To Honor and Remember – Memorial Day Weekend, 2014

Civil War Monument - Lincoln Memorial Cemetery
Civil War Monument – Lincoln Memorial Cemetery

Saturday morning, seven-thirty a.m., and I was prepared. The flags I’d ordered had been delivered. With boots, DEET, and shovels at the ready, I was headed out to the cemeteries with my father to honor our ancestors. It was Memorial Day Weekend, and we were continuing a long-standing family tradition.

This year, our destinations were the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (ca. 1879), Lincoln Memorial Cemetery (1912), and Grove Baptist Church Cemetery (1849). Focused research for the last seven years has allowed me to trace my paternal roots in Tidewater, Virginia to 1690, and I’ve discovered that our family has relatives buried in cemeteries throughout Hampton Roads. Some cemeteries, while in poor condition, have been relatively easy to find, while others are inaccessible (Government restrictions), have been removed, destroyed, or otherwise desecrated.

I hadn’t planned to write a blog about this day. My goal was to continue working on the applications to nominate the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex to the National Register of Historic Places and the Network to Freedom, my contribution to the growing community-based effort to preserve the historic site where over thirty members of our family tree lie. But as I reviewed the photos I’d taken, and reflected on the experience itself, I began to feel that what we’d done had everything to do with preservation, and memory.

Portsmouth Cemeteries, Google Earth
Grove Baptist Church Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Portsmouth, Virginia. Google Earth

Our first stop was the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, which is comprised of four cemeteries, Mt. Calvary, Mt. Olive, Fishers Hill, and a potter’s/paupers cemetery.  One of my paternal great-great-great-grandfathers, Max Orton,  is buried there, with his second wife, Jerusha Copeland Orton. It is to his grave site that we went first to place a flag in honor of his Naval service, from 1881 to 1902, the year of his death.

Nearby were the grave sites of Willie E. Reid, USN,  and Dempsey Copeland, Civil War veteran. We placed flags for them as well. They are two of the  over one hundred and fifty-nine veterans buried in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, representing every conflict from the Civil War through World War II.

(l-r) Willie Reid, Mess Attendant, USN, 1907-1919; Pvt. Dempsey Copeland, Co. G, 1st Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry, 1863-1866; Max Orton, USN, 1881-1902. Mt. Olive Cemetery
(l-r) Willie E. Reid, Mess Attendant, USN, 1907-1919; Pvt. Dempsey Copeland, Co. G, 1st Regiment,     U. S. Colored Cavalry, 1863-1866; Max Orton, USN, 1881-1902. Mt. Olive Cemetery
Charles Scott, Fireman 1st Class, USN, 1891-1902; Joseph Harris, USN, 1862-1865

As I glanced just beyond the headstones for Willie, Dempsey, and Max, I saw the burial sites of Charles Scott, USN, Spanish American War, and Joseph Harris, USN, Civil War. Joseph L. Harris was born about 1830, Nansemond County (Suffolk), VA, and died about 1901, Portsmouth. Husband to Rachel, he first enlisted with the Union Navy in 1862 at Fort Monroe, and served on the USS Brandywine, a Potomac Class Frigate of the United States Navy. He was discharged at Fort Norfolk in 1865. His grave site is usually half covered with dirt and debris, so we cleaned it off before placing a flag.

Located just to the left of Joseph Harris is veteran Charles Scott. On this Memorial Day Weekend Saturday, I didn’t know much about Mr. Scott, not yet having had the opportunity to study his family. With a little research later that afternoon, I discovered that he was born about 1873, in Heathsville, Virginia, to parents Thomas and Martha Scott, and married Laura Frances Bracy in 1895, Norfolk County, Virginia. From his pension file, I learned that he first enlisted in the US Navy in 1891, and served as a fireman, 1st class aboard the USS Monterey before his death from gastroenteritis in 1902. At the time of his death, he was stationed in Shanghai Municipality, China, and was initially buried there in Bubbling Well Road Cemetery (1898).

According to his headstone application, his wife, Laura Frances Bracy Scott, a Portsmouth native, ordered and received his headstone in 1931, shortly before her own death in 1933. She is buried in Mt. Calvary Cemetery.

