This presentation is part of the International Cemetery Preservation Summit, April 8-10, 2014 Niagara Falls, NY.
Handcrafted Gravemarkers of Julius “Jesse” Thomas by Anne Shelton
Anne: Thanks to Stephanie and Gordon I am so pleased to follow their presentation and it was terrific. It was really terrific and I was so pleased to see some really similar different things but used in totally different context in Texas and especially south of Austin where the small enclosures, the relic coritos and then Nitrtos. Most often you see small religious artifacts put in there and that’s how I see in the hornitos, the ovens so that was really exciting. Today … I’m going to get accustomed to this first, today I’m going to talk a little bit … Mine is more of a travelog. I first encountered the work of Julius Jesse Thomas, it was on a site visit. I was giving a presentation up in Hillsborough area in Hill County Texas so from about five or six years prior to this site visit in 2006 there had been a survey done.
We had some information about what was there in the county at the different sites and ones that had been rated as highly endangered were ones that if you were in the area you went by to just check and see how things were going. There were two cemeteries right next to each other in Penelope and one is a check cemetery where all of the photo porcelains has been popped off every single grave marker. We wanted to go back and see if there had been any other damage done but right next to it was a site called George Newton Cemetery. That was in 2006 and it was fairly typical for what I expected of an African American cemetery of that time period and in that location, this is Penelope Texas. Has anybody heard of Penelope? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Rusty does not count but I had not either so it’s a very rural area.
We’ve got … great, great, so you’ve got cultural vegetation possibly as grave markers, you’ve got seasonal growth with the grass which is very normal. It was a beautiful, charming site. There were wild flowers it was really beautiful, not traditional wild flowers it was September but there were different flowering plants and grasses and it was really quite lovely. There were three markers that were fairly close to each other and clearly they were crafted by the same person. This are that we are in it is south … I’m going to back up just a second, I was jumping the gun. We’re south of Dallas, Austin’s down here so it’s about 30 miles north of Waco and about 70 miles south of Dallas. We’re going to be focusing our travel in this region, in the area.
What we’re noticing here is that there’s three, two singles and one double but what was really fascinating about it is each one was signed on the back called Jesse Thomas, Mexia Texas phone GYG 7251. I was like that’s brilliant, it’s terrific so I knew who the artist was and I was fascinated by it and quite honestly I was charmed. I was charmed by all three of them in the grouping, I was charmed by the simplicity but it was clearly something that was special and meaningful because it was completed on each one of them save the more traditional or band-aid style that was more traditional around the 50’s, late 40’s early 50’s. Two of them are exactly like this it was just fascinating.
Many of them say “gone but not forgotten”, these at rest. There should be … the basics. I’m going to jump back here real quick to Bobbie Anthony. I did not notice this that day and to be honest I didn’t notice it until a friend pointed it out to me later but you’ve got the inverted four. It could be a couple of different reasons, it could have been inverted on purpose. Some would suggest that that was a purposeful thing that culturally is significant in an African American grave marker. Others might say it’s a typo, an accident. We don’t know but it’s definitely there but it’s the only instance I’ve seen of the four being inverted. A number of years later I was in Falls County at another African American cemetery site with a bunch of our archeologists doing some work.
Here’s Penelope area where George Newton site is. We were down here in Falls County which is still kind of in this same regional area. This was a few years later, no one year later. At China Grove you can see where the church had been at one point in time. The site we were working at was a couple of miles down the road and we had gone for lunch and we were in the area and the band said hey let’s stop there’s another cemetery let’s go check it out. It was completely in ruins at that point and you can see a few markers here and there. This was taken … I can tell you this picture from Google was not taken in July, it’s a lot more dense there. There’s a lot more poison ivy then I had seen in a lot of other places. Bingo, here’s the exact same marker and I had not seen another one but to be honest I hadn’t been looking for them.
I was really interested but not as interested as one of the guys that I was with. His name’s David Bruner and I had just met him that day for the first time. He had worked with Carol McDavid and done a lot of research on some additional sites in Texas. He was so excited to see this because he said this is really important stuff and it’s relatable to Thompson’s flash of the spirit and that water symbol, that connection and that transition into the afterlife. I was like well that makes sense. The use of that symbol in the two places that I’ve seen but you can’t … I mean I’ve only seen two grave markers so that’s certainly not enough to go on. Added to this one, it’s been written here in this area. I heard the voice of Jesus saying come unto me and rest.
Now that’s the only time I’ve seen anybody go back to one of these and add an inscription or add anything for that matter. David was really excited about this so I started to pay a little bit more attention. Over the course of time, of course I was looking at a number of other hand crafted artists and had been following a number of people but after noticing that one I created … I just stuck my pen in the center and drew a circle around it. I expected based Hill County where Penelope is, here’s Falls County. We know thankfully since he signed them that he’s working out of Mexia which is in Limestone County. Using Mexia as the center point and knowing that we’re finding them in Hill and Falls it would stand to reason that you would find them within this area. I sent out a call to 20 … well there’s more then 20 but I expanded it a little bit so I sent out a call to county cemetery contacts in a 20 county radius expecting to get no responses at all but I got a lot.
