The Lonesome Grave of Thomas LaRue Jones
The ongoing research about the shvartze khazonim/ the Black cantors has been rewarded by a voluminous outpouring of period newspaper articles from 1910 to 1954 (over 300 with more than half from the American and European Yiddish press!) yet, many mysteries remain (i.e. was LaRue Jones Jewish? Where did he learn his flawless Yiddish and Hebrew?) But no mystery nagged more than not finding the location of his final resting place.
My heretofore solitary work in revealing the Black cantors has been greatly helped by the arrival of motivated and passionate fellow travelers who have joined the search along the way.
For example, in August, just after first launching this blog, Jeff Feinberg, an old friend from my Brooklyn rock'n'roll band days and who had developed a keen interest in geneaology in recent years, generously offered to help research and also be a sounding board for all the new discoveries.
At the same time, I received an email from Chaim Motzen who, wholly without prompting, had descended into the tangled, brambled genealogical underbrush of the Jones family and come up with dozens of state and federal census reports, military registration cards, city directories, birth certificates and all accompanied with detailed near-Talmudic analysis of his findings.
Who was this guy?
While Motzen did let on that he— like me — was the son of a cantor, he neglected to mention that he was also a top solar power pioneers and visionary innovator.
In September, I made contact with the Newark Public Library whose staff quickly and cheerfully provided all manner of unique and critically important materials not available anywhere else on earth starting with an amazing period polychrome Newark demographic map of the city's diverse ethnic communities (below) which, together with the various city period Atlases they also promptly sent and, in tandem with Motzen's federal and state census reports, enabled me to minutely track every single movement of the Jones family in and adjecent to Newark's Yiddish speaking neighborhoods between 1900 and 1930.
In September, after months of fruitless search, I asked the Newark Public Library if there was an obituary of Thomas LaRue Jones which they quickly located in the pages of the Newark Evening News which was not available online, but which they had in microfilm on their shelves. (Disappointingly, the library confirmed that the long missing and critically important full run of the Newark edition of the Yiddish Forverts was, in fact, missing.)
The Newark Evening News notice turned out to be a kind of " Rosetta Stone" obituary, brimming with deep cotextuaI information which I started to track down. A White Pages search revealed that the Woody Funeral Home was still in operation in Roselle, New Jersey though, but not surprisingly, had long ago dumped their records from that era.
Finding LaRue Jones' last known address, I hazarded a chance to look it up on Zillow and, to my amazement, the house still stood and offered— given the context— a rather eerie opportunity to "walk" through the house in which Thomas LaRue Jones died.
Elated at the discovery of the obit, I was poised to share this amazing breakthrough with my fellow researchers when an email from Chaim Motzen provided the "check" and "mate" to my find.
Motzen's email showed that over the preceeding months he had not only located LaRue Jones' grave, but the graves of Jones' father Peter and LaRue's Black vaudeville performer younger brother, Demosthenes ("Demos.") The very nice people at Linden, New Jersey's Rosedale and Rosehill cemetery provided Chaim with a photo of the plot which simultaneously elated and disheartened me: for the grave — in the center of the frame — was unmarked.
Given how much discovering the life and works of Thomas LaRue Jones had uplifted/upended my life and provided me an singular opportunity to shatter the accepted paradigm of African-American and Jewish socio-cultural history, I saw only one solution.
It seems inconceivable to celebrate the now revealed amazing life of this great Black cantor – and, by extension, the nearly dozen other shvartze khazonim — without affording him in death the dignity of a suitable headstone in his final resting place. And so, after reaching out to a local Jewish monument company whose curiosity and pro-active interest has made the task even more possible, I undertook to raise the money to cover both the stone and cemetery costs.
To my astonishment, the modest goal for a footstone was met in 48 hours, so have decided to allow the appeal to remain active beyond its original 7 days with, perhaps, the opportunity to now erect a standard size headstone replete with traditional Ashkenazic funerary carvings and the musical notation to the opening lines of the only Yiddish song LaRue would ever record: "Farlir Nor Nit Dayn Hofning Reb Yid/Don't Give Up Hope Yet, Mister Jew" itself a powerhouse irony given LaRue Jones decades long anonymity and his discovery and celebration in our time.
In either case, this is a satisfyingly fitting side benefit to the exciting research in which I am engaged.
Much more to come.