Warm Springs MB Church in Crystal Springs, MS
Having found witnesses that claimed his client, Byron de la Beckwith, was in a Greenwood restaurant on the evening NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1963, Crystal Springs attorney Jim Kitchens hoped to obtain a third acquittal for the former white knight of the Ku Klux Klan in the mid-1990s. Nothing could save the braggart Beckwith, however, but the legal strategy was sound. In the 1990s, the crucial testimony in the legal dispute over royalties from the music of blues artist Robert Johnson came from another witness found by Kitchens, who wanted to produce the testimony of an eyewitness to the conception of his client, Claud Johnson. 80-year-old Eula Mae Williams testified that she watched his mother and Robert Johnson having sex, and the publicity surrounding Claud Johnson being legally recognized as the sole heir to millions of dollars in royalties set the stage for the following ordeal.
The Coen brother’s decision to include the character of blues artist Tommy Johnson (no relation) in the film Oh Brother Where Art Thou? set the stage on fire. The Johnson name, as well as the pink brick estate that Claud Johnson built in Crystal Springs with his newly found blues fortune, started to make little green dollar signs pop-up in the eyes of a lot of people in Copiah County, Mississippi.
It was around this time that Vera Johnson Collins, the niece of 1920s blues recording artist Tommy Johnson (daughter of his younger brother Mager) moved back to Mississippi and founded the Tommy Johnson Blues Foundation (TJBF) to manage the finances of her uncle’s estate as well as promote his musical legacy. Jim Kitchens and Claude Johnson had acquired the coveted royalties of one blues legend, and Collins wanted to ensure that no one profited from the legacy of her uncle’s blues. Collins wanted to build up the same amount of recognition for her uncle as the more popular blues singer Robert Johnson. She did not know, however, how to capitalize on the resurgent interest in the blues. Thus, she enlisted the help of a non-profit organization that erected headstones for blues musicians and engaged in legal actions on behalf of their families. Mt. Zion Memorial Fund (MZMF) director Skip Henderson had erected ten monuments in the state since 1990, as well as supported the lawsuits of African Americans who had their family cemeteries destroyed. He agreed to take on the Tommy Johnson project, and it received funding from popular musicians Bonnie Raitt and John Fogerty.
He was sitting on a couch at my niece’s house [and] he had his guitar sitting there on the couch, you know, just him and her there, and he was sitting up there playing, fooling around with it. And all at once he just fell over. I think they said his guitar fell on the floor. He set the guitar down and asked his sister-in-law for a chew of tobacco. And just as she gave him that tobacco, he sat down, and that’s what happened. He just died.
Tommy Johnson was buried on November 5, 1956 in an unmarked grave near the Warm Springs Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church north of Crystal Springs. According to his biographer, his grave is unmarked but is known to be near a cedar tree behind‛ the church, which stands in a grove out in the country near the remains of Warm Springs School. The only photograph of Tommy Johnson that has been released to the public comes from an advertising booklet for Victor Records, and it showed a brown-skinned man with a rather thin face and a small moustache.
In hindsight, it was a strange event, dedicating a gravemarker in a railroad park—far from his grave. The large headstone did not make it to the cedar tree under which he was buried. No one at the dedication even got the chance to visit the rural Warm Springs Cemetery. The reason was a lack of access. The surrounding landowners wanted the road that once led to the burial ground to remain closed, and it did, for a good while. The headstone, therefore, was lodged temporarily in the police station and later moved to the town’s public library. Skip Henderson moved it to the police station by himself using a hand truck after the dedication. A local monument company relocated it to the library a few weeks later, and it would remain on display in the periodicals section for many years.
Crying, Lord, I wonder will I ever get back home
Crying, Lord, I wonder will I ever get back home
Lord, Lordy, Lord
His niece set her mind to locating and securing any assets related to her uncle’s career upon her return home. Though most folks, including myself, were led to believe she had been unable to turn up any other pictures of the blues singer, information has come to light about an unsuccessful attempt to sell not one but two photographs of “uncle Tommy” for over one hundred thousand dollars.
In all the time that I spent around Collins during the case she never showed, or even hinted at the existence of, any unseen old photographs for sale, but I never specifically asked about them either. Scott Barretta, disc jockey and former columnist for the Jackson Clarion Ledger, once told a story about Collins announcing that she found some photographs, but he never got the chance to view any new pictures of her famous uncle. The whole ordeal left Barretta a bit jaded, as he had clearly had grown tired of all the hyperbolic claims of Collins. Indeed, no one other than Collins and the potential buyer/informant has seen these photographs.
Other than the pictures, Collins located very little new evidence about her uncle’s life and career. The only things not in the biography of David Evans were oral accounts of church history and an 1887 deed to the property on which sat the cemetery and church. Having visited the cemetery with her father as a child, she may have known of her uncle’s burial in the cemetery, which his death certificate confirms. In 2000, she started a sustained public relations campaign to increase recognition for her uncle’s music. One journalist reported in 2003 that she wanted people to know where he was buried. She also wanted to have the spot marked by more than just a stake in the ground. And she wanted royalties from record companies, which, according to her, owe Johnson’s descendants money.
