Edgy blues tunes and musty history converge at overgrown cemeteries and lost grave markers for professor T. DeWayne Moore.
Moore just finished his first semester teaching history courses at Bowling Green State University, but you wouldn’t guess that based on the large number of books, mostly about the history of blues music, that line his office shelves.
He is a relatively new breed of historian that believes in hands-on work in public history.
“Public history, it’s applying history in public and applying the ethics and responsible practices as historians. That is including all the stories from as many sources as possible, not trying to slant it, trying to tell history from as many perspectives and points of view as possible,” Moore said.
He explained how in the past public historian backgrounds were often just thought of as local history archivists, but that seems to have evolved over the last 15 to 20 years.
“For a long time there was the idea that it was just history put to practice, that is history put to practice in archives, museum, historic preservation and cultural resource management, which is archaeology surveying sites and making sure cultural heritage is preserved. I think it’s also really important to be a well-versed historian who knows about responsible academic practices,” Moore said.
“It’s really important to bring those to any job you do in the public. Unfortunately, for a long time public history has been used to promote only one part of history, by thoroughly preserving just one part of history as archival collections.”
Archivists are looking more extensively today, in order to present a more complete picture.
“They’re preserving the history of the LGBTQ community, the African American community, the LatinX community. That’s what archivists have been really struggling to do for the last 15 years or so.”
Communicating the concept of diverse sources and perspectives of history is important for Moore and it was part of the reason for his taking the job at BGSU.
“Of all the places I interviewed, this is the place that I felt really understood that ethical process,” Moore said.
Moore interviewed for jobs at a lot of different universities, but the Gish theater controversy pushed BGSU to the top of the list for him.
The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Film Theater had its name removed after it became known that actress Lillian Gish had acted in the 1915 silent film “The Birth of a Nation.” The movie is widely considered to be a highly racist film that helped to promote the Ku Klux Klan.
“As far as the process that the task force went through, in order to make that decision, it fell right in line with the process that (public historians) go through, to make the decisions that we do. As far as being responsible and ethical and taking everyone’s opinions,” Moore said.
His passions for history and blues music come together in his role as the executive director of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund.
Moore became executive director of the fund in 2014 before receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Mississippi in 2018, a school with a long history in preserving the blues music art form.
Moore’s work with the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund is that practical application of his beliefs beyond teaching. As it states on the organization’s website, it “has served as a conduit to provide financial and technical support to African American church communities and cemeteries in Mississippi. We also provide memorials for blues musicians without grave markers, but our work isn’t some hollow gesture to honor the blues. The music is very important, to be sure, but it’s only the soundtrack.”
The Mt. Zion Fund has done blues musician memorials since 1989, but it is much more than honoring influential musicians with a stone memorial. In addition to headstone re-dedications, the organization finds funding for the maintenance and care of these often previously lost or abandoned African American cemeteries.
There is also field research to publish biographies of the musicians, as well as to locate the graves. The fights for some of these grave sites are often much more than keeping the grass cut.
“We have a series of things we have to accomplish,” Moore said.
It’s a process, including finding their death certificates, the actual burial sites, tracking down their family members and “getting a significant amount of community support for the project. We don’t want to just plop down a memorial and then leave,” Moore said.
Most people know about B.B. King, but they probably don’t know about many others, who were incredibly influential across entire genres of music, like jazz, rock, funk and folk. They include Memphis Minnie, James “Son” Thomas, “Mississippi” Joe Calicott, Big Joe Williams, or the more than 20 other musicians the organization has worked with.
The unlucky musicians may have died with little or no money to mark a grave.
A good example is the fight Moore led together with the Warm Springs CME Church Cemetery.
In order to provide access to the site of the abandoned cemetery with the grave of blues legend Tommy Johnson they had to obtain a 15-foot-wide and half-mile-long easement.
These sometimes little known blues musicians often have some big name fans. “Mississippi Fred” McDowell’s music was covered by the Rolling Stones, as well as Bonnie Raitt. It was Raitt who decided he needed a new grave stone. But the organization also has backing from outside the music industry, with support from both the political and business world.
More information can be found on the Mt. Zion Memorial fund at www. mtzionmemorialfund.org.