Walking in a westerly direction, we stopped at the grave site of Civil War veteran Pvt. Denson Bess, Co. A, 37th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry. I’ve studied Private Bess for a few years, and wanted to clean off his burial site as well. Using a little elbow grease, my father took the shovel he’d been carrying and proceeded to unearth the majority of Pvt. Bess’ grave from the usual cemetery debris trinity of weeds, soil, and old grass clippings. And…a surprise! Located directly underneath Pvt. Bess’ regimental information was the faint inscription of a birth date.

Gravestone of Denson Bess. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, all rights reserved

“Born March 24 1822.” So, he was a March baby, and the year confirmed my earlier estimation of his date of birth. Egging my father on (*wink*), a date of death soon came into view, etched on the very bottom of the headstone. “Died June 6, 1889.” Another confirmation! I’d seen similar engravings on the headstone of one of my ancestors, Cary Lynch, buried in West Point Cemetery, Norfolk, Virginia, but never in Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. Until this point, I’d gotten used to seeing Pvt. Bess’ gravestone surrounded by a sea of grass. Though I’d already secured this vital information about Pvt. Denson Bess from other military records, having the opportunity to see it on his headstone was a nice, personal touch. At times, genealogical research may be academic; we have to be very careful about the information we seek, and exactly how we seek it. “Reasonably exhaustive” research and verifications of data from multiple sources are crucial in finding the right person, in the right place, at the right time. But details such as these, personal engravings from family members, remind me of the often intimate nature of this research. Genealogists and historians don’t just study facts, we study the lives of real people, often those from whom we’re descended. Reflecting on this fact, the inscription, specifically requested by Denson Bess’ widow, Mary White Bess, helped bring to mind an image of how his grave stone may have looked in earlier years. A time when the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex was not a neglected space in Portsmouth, but a living, vibrant institution in the African American community.

Moving on, we soon came across the Baker Family plot. The monument in the plot, vandalized in the 1960s,  honors five generations of the family, beginning with patriarch Seaton Cook, who was born in 1770. The 400-square-foot plot was purchased by Moses H. Baker (1856-1916), Seaton Cook’s grandson, for $21.00 in 1885, sold by the seven members of the “Mount Olive Club,” the founders of Mt. Olive Cemetery.

We placed a flag at the grave site of George Henry Baker, Jr. (1923-1957), a veteran of World War II, grand-nephew of Moses Baker, and great-great-grandson of Seaton Cook. Nearby is the grave site of Fletcher Henry Nichols (1894-1946), onto which we also placed a flag. Fletcher Henry Nichols was a veteran of World War I, and served between 1918 and 1919.

George Henry Baker, Jr., WWII, April-Dec. 1943; Fletcher Henry Nichols, WWI, 1918-1919.
(l-r) George Henry Baker, Jr., WWII, April-Dec. 1943; Fletcher Henry Nichols, WWI, 1918-1919. Mt. Olive Cemetery

Moving closer to the front portion of Mt. Olive, we passed the grave site of Civil War Navy Veteran Ralph Bracy, a relative of Laura Frances Bracy Scott, wife of Charles Scott.

Ralph Bracy, USN, Landsman, 1863-1865
Ralph Bracy, USN, Landsman, 1863-1865. Mt. Olive Cemetery

Ralph Bracy descends from a free family of color  with roots going back to the late 1700s in Virginia Beach (formerly Princess Anne County), Chesapeake (formerly Norfolk County), and parts of Portsmouth, Virginia. Having studied his family for the last few years, he rather feels like an old family friend. We also placed a flag at his grave site.

William A. Tate, Co. D, 6th VA INF, Spanish American War
William A. Tate, Co. D, 6th VA INF, Spanish American War. Mt. Olive Cemetery

The Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex contains ten Spanish American War veterans, and my father and I placed a flag in honor of another veteran of that war, William A. Tate, who served in Company D, 6th Virginia Infantry. He was born about 1870 in Halifax County, North Carolina. He, his wife, Ella Richards Tate, and son Edward, moved from Halifax County, N.C., to the Tidewater area in the late 1890s. Mr. Tate died between 1910 and 1920, and his son Edward passed in 1918. By 1920, Mr. Tate’s widow, Ella, was living at 2509 Effingham St., near the Naval Shipyard. It’s possible she and her son Edward rest in two of the unmarked graves in the William Tate Family plot, and additional details may yet be learned from the presence of an Addenbrook burial vault, provided by J. U. Addenbrook’s Sons, Inc., once described as the “largest and oldest cement firm and concrete burial vault manufacturers of Tidewater Virginia.” By studying the records of the Addenbrook Company, I hope to soon confirm the identities of the people buried in these unmarked graves.