Even though the state had declared the cemetery a historically significant site prior to the dedication, the recognition did not provide access to the families of those interred at Warm Springs. Copiah County attorney Elise Munn, in an official letter to the attorney general, explained that the cemetery was located an estimated half-mile from the closest public road, and the old roadway that used to provide access to the cemetery traversed the property of two men. The cemetery access road, moreover, was not on the county road registry. Munn asserted that the county had not maintained it for the last ten years, if ever, but she knew that it very well could have been one of the many unpaved backroads in Copiah County. The maintenance of county roads had been neglected by a previous group of county supervisors, all of whom had either plead guilty to graft and other corrupt practices or died before an indictment came down in the FBI’s sting Operation Pretense in the 1980s.
Munn also revealed in her letter to the attorney general that the current landowners had declined to grant an easement across their property for access to the cemetery as “they [did] not want the additional traffic.” The opinion of the attorney general, therefore, hinged on the cemetery’s location on private property, and he did not instruct the county to seize the easement and reconstruct the road against the landowner’s wishes.
Local officials, therefore, could do nothing until the landowner’s changed their minds or the family obtained a permanent easement. This task fell to Mt. Zion Memorial Fund director Skip Henderson, who had recently moved from Greenville, Mississippi, to New Orleans, Louisiana. He arrived just in time to evacuate for Hurricane Katrina, the aftermath of which consumed much of his energy. Once he settled back into his home in the Bywater district, he sent out several press releases, attempting to attract the interest of someone and asking why the headstone remained in the public library. He listed the names and contact information of everyone in local governance, some of whom had allegedly tried to broker a deal in which the landowners would sell the blues singers’ descendants the easement to the cemetery.
The niece of Tommy Johnson also attended meetings of the county board of supervisors and promoted her cause. After the attorney general decided that local officials had no power to reconstitute the road without the landowner’s consent, a stalemate developed. The musician’s descendants and others hurled baseless accusations at everyone in municipal (Crystal Springs) and (Copiah) county governance. The problem was not local officials so much as it was the absentee landlord who lacked sympathy for the descendants of the former congregants of Warm Springs CME Church.
The situation remained unchanged for the next ten years. Former Jackson city councilor Marcia Weaver had the state recognize the historical significance of the cemetery, yet she did not obtain legal access to the site. Different attorneys met with the county board of supervisors on behalf of the family, but none of them negotiated for access to the site.
Several county supervisors made the most serious attempt to bring about a positive resolution. Considering that even taking the easement via eminent domain required that the landowners receive fair compensation for their property, the board of supervisors decided to apply for a $50,000 grant available through the Mississippi Development Association (MDA). The grant provided enough money to purchase the easement as well as develop Warm Springs Cemetery as a blues trail destination, and the MDA awarded it for that specific purpose.
Collins refused to accept the grant, however, if any money went to the landowners. Convinced that other stakeholders in Copiah County would benefit monetarily, she killed the grant. She was not going to allow any other person to profit from the blues legacy of her uncle.
In the summer of 2011, Middle Tennessee State University graduate student DeWayne Moore started working with attorney and historian Al Brophy to gather research and prepare a legal argument against the landowners on behalf of Johnson’s descendants. By examining the state of Mississippi’s meager body of case law on cemetery access, they determined that they could win the family a private easement with a good amount of certainty. They did not believe they could obtain a public easement, but they asked for one in their formal complaint. Since the family planned to schedule tours to the cemetery once they gained access, a public easement to the site was desired so that everyone could visit legally.
Brophy contacted his former University of Alabama law student Matthew Reid Krell, who filed suit on behalf of Johnson’s descendants, seeking a permanent easement to the cemetery. The landowners decided to settle the case out of court and grant the descendants of those interred at the cemetery a permanent 15-foot wide, half-mile long easement. Armed with legal access to the site, Moore appealed to the Copiah County Board of Supervisors, which had previously promised to re-establish the road to Warm Springs Cemetery, located through a forest about a half-mile off Henry Road, if the families obtained a legal easement. It took a little longer than the month initially predicted by District 5 Supervisor Jimmy Phillips, but the county eventually reconstituted the road (easement) and marked it with a road sign. The easement’s entrance to the forest is marked and guarded by an iron gate. Its letters at the top spell out the name: Warm Springs Cemetery. The easement to the cemetery is private. It is not open to the public, only to the descendants of those interred at Warm Springs Cemetery.
To relocate the five-hundred-pound headstone of Tommy Johnson, which had resided for the past decade in the Crystal Springs Public Library, the Tommy Johnson Blues Foundation hired someone local to relocate it in October 2012. Engraver and stone mason Alan Orlicek designed the tall headstone for a simple burial installation (i.e. the six foot tall stone needed to be stuck in the ground at least two feet), but this did not occur.
