Situated in a small isolated cemetery, this vernacular headstone is an extraordinary work of African-American folk art. Details indicate the hand of someone with above-average skills in the medium, especially the braided pony tail and the eyes and eyelashes. And though time has been relatively kind to the sculpture, gravity is now its greatest threat. The grave is buckling and, without stabilization, the headstone will likely fall face-forward in the future. At this point, there is no way to definitively determine the maker, but such memorials were often created by a parent or husband.
Very little is known about Mrs. Jones, but her death certificate states that she was a housewife and married to Lonnie Jones. Her father, John McKnight, was born in South Carolina in 1888, and her mother, Amelia ‘Mealie’ Montgomery, born in 1890, was also a native of South Carolina. They were all living in Clinch County in the first decade of the 20th century [this section of Clinch became part of Atkinson County upon its formation in 1917]. Bessie was born in 1908 and was 21 years old at the time of her death from malaria, on 2 November 1929.
I’m grateful to Cynthia Jennings for bringing this treasure to my attention. Cynthia and Mandy Green Yates accompanied me to the cemetery on a recent photo trip. Cynthia notes that she has encountered quite a few difficulties in researching Mrs. Jones’s family but has learned her husband Lonnie was a turpentine laborer, was 20 years older than Bessie, and that she was his second wife. She also notes that some of the McKnight family were in Virginia by the 1930s. She identified the following siblings in Bessie’s family tree: Prince; Mitchell; Lizzie A.; Venis; Varnetta; Hettie; and Maggie McKnight. Hopefully, these clues will lead to more information.