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Friday, November 23, 2007

Genealogue Challenge #97

Is this the World War I draft registration card of gospel blues pioneer Blind Willie Johnson? Michael Corcoran thinks it's possible.

Johnson’s widow, Angeline Johnson, said that Johnson had been blinded at about age 7 when a girlfriend of Blind Willie’s father threw lye in his face to avenge a beating. In the 1918 document, when Johnson was 21, he says he’d been blind for 13 years.
The death certificate, with information provided by Angeline Johnson, has Blind Willie’s birthdate at Jan 22, 1897; draft card puts it at Jan. 25, 1897. Considering record-keeping of the time, especially among itinerant African Americans, that’s close enough. Death certificate says he was born in Independence, near Brenham; draft card puts his birth at Pendleton, near Temple, which has long been thought of as Blind Willie’s birthplace. Could it be that Angeline said “Pendleton” and the doctor heard “Independence?”
What additional evidence (circumstantial or otherwise) can you find that this document indeed refers to Blind Willie?

Laura

Chris, you point out in your comment on Michael Corcoran's page that in 1913, another African-American singer, Jelly Roll Morton, was living at 906 Fuller Street, the address that Willie Johnson gives on his draft registration. Maybe you found that by searching for the address online; google has a cached page about the career of Ferdinand Joseph "Jelly Roll" Morton, which says he lived there then. It was a boarding house, so quite a few people probably moved in and out.

Blind Willie Johnson seems very difficult to research. (What a name! -- to research, I mean). A couple of leads would be his syphilis (I think there would be public health records) and church records.

The way in which Willie was blinded is so horrible that I wonder whether there might be criminal court records, too.

Chris

Laura, you get credit for being the first to even try this challenge.

I agree that the Fuller Street connection is probably coincidental, but what a cool coincidence!

I found some pretty good information on "Dock Johnson," who is listed on the draft registration card as Willie's father. Geographically, Dock Johnson's birthplace (Valley Mills), his supposed wife Mary Fields' alleged hometown (Moody), and Blind Willie's apparent birthplace (Pendleton) all appear on the same Google map. Willie's later residence, Marlin, is also nearby. The problem comes in finding census records that link Dock to his wife and supposed son. I am 95% convinced that this is Blind Willie's draft card, but a little more proof is needed to clinch the deal.

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