Records are Found That Rewrite History
Well, Steve LaVere has done it again.
Although he has done a lot, Steve is most notably credited with discovering what is believed to be the true final resting place of Robert Johnson. Now he has done it again – in issue #203 of Living Blues Magazine.
In the article, Steve reveals that he has found more never before seen documentation on Robert Johnson. These come in the form of census records, discovered in an unusual area. Seeing Johnson in both the 1920 and 1930 census records is very eye opening, especially to a Johnson scholar.
The information haunting, chilling, and most notably, sheds more light on the man that was Robert Johnson.
Researchers that have looked into Johnson’s life have had some trouble with documentation. From previous documentation gathered on Johnson, mostly from his marriage records and other such items, it appears he may have born before the 1910 Census. However he was never found in any of the 1910 Census records, regardless of the variety of names that were searched under. Also, Johnson’s half sister Carrie always stated that Robert’s mother said he was born May 8, 1911. Since there is no other documentation or witnesses to debunk this information, it is generally accepted as accurate information.
We all know the brief history of good old Robert. About being born out of wedlock, and living with his half sister’s father in Memphis for a short while, before moving back in with his mother and her new husband, Willie “Dusty” Willis.
Well, Steve’s discovery – the 1920 Census Records – show the future bluesman at the ripe age of 7, living under the name of Robert Spencer, with his mother and Mr. Willis in Lucas Township, Crittenden County, Arkansas. The family was enumerated on January 23, 1920 by a W.P. McConnell. Willis’s occupation is listed as “croper” – meaning share cropper. Why is this important?
It is the earliest known documentary evidence of Robert Johnson.
This is also new information, because it was never known that Robert had spent any part of his childhood in Arkansas (we know he did as an adult). This could explain how RObert was so familiar with the area years later. Also important is the discovery of Robert’s age on this document. If he was indeed 7 at the time of his last birthday in May of 1919, that would mean he was born in 1912 – not 1911. But we do know, for a fact, that this is not true – if Robert had been born in 1912, he would have a birth record on file, as Mississippi started registering all births in 1912. What does this mean? That despite this new find, we still cannot verify with any certainty Robert’s birthdate.
It was between 1920 and 1930 that Robert lived on or near the Abbay-Leatherman Plantation near Robinsonville. This is the time he met and married Virginia Travis. This is why Steve’s other discovery – the 1930 Census Records, fills in a huge gap in Johnson’s life.
We know he was married on February 17, 1929 in Penton, MS. His wife Virginia would later die in childbirth on April 10, 1930 in Clack, MS. Her death certificate was the only thing documenting Robert’s life during this time – until this record was found.
Evidence suggests that from childhood until he was married, he stayed close to home. But the 1930 Census Records show us that between April of 1930 and March of 1931, Robert relocated to the Hazlehurst area – some 200 miles away. Steve found this record by cross referencing Robert and Virginia Johnson, living in the same household. Robert and Virginia actually lived with his other half sister Bessie and her husband Granville Hines. Apparently, Robert and Virginia once lived in the area previously known as New Africa.
The community of New Africa no longer exists, but you can still find New Africa Road running due south out of Clarksdale. The 1930 Census Record shows that Robert and Virginia were enumerated on April 11, 1930 in the township of New Africa. Their ages are listed as 18 and 15, and their occupations: ”Farmer” for Robert, and “Laborer” for Virginia. They are both listed as being able to read and write. According to this record, Robert’s age does match his birthdate of May 8, 1911.
So wait – if Virginia died on April 10th, and the enumeration took place on April 11th, how is she on there? Wasn’t she dead? Well, yes.
This sheds new light on the old story of Johnson’s wife and child. Previous reports stated that Virginia’s parents, (Virginia died in childbirth at her parent’s home) were outraged at the fact that Robert was off playing music somewhere, and not there with his wife. Now we know this may not have been the case. If Johnson was indeed a “Farmer” as reported on the Census Records, it is more likely he could not leave his employment to be present for the birth of his child – which would later turn out to be the death of his wife and child. When the enumerator (one Mathile J. Minor) arrived at Robert’s house, Robert – or whomever was there to give the information over to the enumerator – was unaware that Virginia had died, and therefore, she was listed as still alive.
It would seem Robert wasn’t with his wife during the death of her and the child not because he was off playing music, but becuase he was working on a farm in an effort to provide for them both. The fact Robert wasn’t there for the deaths might explain why he was so against farm work and labor for the rest of his life, and why he turned to a lifetime of music, rambling, drinking, and blues.
Steve LaVere should get all credit for this new information. It was published first in Living Blues magazine in issue #203.
Below is the 1920 Census Record showing Robert Johnson, living under the name Robert Spencer, with his mother and step-father in Arkansas. Robert is listed as being 7 years old – this is the earliest documentation of his existence. Please click for a full size view.
Below is the Census Record for Robert Johnson for 1930. This also shows his wife Virginia as living in the same household, in Boliver County. You can click for a full size view.