Mount Zion Memorial Fund

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The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund is a Mississippi non-profit corporation formed in 1989 and named after the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Morgan City, Mississippi. The fund was organized by Raymond 'Skip' Henderson, a former social worker turned vintage guitar dealer and event promoter (New York Guitar Show) in order to create a legal conduit to get financial support to rural African-American church communities in Mississippi and to memorialize the contributions of numerous musicians interred in rural cemeteries without grave markers.

History[edit]

Over a 12-year period from 1990 to 2001, the Mount Zion Memorial Fund erected twelve memorials to blues musicians across the state of Mississippi. Originally founded in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1989, from November 1997 until August 2013 the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund worked from New Orleans, Louisiana. In September 2013 the organization moved operation to Oxford, Mississippi where it continues operation under the direction of Executive Director, Tyler DeWayne Moore of the University of Mississippi, with Skip Henderson and Euphus Ruth Jr. of Greenville, Mississippi serving as Co-Chairmen of the board of directors.

The organization was officially incorporated as The Robert Johnson Mount Zion Memorial Fund in the fall of 1989 to raise money to save the 114-year-old Mount Zion Church (founded 1909) from foreclosure and to place a cenotaph historic marker (not a headstone as is often mistaken- the monument bears no birth/death dates) in the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church cemetery in honor of Robert Johnson whose death certificate lists "Zion Church" as a burial site. The decision to place the memorial where it is at Mt. Zion was made to keep the rest of the cemetery from being trampled by visitors, and to have the song titles, some of which mention the devil, facing away from the church itself in deference to the church congregation. The unveiling 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 Rev. 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.

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 Mt. Zion ceremony 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 Mt. Zion Fund in honor of Elmore James. This memorial was placed on James' grave in the Newport 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.

Several months afterwards with the help of Jackson, Mississippi attorney Robert Arentson, on August 6, 1993 a memorial was placed on the grave site of Mississippi Fred McDowell at the Hammond Hill Baptist Church cemetery in Como, Mississippi. The ceremony was presided over by Dick Waterman and the memorial with McDowell's portrait upon it was paid for by Bonnie Raitt. In this case the memorial stone was a replacement for an inaccurate (McDowell's name misspelled) and damaged marker – 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 near Crawford, Mississippi, was purchased through a collective effort of musicians led by California music journalist Dan Forte a/k/a Teisco Del Rey while gathered at Clifford Antone's nightclub in Austin, Texas. The memorial was unveiled on October 9, 1994; the inscription by Dan Forte: "King of the Nine String Guitar", and a eulogy by musician and former Williams' sideman, Charlie Musselwhite.

Following these memorials on April 29, 1995 a headstone was erected in the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Nesbit, Mississippi to honor Mississippi Joe Callicott an original Memphis minstrel who began his performing career at the turn of the century. This marker was financed through the Mt. Zion Fund with the help of musician Kenny Brown and 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 Henderson received the W.C. Handy Award for historic preservation "Keeping the Blues Alive" in May 1995.

Memorial headstones were added for James Thomas (blues musician) on March 9, 1996 at St. Matthews Church in Leland, Mississippi and Memphis Minnie(Minnie Douglas Lawlers) at the New Hope Baptist Church Cemetery in Walls, Mississippi, on October 13, 1996. Both memorials were paid for by John Fogerty and Bonnie Raitt respectively. 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: "The hundreds of sides Minnie recorded are the perfect material to teach us about the blues. For the blues are at once general, and particular, speaking for millions, but in a highly singular, individual voice. Listening to Minnie's songs we hear her fantasies, her dreams, her desires, but we will hear them as if they were our own."

With the help of Greenville, Mississippi wet plate photographer Euphus "Butch" Ruth, the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund dedicated a memorial headstone for Sam Chatmon in Sanders Memorial Cemetery, Hollandale, Mississippi on March 14, 1998. Chatmon's headstone reads: "Sitting On Top of the World" and includes an inscription by a Chatmon friend and former student, Libby Rae Watson. Shortly after the Chatmon ceremony, again with the help of Euphus Ruth, a memorial headstone for Eugene Powell "Sonny Boy Nelson", was placed on November 4, 1998 at the Evergreen Cemetery in Metcalfe, Mississippi. Both memorials were funded once again by grants from Raitt and Fogerty respectively.

On October 8, 2000 a memorial paid for by Fogerty and Rooster Blues Records, was placed on the grave of Lonnie Pitchford near Elmore James at the Newport Baptist Church cemetery in Ebenezer, Mississippi. This headstone was designed to have a playable, one-string diddley bow mounted on the side as per the family's wishes.

In April 2001 a headstone for Tommy Johnson was commissioned by members of his family and paid for by a grant from Bonnie Raitt. On October 20, 2001 the unveiling ceremony was conducted in the town square of Crystal Springs, Mississippi by the Mayor of Crystal Springs with over twenty members of Johnson's extended family in attendance as well as Johnson's biographer Dr. David Evans, John Sinclair and a contingent of people from radio station WWOZ in New Orleans, many local musicians, blues fans, and local media. As of 2011 the tall, granite memorial engraved with Johnson's portrait and the names of his songs running down each side has not been placed on Johnson's grave in the Warm Springs Methodist 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. Due to the then ongoing dispute between Tommy Johnson's family led by his niece Vera Johnson Collins and the Copiah County Board of Supervisors who side with influential land owners, a lawsuit to gain access to the cemetery was filed. The headstone that had remained on view in the Crystal Springs, Mississippi Public Library since being unveiled was finally placed on Johnson's grave in October 2012, following a ceremony in Crystal Springs attended by Johnson biographer David Evans, musician and actor Chris Thomas King, who played Tommy Johnson in the acclaimed 2000 film O Brother Where Art Thou, and several dozen fans and Copiah County officials. Less than several weeks later the nearly four-foot tall marker was destroyed by parties unknown. Vera Johnson Collins has since stated that she intends to independently commission a different grave marker for placement at a future date.

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