Our History

The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund

for Blues, Music, and Justice

The Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church (circa 1920s)
The Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church (circa 1920s)

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.

The unveiling of the cenotaph took place on April 20, 1991, in partnership with Columbia Records through the work of Columbia A&R man Arthur Levy, with the support of Columbia President Don Ienner, and with the cooperation of the Mt. Zion congregation under the guidance of Pastor James Ratliff. The ceremony was attended by over 300 people and was covered by Billboard Magazine, Rolling Stone Magazine, Newsweek Magazine, Guitar Player Magazine, and numerous local media. The granite obelisk has a central inscription by Peter Guralnick, side inscriptions by Skip Henderson which were later used with permission on the Robert Johnson marker in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, and all of Johnson’s known recordings added at the behest of Columbia Records. This marker has been vandalized on at least three occasions, apparently by souvenir seekers. 
The cenotaph at Mt. Zion MB Church in Morgan City has been vandalized and repaired several times.
The cenotaph at Mt. Zion MB Church in Morgan City has been vandalized and repaired several times.
Kechia Patton Brown

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.

In early September 1991, after reading an article about the MZMF in the May 11, 1991 issue of Billboard Magazine, Phil Walden of Capricorn Records contacted Henderson and commissioned a bronze sculpture mounted on a granite headstone through the MZMF in honor of Elmore James. This memorial was placed on James’ grave in the Newport Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery in Ebenezer, Holmes County, Mississippi on December 10, 1992 with several members of the Mississippi State Legislature in attendance along with Dick Waterman, Phil Walden, musician Marshall Crenshaw, James’ one time producer Bobby Robinson, members of James’ family, and many others. Henderson was presented with a cultural award from the State of Mississippi at that event. 
The one-time producer of Elmore James, Bobby Robinson
The one-time producer of Elmore James, Bobby Robinson

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.

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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.”

With the help of his former student, blues musician Kenny Brown, the MZMF also erected a headstone to honor Mississippi Joe Callicott on April 29th, 1995 in the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Nesbit, Mississippi. This marker was financed through the Mt. Zion Fund by Chris Strachwitz, Arhoolie Records and John Fogerty. Callicott’s original marker was a paving stone which read simply “Joe” and this was also subsequently donated to the Delta Blues Museum. For work with the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, Skip Henderson received the W.C. Handy award for blues preservation “Keeping the Blues Alive” in May 1995. 
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James "Son" Thomas
James “Son” Thomas

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.

With the help of Greenville, Mississippi photographer Euphus ‘Butch’ Ruth, the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund dedicated memorial headstones for Sam Chatmon in Sanders Memorial Cemetery, Hollandale, Mississippi on March 14th, 1998 and Eugene Powell “Sonny Boy Nelson”, on November 4th, 1998 at the Evergreen Cemetery in Metcalf, Mississippi. Both memorials were funded once again by grants from Raitt and Fogerty respectively.
Eugene Powell stone
LONNIE PITCHFORD 2

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 April 2001, a memorial for Tommy Johnson was commissioned by members of his family and paid for by a grant from Bonnie Raitt, who has recorded several of Johnson’s songs. The large, granite headstone contains the only known portrait of Johnson and the names of his songs running down each side remained on view in the Crystal Springs, Mississippi Public Library until October 2012. Only then was it finally placed on Johnson’s grave in the Warm Springs Methodist Church Cemetery, a site recognized for its importance by the State of Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which is located in a rural, unincorporated part of Copiah County. 
The headstone of Tommy Johnson in 2010 inside the Crystal Springs Public Library
The headstone of Tommy Johnson in 2010 inside the Crystal Springs Public Library
Dr. DeWayne Moore and Raymond "Skip" Henderson
Dr. DeWayne Moore and Raymond “Skip” Henderson

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.

Moore worked with attorneys Reid Krell and Alfred Brophy–as well as with the relatives of Tommy Johnson and other interments in Warm Springs CME Church Cemetery–to obtain a permanent fifteen foot wide and half-a-mile long easement to the important site. Due in large part to his efforts and research, Henderson handed Moore the reigns of the organization in 2014.
Jug band musician Arlo Leach, DeWayne Moore, Cynthia Burse, and Bill Pichette at Rose Hill Cemetery, 2019
Jug band musician Arlo Leach, DeWayne Moore, Cynthia Burse, and Bill Pichette at Rose Hill Cemetery, 2019
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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. 

The MZMF has also placed a marker for Bo Carter at Nitta Yuma Cemetery in Sharkey County, Mississippi.  The headstone of Belton Sutherland was dedicated in September 2018 at St. John MS Church in Camden, Mississippi.  The unmarked grave of Charlie Burse, of the Memphis Jug Band, was also marked in Rose Hill Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee. In February 2020, the MZMF also restored the headstone of Sonny Boy Williamson II in Tutwiler, Mississippi.
BELTON

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. The MZMF will also sponsor the 2022 RL Boyce Picnic in September. To support its new endeavor, the MZMF received grant support from Visit Mississippi and the Hills Heritage National Heritage Area. The leadership of New York-based music enthusiast and promoter Amy Verdon has been crucial to the success of this effort.

In 2021, the MZMF also submitted several grant proposals to Monument Lab, the American Historical Association, and the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area. In the spring of 2022, we received funding from the American Historical Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities for 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. The new website is the first step of this project, and the launch of the webAtlas will be the next step.

Mount Zion Memorial Fund Mississippi
Research is Respect
Research is Respect
1164 John Street, Greenville, MS 38703
We have offices in Greenville, Columbus, and Water Valley, MS
206-817-9959