Nine-String Guitar”. “Big Joe sustained the longest recording career of any Mississippi bluesman spanning seven decades (1929-1982). He was a true American Original.”
On March 9th, 1996, John Fogerty funded a memorial at St. Matthews Church in Leland, Mississippi for James ‘Son’ Thomas, a much beloved blues man and noted folk sculptor.
On October 13th, 1996, Bonnie Raitt paid for the headstone of Memphis Minnie at the New Hope Baptist Church Cemetery in Walls, Mississippi. The ceremony for Memphis Minnie was recorded by the BBC and attended by 35 members of the extended Douglas family, many of whom had no idea of their relative’s musical legacy. The headstone inscription was written by Minnie biographer Paul Garon.
On October 8th, 2000, a memorial was placed on the grave of Lonnie Pitchford near Elmore James at the Newport Missionary Baptist Church cemetery in Ebenezer, Mississippi. This headstone is designed to have a playable, one string diddley bow mounted on the side as per the family’s wishes. Pitchford, who recorded for Jim O’Neal’s Rooster Records, was also a skilled carpenter who constructed folk instruments which he played with great skill and dexterity. His death of AIDS at the age of 43 was a blow to the hearts of those who knew and loved him. The memorial was paid for by John Fogerty and Rooster Blues Records.
In December 2013, Mount Zion Memorial Fund founder Skip Henderson decided to step down as director after almost twenty five years. He now serves on the unofficial board of directors, steering the ship from behind the scenes and splitting his time between his longtime home of New Orleans, Louisiana and his adopted home of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Since 2010, the renewed efforts of the MZMF had been spearheaded by Dr. DeWayne Moore, who attended graduate school at Middle Tennessee State University and the University of Mississippi. He currently works as an Assistant Professor of History at Prairie View A&M University in Texas.
Under his leadership, the military markers of Henry “Son” Simms and Jackie Brenston were located and restored. The MZMF has dedicated several new memorials–the headstone of Frank Stokes in the abandoned Hollywood Cemetery, Memphis, TN; the flat companion stone of Ernest “Lil’ Son Joe” Lawlars in Walls, MS; and in Greenville, MS, the flat markers of T-Model Ford and Eddie Cusic, and the unique, yet humble, headstone of Mamie “Galore” Davis.
In 2021, the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund officially changed its name to the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund for Blues, Music, and Justice, and it expanded its horizons to sponsor the RL Boyce Picnic in Como, MS. To support its new endeavor, the MZMF has received consistent grant support from Visit Mississippi and the Hills Heritage National Heritage Area. The leadership of Amy Verdon, of Brooklyn, New York Fancy! Media Arts has been crucial to the success of this effort. In 2023, Verdon secured the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts for R.L. Boyce, the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship.
Since 2021, the MZMF has also submitted grant proposals to Monument Lab, the American Historical Association, the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, and the Mississippi Arts Commission. In the spring of 2022, the MZMF received funding from the American Historical Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund a historic preservation, digital humanities, and reparative justice initiative that aims to redress the legacy of slavery and segregation in Mississippi and support the preservation of cultural heritage, resources, and landscapes through inclusive research methods, ethical memorialization projects, and participatory public history practices. In partnership with descendant communities, we plan to prevent the erasure and destruction of cultural resources–homes, churches, cemeteries, organization halls, schools, photographs, documents, audiovisual media, physical artifacts, and oral histories–related to African American Blues Communities. Our new website was the first step of this project, the launch of the WebAtlas was the second step, and the dedication of the memorial to Nathan Beauregard at Shiloh M.B. Church was the third. In June, we plan to dedicate a memorial to Jim Jackson and place a historical marker at St. James MB Church Cemetery–the final resting place of Mississippi John Hurt.
In 2022, the MZMF received a grant from the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area to prepare a National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Glen Allan juke joint built in the early 1940s by Alonzo Chatmon of the Mississippi Sheiks. You can read more about the project HERE.