That was really surprising too because I didn’t think that anybody else had been paying attention to these. This geographic distribution is kind of important but it falls within what I expected so that was not surprising. What these guys are doing is essentially maintaining conditions, assessments of all the sites within a county. These county cemetery contacts, sometimes they function within our county historical commissions which we have in Texas in each of the 250 poor counties which is really helpful because there’s no way you can cover that kind of ground. Some are more effective or have different interests. Some are genealogists, but the ones that are really interested in this type of work responded immediately. What we’re seeing is addition to the two that I had seen myself we know for sure that we had reports from Limestone, Freestone and Navarro.
There were some variations in symbol from what these guys were sending back and the bulk of them came from Bruce Jordan who’s terrific and he’s the county cemetery contact in Limestone County but they’re all over. You have a repetition and this symbol is very similar to the ones in both Falls County and Hill County but then you’ve got the repetition in that bit there and then in others. This is in Falls County sent by a friend. Very similar but this one has a different number of teeth then the others. At first I was trying to figure out what is he using like a tool? Is it a saw that is being used to press this or did he actually make this? The other stuff, the letters are the same so we know he’s got or what I speculate is that he has a tool bin that has these same sized letters that he uses and the gone but not forgotten may be one piece, maybe it’s not I don’t know.
I haven’t taken the time to figure that bit out but is the saw one piece or something that he’s created by hand or does he have multiple metal bits that he’s created that he’s pressing into them? How does he choose? I don’t know. You’ve got the number of teeth, differentiation and this one is totally different. Someone’s gone back in afterwards and taken a Sharpie to it or black paint to make it stand out a little bit more but it’s a totally different … This one is completely different but how do I know it’s his? Because he signed the back. It looks exactly the same, the date configuration is the same, the gone but not forgotten is the same but the water symbol is entirely different. This one is a little bit later … no, this one is from the 40’s so I don’t know how they choose it. This one oddly enough is also his but it’s totally different.
A couple of these, and these the very different ones are found very close around Mexia. It’s somebody that he knew really well that he was willing to say okay I’m going to do this specialized, very personalized one for you. I get the impression that it was kind of a business. He was pretty busy because at this point we know … I’ve seen pictures of 37 markers in 8 different counties at 14 different sites. In the giant scheme of things, that’s not a huge number but it’s significant for a hand crafted grave marker artist when I think about what I typically see around a state as big as Texas. Typically it’s within a two to three county range. It’s tied by family members and you can tell that by the last names and then by the responses that you get back from existing family members but they guy is everywhere. As I’m doing this I’m seeing a bunch of different but relatable symbols which after talking with some colleagues that too could be interpreted as another water or passage symbol.
I don’t know what to call a lot of these folks because on these others I’m not as lucky as somebody stamping their name and their phone number in the back. You just don’t know who these folks are but this one is in Grimes County … Grimes County star but I’ve not seen any of his outside of Grimes County. This is in Anderson County. While I’m noting and following some of these other folks, this one I call little mirrors because it’s glitter so while the grave marker is still wet she takes this glitter and smears over the top of it. For the most part during the day you can’t really see what the full effect of that glitter is but at certain times of the day, the first time I saw this one I was clear on the other side of the cemetery and it was like a beacon coming up because the light hit it at just the right time and it popped like crazy.
A friend of mine knowing that I was following this artist too and I should say if anyone is here from the state of Texas, from the government this was all done on my own time. It was all outside of work. A friend had told me that they saw a number of little mirrors at a site down in Bastrop so I went and sure enough the whole cemetery. They had requested her work and so I don’t know if there were not grave markers there before but 90% of the grave markers at this site had been created all at the same time, different death dates but all at the same time. I was really excited. The largest part of the cemetery was African American. There was a small Anglo section in the back, a Mexican American section in the back and so I was out back there looking and in the back 40, way in the back … Oh sorry by the way, we’re now down in Bastrop.
This is about 200 miles from Austin to Dallas so this is way down there and definitely way far away from Mexia and Penelope. I see this one and that totally blew my geographic distribution plan out of the water. Was he really as successful as I think he was? Was he really making a lot of money doing this? I can’t imagine but what we do know about Mexia is that at one point it was a big oil town. Then around the 30’s the depression set in, nobody had any money. Their population dropped by an amazing amount so everybody that once was employed successfully all of a sudden was not by the early 30’s. The death dates on these 37 markers that I’ve been able to see range from 1927 to 1969.