After visiting Mr. William A. Tate, we proceeded over to the Fishers Hill section of the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. Interred here is one of my great-great-grandfathers, Arthur Lysander Orton Sr. (1873-1918), a nephew of my great-great-great grandfather, Max Orton. Also a Navy veteran, Arthur Lysander Sr. served on the U. S. Receiving Ship Franklin for a number of years with Max. He rests alongside a fellow Navy veteran, Aloy Robichaw (1880-1918). A native of Texas, Aloy enlisted in 1915, in New York, and served on the U.S.S. Olympia as a cabin cook prior to his death in 1918.

Arthur Lysander Orton, USN, U. S. Receiving Ship Franklin; Aloy Robichaw, USN, Cabin Cook, 1915-1918
(l-r) Arthur Lysander Orton, USN, U. S. Receiving Ship Franklin; Aloy Robichaw, USN, Cabin Cook, 1915-1918. Fishers Cemetery.

I’d originally planned to visit the cemeteries with a mind to honor our ancestors, but upon our arrival, the sheer presence of all of the veterans’ gravesites reminded me of their communal service, sacrifice, and valor. They lived, worked, and passed in the same place as my ancestors. Members of the same progressive community, they were friends, and neighbors. I desired to honor them as well, and their families, but found myself running low on flags. So, upon reaching Arthur’s grave site, I didn’t think he would mind my placement of a flag between his and Aloy’s grave sites, to honor both of them for their fortitude, not just in the service, but in life.

Near the front of Mt. Calvary Cemetery, which is adjacent to Fishers Cemetery, is the grave site of Corporal George Baysmore.

Cpl. George Baysmore - Co. H, 36th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, 1863-1866.
Cpl. George Baysmore – Co. H, 36th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, 1863-1866. Mt. Calvary Cemetery

Born about 1835 in Bertie County, North Carolina, Cpl. Baysmore was a member of Company H, 36th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry. He enlisted on July 13, 1863, at Plymouth, North Carolina, and was promoted to Corporal on May 26, 1864. Cpl. Baysmore convalesced at the regimental hospital at Fort Monroe from September 29, 1864 to the end of the war, due to injuries sustained from two gunshot wounds received in battle at Deep Bottom, Virginia. He is related by marriage to the Magee and Faulcon families, of Southampton County, Virginia, and Halifax County, North Carolina, respectively. Various members of these families are also buried in Mt. Calvary and Mt. Olive Cemetery.

Raymond Roger Proctor, WWI, 1917-1919; Pvt. Nelson Proctor, Co. C, 2nd Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, 1863-1866
(l-r) Raymond Roger Proctor, WWI, 1917-1919; Pvt. Nelson Proctor, Co. C, 2nd Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, 1863-1866. Mt. Calvary Cemetery

I wrote about Civil War Veteran and Reconstruction-Era City Councilman Pvt. Nelson Proctor, Co. C, 2nd Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, in an earlier blog. Also buried in the family plot in Mt. Calvary Cemetery are his son, Joseph Frank Proctor (1871-1936), daughter-in-law, Lucy Thomas Proctor (1873-1941), and grandson, Raymond Roger Proctor (1889-1960), veteran of World War I. Raymond Roger Proctor supplied the gravestone for his parents. The inscription reads: “Erected in loving remembrance by son R. R. Proctor.”

