County and state officials are scheduled to meet today with the Tommy Johnson Blues Foundation to discuss the availability of grant funds to restore and develop the Warm Springs Cemetery north of Crystal Springs, where bluesman Tommy Johnson is buried.
Vera Collins, niece of Johnson, met with the board of supervisors on Monday to discuss plans prior to the meeting with the Mississippi Development Authority today.
“I hope we can resolve this in 2008,” said Collins. “For six years we’ve been talking about this, but nothing’s been done.”
Tommy Johnson, who is said to be unrelated to the more famous bluesman Robert Johnson of Hazlehurst, is buried at the rural Warm Springs Cemetery, which is located about a mile from the nearest county road. A memorial marker is currently housed in the Crystal Springs city library until access to the cemetery can be arranged.
The county ceased to maintain the road into the cemetery after the church burned and the Warm Springs congregation disbanded. The land reverts back to the previous landowners under state law if the county ceases to maintain a road for ten years.
Regardless of what happened in the past, explained Supervisor Perry Hood, “The county does not own the road now. We have to get money in the grant to buy the right of way.” Even if the county acquires the land by eminent domain proceedings, Hood explained, the landowners will have to be compensated. The cemetery is about a mile from the nearest paved road, which amounts to a little over six acres of right of way needed for a new road.
Collins objected to using grant funds for the road because the county never consulted the families of those buried at Warm Springs before abandoning it.
Supervisors don’t believe the road was ever abandoned procedurally, they simply ceased to maintain it, Hood explained. The county maintained the road as long as the Warm Springs Church and school were in use. Maintenance stopped (at least 30 years ago supervisors estimate) after the road became a “lovers lane” and drinking hangout.
The old road bed has since been reclaimed by nature, so a new road will have to be constructed. The county obtained an Attorney General’s opinion in 2002 that clarified that a county can use county funds to maintain an existing road to a historical site but it can not build a new road to it. Based on that AG’s opinion the county did not proceed with the prior request to develop the cemetery access.
The development of the site for economic development changes the complexion of the issue from a legislative standpoint, added Rep. Greg Holloway, who has drafted legislation to allow family members of those buried in landlocked cemeteries the right of reasonable access to their relatives’ graves.
According to the terms of the 1897 handwritten deed to the church property, if the land ceased to be used for church purposes it would revert back to the original landowners as well. Whether or not the cemetery still qualifies as a church purpose is legally ambiguous, said board attorney Elise Munn. A strong argument can be made for either side and will need to be resolved before the state is likely to issue a grant to develop the site for tourism, she cautioned.
Collins hopes a grant can be used to restore what graves can be saved and secure the site, relocate Tommy Johnson’s marker to his grave, and to construct a wall with the names of the other people buried in unmarked graves in the cemetery. About 13 graves are marked, she said, but she believes about 2,500 people have been buried there over the years. Supervisor Jimmy Phillips, whose district Warm Springs is in, said about 40 of the unmarked graves were apparent on his last visit there. The cemetery covers an acre.
Collins said grant funds will be used to construct a fence along both sides of the road to protect adjacent property. The site will be secured and visits by tourists will be guided, she explained.
Phillips said an agreement had been reached for right of way with the adjacent landowners several years ago for the road, but no funds were available at the time for development. He believes a new agreement can be reached, if grant funds can be obtained.
Paving is complete on the $6 million overlay project but striping continues, reported engineer Joe Johnson.
The most recent county audit received a good report with no findings.
Generator bids were rejected and will be readvertised if more grant funds can be secured.
The board agreed to a settlement on taxes owed by Winn Dixie in bankruptcy proceedings.
A public hearing will be held on abandoning a portion of Haley Lane.
The board will meet again on Thursday, December 20, at 9 a.m. Swearing in ceremonies are set for Friday, December 28, with a retirement reception immediately following for Supervisor Manuel Welch.