We may never know why Robert Johnson is buried here, especially when there were so many other churches in the area from which to choose—even other churches with “Zion” in their names. But, despite whatever if-ing and but-ing may still arise from the skeptics, we do know that this is indeed where Johnson is buried. All you have to do is follow a paper trail nearly 40 years in the making.
Back in 1965, a blues journalist and researcher named Gayle Dean Wardlow launched a search for Johnson’s missing death certificate. He recovered it from the state of Mississippi in 1968—30 years after Johnson died in 1938—only to find there were still quite a few holes in the story of Johnson’s young death. One of the biggest unanswered questions pertained to the bluesman’s gravesite: The death certificate named “Zion Church” in Leflore County—rather unhelpfully, considering that the county had at least three churches with names including the word “Zion.” In fact, something of a consensus later took hold that Johnson was actually buried at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in nearby Morgan City, even though there was no additional documentation to support that claim.
Things began to come into slightly clearer focus in the late 1980s, when Johnson’s half-sister, Carrie Spencer Harris, gave an interviewer further details about Johnson’s death and burial. Harris was living in Memphis when her half-brother died, and when she heard he had been speedily buried in a homemade casket, she hired the area’s only black undertaker to reinter Johnson in a professionally rendered coffin. The undertaker, Paul McDonald, had records that named Little Zion Church in Greenwood—rather than any other Zion Church in Leflore County—as Johnson’s gravesite. That didn’t stop two other memorials from popping up elsewhere, but those are other stories.
The final bit of corroboration for Little Zion came in 2000 from a woman named Rosie Eskridge, whose late husband Tom had dug Johnson’s grave at the church. She was able to verify crucial details, such as the initial usage of a homemade casket before the reinterment. Even more importantly, she had information about a man named Jim Moore—the informant listed on Johnson’s death certificate, whose identity had otherwise remained a mystery to researchers. A headstone was installed at Little Zion in 2002, and a sign on the Mississippi Blues trail says that Johnson “is thought to be buried in this graveyard.” But you don’t have to go too far to get confused.