If you were looking for a new job around 1929, 1930 when the bust started to settle in that makes sense. You do a few for some family members, you do a few more. What we do know they’re all very similar. I don’t know that there’s any rebar in these. I don’t know because the condition on all of them is fairly good. Little need for conservation and no evidence of repairs to the ones that we’ve seen. They’re all upright so we don’t know what’s underneath in the ground but he did a good job. We also know fairly within a region where these different ones are but we don’t know how many more there are. I haven’t really had a chance to turn this into a huge body of work but the tools; we know nothing about the tools. We don’t know what he was using or who has them.
That’s the really exciting part too is there have been other somewhat similar designs that may have used the same size lettering but it’s a different design and they’re in the same area. A lot of unknowns about that. Originally trying to decide is this a business or a service? Is it for sale or trade or for family members? There doesn’t seem to be anything at this point that indicates talking with family members from this line because Bruce Jordan introduced us to a lot of these folks and there’s just no connection that’s strong enough to indicate that that’s the only connection. Stamping your name into the back indicates that he was certainly willing to travel to place these. Then the beginnings, how did he get started? Is it a family tradition or was it financial need? I can speculate but we really don’t know.
Why do we need to know? Oh yeah and this was kind of a bummer, I was expecting something with a little bit more personal flare. It was not what I had expected at all. We verified and triple checked, this is exactly who we think it is. Can you imagine making your last grave marker the year before you pass your own self? The last grave marker I’ve seen with a death date is ’69 and he passed in June of ’70. Why is this important and why is it significant? To me, I think they’re beautiful. I think it’s terrific …. I did not. It’s a very significant date in Texas and in many places, the date that slaves were told that they were free. In Texas there’s celebrations all over, I know it’s big in Chicago, it’s interesting.
Thanks to Dr. Perky Beisel who helped me think about this a little bit more this morning because the question was why is this important? What’s the big deal about it? Because there are hand crafted grave markers and artists all over. With little mirrors who’s currently producing. This is not going to stop but for my own self and people in Texas these markers, the way that they were signed is the closest thing that we can get to the folks that are really involved with AGS and doing the research on the high style carved signe markers where folks follow that. That carving lineage and that really hit it for me and I was like yeah that is because it’s exciting to think that somebody has this box of tools in their garage we just haven’t found them yet. That’s it, do you all have any questions?
The first time I saw the work of Julius “Jesse” Thomas was during a site visit near Penelope Texas, south of Dallas/Fort Worth, in 2006. Three grave-markers, death years ranging from 1935 to 1962, at the George Newton Cemetery were created by Mr. Thomas. This is known because he signed his work in a prominent location and included his phone number. The African American cemetery is sparsely populated with grave-markers, less than 20 visible. The three grave-markers were in close proximity to each other and created by the same artist, so it seemed possible that the deceased had been related. The three markers were documented and the data was filed away.
A year later a similar grave-marker was spotted in Falls County. This marker had the same detail at the top and the same Gone But Not Forgotten pressed into the concrete. This marker at China Grove Cemetery had an additional sentiment handwritten on the marker, I heard the voice of Jesus saying come unto me and rest, that was added at a later date and not original to the piece. It was suggested that day that the symbol pressed at the top of each of these grave-markers seen so far represents water, and potentially the passage of the soul to the afterlife.
Based on the location of Mr. Thomas’ work seen so far, and his Mexia Texas phone number in Limestone County, it was speculated there would be a geographic distribution area of his work in and around the Falls, Limestone, and Freestone counties. A general map area was determined where Mr. Thomas’ work may potentially show up, and additional assistance was needed to find these markers in those counties. Cemetery contacts in 20 counties were emailed images of Mr. Thomas’ work with a request to share location information. I was prepared for no responses, however Freestone, Limestone, and Navarro contacts all sent images within a month. The response from these contacts further indicated a core distribution area around the Limestone County area.
Thirty-seven grave-markers have been identified so far. Variations of the water symbol may have been used during different time periods, however it remains a prominent feature of the marker. Additional data is needed to make further conclusions related to when and why different forms were used. It may be that it was simply an artistic aesthetic determined at the time of creation. Additional research will also help pinpoint the year that Mr. Thomas’ phone number, pressed in the back of many of the markers, changed from GYG 4257 (death years from 1934 to 1966) to 562 5257 (death years from 1940 to 1969.)
Following Mr. Thomas’ grave-markers led to additional research and the discovery of other artists such as Little Mirrors and the Grimes County Star. It also led to a Thomas family member, Julius S. Thomas, who had picked up the trade in the 1940s and 50s but was not nearly as prolific. The research will continue to further understand the relationships between the deceased, and who may still have his tools.
Anne Shelton began exploring the cultural and built heritage of Texas fifteen years ago when she first moved to Austin. She worked for the Texas Historical Commission first as a preservation planner, later as the state coordinator for the Cemetery Preservation Program.
She graduated from the University of Kansas in Lawrence with a BA in anthropology and film studies. She serves as a board member of Texas Archive of the Moving Image and College Memorial Park Cemetery. She is an active volunteer and member of many organizations, including the Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation and Association for Gravestone Studies.