In the summer of 2017, I learned that a blues enthusiast who had been following the campaigns of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund lived near the unmarked grave of Roosevelt Graves. He had already put me in touch with Michael Schultze, who organizes the Bentonia Blues Festival and manages Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, and he soon proved himself a resourceful investigator and field researcher with quite a talent for bringing together individuals with concomitant interests.
The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund had long been aware of the unmarked grave of Blind Roosevelt Graves in old Mississippi City Cemetery in Gulfport, Mississippi—ever since blues historian Gayle Dean Wardlow found his death certificate in the 1990s. The five hour drive down to the Gulf Coast from the hill country of north Mississippi—for field research that most likely would be a dead end—meant the project had been pushed to the back burner.
All that changed, however, when we started working with Gulfport attorney Jonathan Hilbun, who had recently been assigned the task of organizing a blues festival, completed the preparations, and had his freshman efforts disintegrate beneath his very feet. Whether he was simply anxious to get involved with the state’s rich blues tradition on some level or exercise his cogent organizational skills was not clear, but he certainly did both and seriously in short order.
His revelations began with a question: “Have you heard of the Historical Society of Gulfport?” He had discovered the organization online, learned that they were conducting a survey of Mississippi City Cemetery, and sent them an email to obtain information on their progress. While he assumed that he was “probably retracing” steps already taken by myself, he moved forward nonetheless and inquired about new information on Roosevelt Graves.
In short order, GHS director Betty Shaw responded and informed, “Over half of the site has been surveyed and gravestones recorded. We have documentation on many burials for which no headstones have been found.” She also admitted that if she found “proof that Roosevelt Graves was buried here, it would be a real find for our project.” From that point, she treated his unmarked grave as if she was hunting for buried treasure.
Exuding much enthusiasm, she sent daily correspondences in the beginning and each one stoked the burning hot fires of obsession. The next day, she listed a series of research avenues based on his suggestions regarding a historical marker. First, she wanted to check with Lockett’s Funeral Home to see if they had any records of burials in Mississippi City Cemetery, but the funeral home directed us to the City of Gulfport, which did not have the cemetery maps that are sometimes used to locate graves. A couple of people at the University of Southern Mississippi had conducted a project in 2016, which allegedly contained information about Graves. She requested a list of sources and planned to contact the authors.
The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, however, was already in contact with the two foremost scholars who had published worthwhile research on the Graves brothers—Gayle Dean Wardlow and Alex van der Tuuk. At this point, she also relayed that she was going to “take a look” at the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund. She believed that a “marker of any kind would serve as a great tribute to Blind Roosevelt Graves” and honor his “contributions to Blues history in Mississippi.”
The Graves Brothers
Lee Moise Roosevelt Graves was a recording artist and guitarist who mixed secular and sacred material during his career. He is credited with making some of the earliest rock and roll recordings in the 1930s. Born in Jones County near Laurel, Mississippi, he and his brother Uaroy began playing juke joints in the early 1920s, and in 1929 they cut a number of ‘rocking and reeling’ spirituals for Paramount, all of which feature pianist Will Ezell.
The Graves brothers often performed on Front Street in Laurel, and the duo proved so popular that the audience at times blocked the road. Most of the time the brothers posted up in front of Lott’s Furniture Store, one of several similar stores in cities all across south Mississippi. The owner was Reuben Lott, a native of southwest Alabama who attended college at North Manchester, Indiana. He enjoyed the large crowds that gathered to hear the musicians, because larger numbers of people in front of the store often translated into large numbers of people who entered the store and bought furniture.
The performances of the Graves brothers in front of Lott’s sometimes attracted the attention of the local police, who might either intervene and break up the crowd, or put some money in the tin cup and listen a while. By the end of the day, however, the brothers had usually filled the cup full of coins and dumped it out many times.
He is buried in Mississippi City Cemetery in Gulfport, Mississippi. The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund is now soliciting funds to erect a fitting headstone on his unmarked grave. PLEASE support our endeavor.
More to come…
L.C. Ulmer remembers watching the Graves brothers perform in Laurel, but no pictures of the Graves brothers are known to exist!
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