Andrew Nicholson, Chief Water Tender, USN, 1889-1921; (rear) John Lemuel Jones, Ship's Cook USN, 1898-1899, Spanish American War
(foreground) Andrew Nicholson, Chief Water Tender, USN, 1889-1921; (rear) John Lemuel Jones, Ship’s Cook USN, 1898-1899, Spanish American War. Mt. Calvary Cemetery

Other veterans that we stopped to honor before leaving the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex were Andrew Nicholson (1867-1939), USN, Chief Water Tender, and John Lemuel Jones (abt. 1878-1938), USN, Ship’s Cook, Spanish American War. Andrew Nicholson was born in Portsmouth to William and Kate Nicholson, and John Lemuel Jones hailed from Harrellsville, Hertford County, North Carolina, the son of Lemuel and Julia Jones.

Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Portsmouth.
Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Portsmouth.

Our second stop on our Memorial Day Weekend journey was Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. When we arrived, we saw several families already attending to their family plots, with brooms, spades, and flowers in hand. They were maintaining a tradition set from the first Decoration Day, a long-standing custom to honor those that came before us. How many of my generation remember the famous Cosby Show episode in 1986, where Clair Huxtable (portrayed by actress Phylicia Ayers-Allen Rashad) was determined to purchase and preserve Ellis Wilson’s “Funeral Procession?” From the positive publicity, many African American homes came to host copies of this painting. Our family has one too. But why, exactly? Because the painting was on television, or because it reminded us, our community, of what we have always done, part of our heritage? In respecting our ancestors, and honoring their memories. Thanking them for the hard-won paths they have cleared for us.

To help clean their family plot at Lincoln, one family had an edger (mental note: bring an edger on the next cemetery visit.) We couldn’t help but overhear the conversation of another family that we saw last year on Memorial Day at the cemetery, discussing “who-married-who,” and “No, remember great-grandma so-and-so was from Carolina,” along with other family history tidbits while they were cleaning off their ancestors’ graves. A growing number of people say that cemeteries are for the living, a way to connect our current reality to our ancestry, to know who we are, and where we come from. In this way, cemeteries are institutions that, like churches, function as anchors to place, community, and memory. It was no less true on this day, that Saturday before the Memorial Day holiday, hearing snatches of conversations from other families, and pointing out certain ancestors’ grave sites to my father. A present, and timely, reminder of the importance and preservation of these sacred spaces.

James Edward Orton, WWI, with wife Florence Virginia Hall Orton and her family
(l-r) James Edward Orton, WWI, with wife Florence Virginia Hall Orton and her family. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery

The grave site of my great-granduncle and World War I veteran, James Edward Orton (1896-1970), is near this particular family, and I have it firmly in mind to tactfully introduce myself during the next Memorial Day Weekend. This time, however, my father and I busied ourselves cleaning James’ grave site, and those of his second wife, Florence Virginia Hall Orton (1900-1949), her mother Rosa L. Wiggins Hall (abt. 1877-1956), sister Olive L. Hall, and two other family members. A funeral was being held near the front of Lincoln Memorial, so my father and I (and the other families) respectfully kept our distance until the conclusion of the ceremony. Lincoln Memorial, though nearing capacity, is still an active cemetery, unlike the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. Closed by the city since the 1960s, Portsmouth may soon be taking steps to re-open the historic cemetery complex to new burials.

While we were attending to James, Florence, and the other Hall family members, an older woman walked past, and carefully made her way up the slight hill near the rear of Lincoln Memorial. On her way back, we looked up to greet her and say “hello”; she smiled and waved back. At this point, she came closer, frowned, and pointed to the area she’d just left. She told us about the state of some of the graves in that section. “Do you know that there are graves under water back there? In the trees? It just makes me so mad to see that!” We told her we definitely understood the sentiment. Her smile reappearing, she wished us a blessed day, waved her goodbye, and made her way to her car.

Flooded grave sites, Lincoln Memorial Cemetery
Flooded grave sites, Lincoln Memorial Cemetery

The photo above depicts some of the flooded graves on that Saturday, Memorial Day Weekend, 2014. However, I’d seen various grave sites and entire sections of Lincoln Memorial under water in previous years. Examples are pictured below.

Flooding in Lincoln Memorial, 2012
Flooding in Lincoln Memorial, 2012
Leonard Walker (Korea), William McKentry (Vietnam)
Close-up of the flooded gravesites of Korean War veteran Leonard Walker and Vietnam War veteran William McKentry, Lincoln Memorial, 2012
Flooded gravesites, Lincoln Memorial, 2012
Flooded gravesites, Lincoln Memorial, 2012

On this Memorial Day Weekend, after finishing the cleaning of James and Florence Orton’s graves, my father and I went to check the area that had been pointed out. We saw the flooded grave sites, as well as the headstones in the trees.