In February 2013, according to a sheriff’s report, the headstone “fell over by wind or accident and broke” off the top portion, which featured an engraved portrait of the only known picture of the blues singer. The report also noted that “there were no marks to indicate that it was hit with a hammer or any type blunt instrument.” While stating that they “didn’t find anything to indicate foul play,” the investigating deputies did report the theft of an estimated $1,620 dollars in fencing supplies from the site.
It is, therefore, possible that the alleged thieves also pushed over the tall headstone, which, according to most sources, “was improperly mounted on slab pins too small and too short.” The marker was poorly attached to a concrete slab with only two small pieces of rebar, which all but assured its broken fate.
Ever since it fell, the Tommy Johnson Blues Foundation has charged that, “on the night of Saturday, February 2, 2013, the headstone was desecrated, apparently smashed by a sledge hammer or some similar device.” The statement in the police report—”there were no marks to indicate that it was hit with a hammer or any type blunt instrument”—however, was subsequently confirmed upon independent examination. Based on his observations made on-site, Alan Orlicek also agreed with the police report, stating that there was “no evidence that a hammer was used to destroy the marker.” In his opinion, the “placement of the stone…was 95% of the problem, if not more.” Yet, the sensationalist desecration narrative remained a feature of many blues news sites, such as the website of the Pomeroy Jazz & Blues Society.
With the heavy bottom portion of the marker remaining on site, and the upper portion lying in pieces outside the creator’s workshop, the offer to repair the marker and install it properly on his grave was declined. The plan at the time was for the Tommy Johnson Blues Foundation to design and install a new marker in the future. As of January 28, 2018, the easement continues to provide open access to the descendants of those interred at Warm Springs.
Towards a Conclusion
The broken five-hundred-pound headstone sits underneath a large white oak on the periphery of the burial ground. The actual grave of Tommy Johnson, however, according to his younger brother, Mager Johnson, is located at the foot of a cedar tree behind the church. Warm Springs CME Church Cemetery was abandoned after 1969, the most recent date of death on a grave marker. The secluded church and burial ground subsequently became a lover’s lane, as evidenced by liquor bottles and pull-top beer cans piled along an old wagon road. Unidentified people purportedly burned the church in the 1970s. All that remains is a vacant power meter box and sheet metal. The forested burial ground behind the church contains only two cedar trees, both of which sit at the epicenter of many graves, or in the middle of Warm Springs Cemetery.
In October 2011, Ed Henry, a graduate student and employee of the Center for Archaeology at the University of Mississippi contacted the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund about the possibility of conducting a cemetery study. Even though the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund never obtained the funds to survey the entire burial ground, Henry scanned several unmarked graves and other sections around the burial ground with a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR). The GPR detects unnatural disturbances in the soil, such as a grave shaft. It is not capable of making identifications, and it is not a guaranteed determinant of interred remains. Still, it can provide corroborative evidence of a burial. Mager Johnson had already identified his brother’s burial location, and the scans of the unmarked graves at the foot of the two cedar trees returned data consistent with grave shafts. We can be almost sure that the grave of Tommy Johnson remains marked at the center of the burial ground under one of two cedar trees that stand less than 10 feet apart.
The two cedar trees stand out among all the pine trees, having grown almost unrestrained for the last seventy years. Recalling the animist religion that existed in Copiah County in such disparate locales as Bayou Pierre, we can surmise that the cedar tree that marks the grave reflects the West African veneration of nature. The cemetery is located in the dense forest, and random burials are identified as grave depressions, worn and tilted concrete slabs, upright military and custom headstones, and living markers–in this case, two cedar trees.
Howard Divinity, a former Confederate body servant who lived in the Bayou Pierre section of Copiah County in the 1920s, possessed an unswerving faith in West African animism. He had spent a lot of time alone in the wilderness, observing the workings of nature. He mastered the art of tree-talking, or jiridon, the whispered wisdom of the trees. In the early 1930s, one Hazlehurst schoolteacher and Works Progress Administration Writer’s Project worker, Ruth Bass, interviewed the elder animist and published articles about his quest to become one with his natural surroundings. Bass located the roots of the “old magic” in the relationship between Divinity and the “mysterious, animated, and beautiful world in which he lived.” Black folks in the swamps of Bayou Pierre solemnly acknowledged the natural life forces that surrounded them. The same belief was most likely true of African Americans from the Warm Springs community. While no evidence exists to demonstrate that Tommy Johnson studied under Divinity and learned to listen to the trees, we know that he believed in the power of his grotesque rabbit’s foot, a hoodoo charm perhaps procured in Bayou Pierre. We also know that “his life was never in conformity with the standards of the church,” as David Evans explained, and he clearly made an investment in nature through animism.
The large cedar trees, therefore, provide perhaps the most fitting marker for his grave. They make any further change to the burial ground unnecessary, even outside the demands of cemetery preservation. Indeed, the interments at Warm Springs Cemetery exhibited what some anthropologists called “egalitarian” burial practices, which reaffirm communal values and makes a collective statement about equality in the afterlife. The burial ground is not in danger from outside developers and the easement is now called Warm Springs Road, a requirement for its new listing on the road registry. Warm Springs Cemetery is also included forevermore in the National Burial Database of Enslaved Americans (NBDEA).