A group of 20 people, many of them strangers to one another, gathered at Rosedale and Rosehill Cemetery in Linden, New Jersey, on August 29 to pay their respects at the unveiling of the gravestone of Thomas LaRue Jones, a long-forgotten Black cantor who died in 1954.
The life and work of Jones and other Black cantors of the early 20th century was recently rediscovered by musicologist and discographer Henry Sapoznik. Jones was among the favorites of Yiddish theater and cantorial music, performing in Jewish venues and in New York theaters. He also toured Europe more than once in the 1930s.
Reportedly raised in Newark, New Jersey, by a single mother who was drawn to Judaism, the Yiddish-speaking Jones often added the Jewish name Toyve to his billing as der schvartzer khazan (Yiddish for “The Black Cantor”).
Several historical researchers reached out to assist Sapoznik as he reported his findings on Jones and other African-American cantors on his blog. An amateur genealogist named Chaim Motzen took a particular interest in the project, eventually locating Jones’s unmarked grave in a potter’s field.
“Chaim identified the cemetery and introduced me to the people in charge of it,” Sapoznik said.
Sapoznik was shocked to find that someone who had devoted so much to perpetuating Jewish music was buried in an unmarked grave.
“How could I know this and then not make an attempt to rectify the situation?” he said.
In February 2021, Sapoznik launched a crowdfunding effort to raise money to at the very least purchase a plaque or footstone to mark Jones’s grave. Ultimately, $5,000 was donated by 60 people, enabling Sapoznik to arrange for a standard-size vertical headstone to be inscribed and erected.
As a non-relative, Sapoznik had to jump bureaucratic hurdles to mark the grave. Jones has no living blood relatives, but Sapoznik was able to contact a more distant relation and tell her about his plans for memorializing the cantor. The woman, who lives in the southern United States, was unable to attend the unveiling, but Sapoznik said that she was delighted to hear about the project.
Sapoznik was originally planning to commission traditional Jewish iconography for the stone, but decided against this when it could not be definitively determined that Jones was Jewish.
There are historical accounts of Jones having performed at bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings, but not of him officiating at any. He also tutored orphan boys in reading the haftarah (biblical passages chanted liturgically after the conclusion of the Torah reading on Shabbat), and a local historian who attended the unveiling told Sapoznik that he found evidence of Jones’s involvement in a Jewish congregation in Newark as early as 1923.
Although there is a Jewish section at the cemetery, Jones was not buried in it.
Sapoznik decided to honor and commemorate Jones by inscribing his stage name, The Black Cantor, in Yiddish, and by including the musical notation for the first four measures of the chorus of “Farlir Nor Nit Dayn Hoffnung, Reb Yid” (Don’t Give Up Hope, Mr. Jew). This is the A-side of the only surviving audio recording made by Jones. Thus far, Sapoznik has not succeeded in unearthing additional recordings of Jones or any other Black cantor of the era.
The song memorialized on the headstone was composed by Sholom Secunda and written by Isidor Lash in 1920. The lyrics list atrocities committed against Jews throughout history, and encourage Jews not to give up hope.
Sabina Brukner, literary manager of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, made the trip from her home in Manhattan to the cemetery for the unveiling. She donated money toward the purchase of the headstone, and followed Sapoznik’s progress in researching Black cantors by reading his blog and tuning into a related Zoom lecture he gave during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I had never heard anything through my education and Jewish life about Black cantors. I found it really fascinating,” Brukner said.
Brooklynite Jeff Feinberg, a former bandmate of Sapoznik, also attended the unveiling.
“I went to be part of the completion of the project and in support of Henry’s bringing long-past-due respect to this vocalist,” said Feinberg, who assisted Sapoznik with genealogical research.
Brukner said she was grateful to Sapoznik for following the trail piqued by his historical curiosity, and for giving those gathered the opportunity to honor Jones.
“A man who accomplished what he did should have a matzevah,” Brukner said, using the Hebrew and Yiddish word for gravestone.
During the short unveiling ceremony, Sapoznik spoke about Jones’s life and career.
“Henry spoke emotionally, as though Jones was a relative of his,” Brukner said of Sapoznik, whose own father was a cantor.
As moving as Sapoznik’s speech was, he let Jones have the last word. Through a speaker Sapoznik set up, The Black Cantor’s voice rang out over the potter’s field, urging Jews never to give up hope.
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