Overgrown grave sites, Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, Portsmouth, Va.
Overgrown grave sites, Lincoln Memorial Cemetery.

One gravestone in that overgrown section read “Phillip Francis, At Rest”. We could see the path that the ride mowers usually take during maintenance of the cemetery. However, we could also see tips of gravestones in the weeds that remained untouched.

Paths taken in and around overgrowth by ride mowers, Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Portsmouth, Va.
Paths taken in and around overgrowth by ride mowers, Lincoln Memorial Cemetery.

One headstone closest to us was of military issue, and my father used a shovel to pry back some of the grass and weeds. It appeared to be the grave stone of Alexander Gatling (1914-1960). After a little research, I discovered that Alexander Gatling was born in Reynoldson, Gates County, North Carolina, to Charles and Jennie Gatling. Alexander’s grandparents, Stepney and Caroline Cross Gatling, were married in 1866, and died in Reynoldson, Gates County.

Alexander Gatling, US Army, 1942-1944. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, Portsmouth, Va.
Gravestone of Alexander Gatling, WWII, 1942-1944. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery
Marriage certificate of Stepney and Caroline Gatling, 1866, Gates County, NC
Marriage bond of Stepney and Caroline Gatling, 1866, Gates County, NC.

Many members of the Gatling clan lived out their lives and died in the Roduco/Reynoldson area of Gates County, and Ahoskie, Hertford County, North Carolina. A few other members moved north to Portsmouth, and are buried in Lincoln Memorial and Roosevelt Memorial Park in Chesapeake. Their descendants continue to live in the Tidewater areas of Virginia and North Carolina. The current state of Alexander Gatling’s grave site led my father and I to wonder how many other grave sites, and by extension, family histories, are currently hidden by the overgrowth.

Pvt. Lewis Rogers - Co. G, 28th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry. June-November, 1865.
Pvt. Lewis Rogers – Co. G, 28th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, 1864-1865. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery

Located near to where Alexander Gatling rests is the gravestone of Sgt. Lewis Rogers, Company G, 28th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry. Also hailing from Gates County, North Carolina, Sgt. Rogers was born there about 1845. He enlisted on June 5, 1864, at White House, New Kent County, Virginia, near the Pamunkey River, and was appointed Sergeant on July 1, 1864. He was discharged on November 8, 1865, at Corpus Christi, Texas. Upon his return to Portsmouth, he married Jennie (surname unknown), and was the father to four children, Cornelius, Alexander, Mary, and Richard. He died in 1884, the inaugural year of the Portsmouth Memorial Day Parade, and was originally buried in the area that is now Truxtun, the historic neighborhood that recently celebrated its 95th anniversary. Lewis Rogers’ grave was relocated to Lincoln during the construction of Truxtun in 1918.

One of Lewis Rogers’ sons, Richard Rodgers (1880-1951), was the owner/operator of Rogers Funeral Home, once located at 2600 Deep Creek Blvd. Richard Rogers is buried in Mt. Calvary Cemetery. His obituary in the December 8, 1951 edition of the New Journal and Guide noted him as a “veteran Portsmouth mortician” and “highly respected churchman and fraternal man.”

Rogers Funeral Home, 2012; Google Maps
Former Rogers Funeral Home – Portsmouth, Va. 2012; Google Maps
Rogers Funeral Home ad, 1973. New Journal and Guide.
Rogers Funeral Home ad, 1973. New Journal and Guide.

Moving to other areas of Lincoln Memorial, we visited the grave site of my paternal grandaunt, Philgrador Rachel Orton Duke (1923-2007), and her husband, Arthur J. Duke (1921-1970). Two of their children, my cousins Lycresia Vernell Duke, and Belvedere Sanita Duke Andrews, the family griot, rest just behind and to the side of them.

Arthur and Philgrador Orton Duke. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery.

