The downtown business district of Tunica retains much of the character and architecture that it would have had when Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines were playing the joints here. The colorful decay and the evening light on this corner at the tail end of a storefront on the main street caught my eye. It’s right across the street from the Tunica Police Department.
One of the reasons that contemporary church members are less than pleased to have Johnson in their sparse little cemetery is that his grave has become an impromptu shrine for blues pilgrims who drink on the property, leave personal trinkets, guitar picks, empty liquor and beer bottles at the gravestone.
The handwritten note reproduced here on the headstone was found in the papers of Carrie Dodds (Spencer) Thompson, one of Julia’s younger children and Robert’s half-sister who remained with their mother when the family was torn apart in 1909. Carrie helped raise her little brother Robert as Julia moved through the labor camps of the Delta.
Mrs. Rosie Eskridge, a lifetime member of Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church, remembered that as a young wife she brought water to her husband, Tom, as he was digging Robert Johnson’s grave in this church yard. That mid-August afternoon, Johnson’s body lay in the shade while Tom dug the grave. Mrs. Eskridge did not approve of Johnson’s music. She wasn’t pleased to have the bluesman buried in their churchyard and never much spoke of nor sought to profit from her knowledge. For these reasons, Little Zion has come to be thought of as the most reliable final resting place for this Delta Blues legend.
This part of downtown Greenwood is essentially unchanged since the days when Robert Johnson was walking the streets here, except that it is now virtually deserted, day and night.
Robert Johnson had a rented room in the Baptist Town section of Greenwood and, after allegedly being poisoned by a juke joint owner, Johnson was carried to a little house in this neighborhood where he lingered for a few days. The revered actor (and blues fan) Morgan Freeman – founder and co-owner of Ground Zero blues club in Clarksdale – was born in Baptist Town in 1937. Robert Johnson died there in 1938.
Moved three times and now in serious need of stabilizing and restoration, this is the house in which Robert Johnson was born to Julia Major Dodds. Julia’s husband Charles, a well-established carpenter and furniture builder, built this house for their large family. An altercation with local whites caused Charles to flee Hazlehurst under cover of night. He left Julia behind with their ten children, hoping she could hold onto the house.
Charles settled in Memphis under the alias C.D. Spencer and took a mistress. Over time, Julia secreted the older children up to live with them. For company and protection, she took up with a local sharecropper, Noah Johnson, who became Robert’s father. Shortly after his birth, she lost the house and slipped with Robert and her younger children into the migrant labor camps of the Delta.
The second floor space above King’s was the home for the Hooks Brothers’ Photography Studio when Robert Johnson had his formal portrait taken. Begun by Henry A. Hooks Sr. and his brother Robert B. Hooks in 1907, the studio was first located on Main Street then moved here to 164 Beale St. where it remained for more than 40 years.
The studio subsequently moved to Linden Avenue, where the Hooks School of Photography operated, and finally settled at 979 East McLemore St. in the 1970s. Hooks Brothers’ remained in the family and operated throughout most of the 20th century. By the time it closed, it was the second oldest black-owned business in Memphis.
Just across from the now-defunct Malcolm X Center for Self-Determination, I looked up to see these signs juxtaposed in the fading evening light.
This venerable joint is still operating in the Georgetown section of Jackson. It couldn’t be 20’ x 40’ inside, with a small corner of the room raised for the band, a bar on the side, and a pool table in the back.
Chellie Lewis, the proprietor of the Queen of Hearts for decades, agreed to pose in front of his juke joint. As he straightened up for the picture, I said, “Now, Chellie, try to look better than you do!” He started to chuckle and I took this photo. Chellie said, “Most people say, ‘cheese.’” I said, “Yeah, man, that stuff don’t work any more.” We laughed and he invited me in.