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
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 gravemarkers, 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 gravemarkers, less than 20 visible. The three gravemarkers 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 gravemarker 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 gravemarkers 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 gravemarkers 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’ gravemarkers 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.