I’ll always credit “Aunt Phil” as the person who set me on my genealogical journey. She married Arthur Josiah Duke, World War II veteran, in 1940, Portsmouth, Virginia. Arthur Josiah Duke’s roots extend to Isle of Wight and Nansemond County (Suffolk) Virginia.

Arthur L. Orton, Jr. WWI, 1918-1919, wife Annie Cherry Drew Orton, Melvin Mitchell. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, Portsmouth, Va.
Arthur L. Orton, Jr. WWI, 1918-1919, wife Annie Cherry Drew Orton, Melvin Mitchell. Headstones displaced by repeated bouts of flooding in the cemetery. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery.

In part keeping with grandaunt Phil’s wishes to preserve our family history, on this Memorial Day, I was determined to find the grave site of a long-lost great-granduncle, Arthur L. Orton, Jr. (1894-1953). Known to some of my paternal uncles as “Uncle Jack,” he was a son of my great-great-grandfather, Arthur L. Orton, Sr. (1873-1918), who we’d just visited in Fishers Hill Cemetery. Arthur “Jack” Jr. was a veteran of World War I, like his younger brother James Edward Orton, also buried in Lincoln Memorial.

With some luck (and a map), we did find him. Arthur is buried next to his wife, Annie Cherry Drew Orton (1893-1950), who is related to members of the Drew Family in Mt. Olive Cemetery, and Annie’s son by her first husband (Leroy Mitchell), Melvin Mitchell.

Arthur and Annie were well-known in Portmouth’s African American community. Both members of historic Emanuel AME, their deaths came as a shock not only to our family, but friends and neighbors. Their obituaries in the New Journal and Guide note the “impressive rites” held for both at Emanuel AME. There is a long tradition of railroad workers and Pullman Porters in our family tree, and Arthur Jr. was a part of that history, an employee of the Seaboard Airline Railroad Company for many years. My paternal grandfather, Horace L. Orton, Sr., WWII veteran, was also a Pullman Porter, and one of my uncles, Ronnie Anthony Orton, also a veteran, who recently passed in 2012, had a career with the railroad. They are both buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Richmond, Va.

Arthur “Jack” Jr.’s obituary notes that several officials from the company were in attendance at his funeral. Some of the active pallbearers that carried Arthur’s “flag-draped casket” included Isaac Churchill, and David L. Muckle. In addition to his many fraternal affiliations and civic accomplishments in Portsmouth, David L. Muckle is also significant in that his burial at Olive Branch Cemetery in January, 1976, represented the first official act of integration for Portsmouth City public cemeteries, in essence, breaking the color line of city spaces that had been segregated up until and through 1975.

Arthur "Jack" Orton Obit, 1953 - New Journal and Guide
Arthur “Jack” Orton Obituary – 1953, New Journal and Guide
Annie Drew Orton Obituary, 1950. New Journal and Guide
Annie Drew Orton Obituary – 1950, New Journal and Guide

Although happy to find Arthur’s grave site, it bore evidence of some of the repeated flooding that plagues Lincoln Memorial. The same type of consistent flooding that was pointed out to us earlier by the elderly visitor. Not much has ever been done structurally to alleviate this problem. Arthur’s gravestone had been simply lifted by the waters over the years and shifted to the left, to his wife Annie’s grave. Annie’s headstone now rests slightly on her son Mitchell’s grave site. We removed a lot of sediment that covered the plot, and noted it as a future project to correct, but our family is hardly alone in having ancestral grave sites damaged by flood waters.

William "Billy" Grogan and wife Alice. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Portsmouth, Va.
William “Billy” Grogan and wife Alice. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery.

After the visit to Arthur “Jack” Orton’s grave site, I spotted William M. “Billy” Grogan and his wife, Alice Mullen Grogan. William M. Grogan was born in 1870, Winston-Salem, Forsyth County, North Carolina, son of Burwell and Jane Grogan. A prominent businessman and undertaker, he purchased Fishers Hill Cemetery from the Fisher Family in 1919. His mother, Jane, died in 1915 and is buried in Mt. Olive Cemetery. William was also the proud owner of Grogan Hall, a multi purpose, three-story building that once stood at 823 Lincoln Street before its demolition in 1967. Journalist Harvey Johnson, Jr., wrote a piece on Grogan Hall in his column “The View from Tidewater” in the March 4th, 1967 edition of the New Journal and Guide.

William M. "Billy" Grogan - Lincoln Memorial Cemetery.
William M. “Billy” Grogan – Lincoln Memorial Cemetery.

A former employee of William Grogan, Mr. Johnson described Grogan Hall as a “narrow 3-story structure which…housed the Grogan Funeral Home on the first floor, lodge meeting rooms on the second and the big ballroom-auditorium at the top of the stairs.” The Sons of Virginia, established in 1928, met regularly in the lodge meeting rooms above the funeral home.

Mr. Johnson went on in the article to state that “the late William M. Grogan was a successful businessman and undertaker and that building was his prized possession. It belonged to no lodge or insurance company. It was his very own and had been built to his personal specifications. And he had spent his good years there faithfully operating his establishment and never failed to lend a helping hand to his fellowman…

He never ordered anyone to do anything. He always requested; never failed to say ‘please’ and never forgot to say ‘thank you’. And it may well be true that the possession of these qualities helped make possible for him the possession of that building.

Well—the Grogan Building is no more. Attacked by a squad of bulldozers the other day it braced, then lurched, then leaned, finally toppled and collapsed into a heap of rubble and was carted away in trucks. The same as had happened to the man himself more than two decades ago after a valiant and long bout with the ravages of age and illness.

So if you’re planning a trip home to Tidewater and to Portsmouth in particular—don’t bother to look for Grogan’s Hall where you once met your friends and tripped to the music of the big bands in yesteryear. That’s all gone now and in time will pass from memory.” To members of the current generation, let’s hope not!

With the funeral having concluded, my father and I thought it an appropriate time to pay respects to the many members of the United States Colored Troops from Virginia and North Carolina who once lived in and around Portsmouth, at the memorial erected in their honor near the front of Lincoln Memorial. Completed in the early 1920s, it was built by members of the Silas Fellows Post No. 7, Grand Army of the Republic. The members of this historic post are buried in Mt. Olive, Mt. Calvary, and Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. My study of the post membership for the past few years has yielded much information about their service, families, and lives, that I intend to share in future writings.

Civil War Monument, Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Portsmouth, Va.
Civil War Monument, Lincoln Memorial Cemetery.
Civil War Monument, 1917. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Portsmouth, Va.
Civil War Monument, 1917. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery.

One particular quote from the monument is especially stirring. It reads: “In loving remembrance of the men who in the darkest hour of slavery kept alive in their souls a love of manhood rights justice and the unity of the United States of America.” This year marked the first where we were able to place flags at the monument; we hope to join with other groups who’d like to pay their respects in similar fashion in the years to come.

Civil War Monument, Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Portsmouth, Va.
Civil War Monument, Lincoln Memorial Cemetery.

Our last stop before returning home was the graveyard of Grove Baptist Church, in the Churchland area of Portsmouth, Virginia. I first visited the graveyard in 2010, searching for information on my great-great-great-grandfather, Alexander Orton (1843-1918), an elder brother of Max Orton (Mt. Olive Cemetery). A member of Company E, 10th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, Alexander was a trustee of Grove Baptist Church from 1898 through 1911.

Alexander Orton, Grove Baptist Church Cemetery, Portsmouth
Pvt. Alexander Orton – Co. E, 10th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry; 1863-1866. Grove Baptist Church.

I’ll never forget the day when our family discovered him. We were living in Richmond, Virginia, at the time, and visited the area once a month to help care for the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, and to pursue research into our family tree. On a humid and rainy afternoon, the caretaker of the graveyard showed us a cemetery map in his office, and there it was, my ancestor’s name, “Alexander Orton,” his gravesite represented by a neat square on the map. The power of a small mark drawn on a piece of paper, pinned to a wall. I’d feared we might never find him, as Alexander had moved to different sections of Suffolk and Portsmouth between 1870 and 1910. The very same areas that had been completely distorted, torn up, and forever altered due to the construction of the Interstate in the 1970s. Hearing our description of where Alexander had once lived, long-time residents of Portsmouth and Suffolk warned us about the cemeteries and burial sites that had been destroyed and/or removed, hoping to spare us some disappointment. “Well,” I told myself, not willing to give up hope, “he was once a member of Grove Baptist Church, maybe I’ll find something there.” And indeed we did, so on that day, I was understandably more than a little excited to see his name on the cemetery map. Like, giddy excited. I hadn’t realized I’d yelped out loud; the caretaker thought I’d seen a bug or something. Venturing out amongst the legendary Churchland mosquito population, I happily took pictures of Alexander’s gravestone with a camera in one hand, and an umbrella in the other, while my mother spoke with the caretaker. Mosquitoes seem to cross state lines to find me, so I received more than a few bites, but I cared so little about that then. Those initial headstone photos were blurry, what with the rain and wind; apparently, I’m not much of a one-handed picture taker. But they were oddly beautiful in their imperfection. This was my ancestor, and I was connecting the dots, our legacy, a little bit at a time. We’d found him.

Pvt. Isaac Berry – Co. F, 10th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, 1864-1866. Grove Baptist Church.

In my excitement, I failed to notice the other Civil War veterans resting near Alexander in the graveyard that day. These were some of the men with whom he’d worked and attended church; members of his community in Churchland, part of the former “Western Branch District” of Norfolk County. While visiting courthouses in Portsmouth, Chesapeake, and Suffolk over the years, looking for deeds and other documents with Alexander’s name, I’d seen their names too. Who were these men?, I wondered.

Subsequent research over the years has allowed me to know them, getting the history behind the names, as it were. One of the veterans is Pvt. Isaac Berry, native of Virginia, and member of the 10th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry. He is buried near his wife Frances, who passed in 1914.

Frances, wife of Isaac Berry. Grove Baptist Church

Two other veterans are Pvt. George Elliott, of Co. G, 10th U. S. Colored Infantry, and Sgt. William Thomas Pitt, of Co. K, 1st Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry. Pvt. Elliott, born along Craney Island Creek, enlisted as a free man on December 9, 1863, at Craney Island. William Thomas Pitt, also freeborn in Nansemond County (Suffolk), enlisted on December 14, 1863, at Norfolk, Virginia. They were both discharged in 1866; George Elliott at Galveston, TX, on May 17th, and William T. Pitt on February 4th at Brazos Santiago, Texas.

(l-r) Pvt. George Elliott – Co. G, 10th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, 1863-1866; Sgt. William T. Pitt – Co. K, 1st Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry, 1863-1866. Grove Baptist Church.

The other Civil War veterans in the graveyard of Grove Baptist Church are:

  • Pvt. Madison McClenny, Co. F, 10th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry
  • Cpl. William H. Simmons, Co. G, 10th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry
  • Sgt. Daniel Wright, Co. G, 10th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry.
Civil War Veterans, Grove Baptist Church. Portsmouth, Va.
Civil War Veterans, Grove Baptist Church.

Cheryl Janifer LaRoche, in her recent book, Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad, The Geography of Resistance, had this to say about the presence of U. S. Colored Troop burials in African American cemeteries:

U. S. Colored Troops graves point to the consistent dedication to freedom of the residents. To this day, cemeteries containing the graves of family members interspersed with the graves of Civil War veterans, Colored Troops, or Infantrymen, remind the nation that the Civil War came at the end of a long line of strategies for freedom…Nothing is more emblematic of the free Black community’s commitment to freedom and equality than the Civil War graves and markers that stand as centurions, often the sole reminders in the landscape of the communities that came together to take a stand for the promise of America–freedom, equality, and democratic self-determination.

Prior to 1865, some of my ancestors were enslaved, while others were freeborn. Those that are buried with them in the cemeteries have similar ancestry. Their collective history is entwined with the very birth of the United States, still grappling with the legacy of slavery. Why should we remember them? Why is it so important to preserve and honor these sites? In studying my family tree, and the genealogy of dozens of other families I’ve encountered along the way, these sacred spaces are often the last remnant of their existence. I’m not sure I would know my ancestry as much as I do without these historic markers. But they are physical reminders, that bear witness to the passage of time and can simply vanish, as with the Interstate construction of the 1970s that left its mark on Hampton Roads. Without the presence of the headstones, history itself may be lost. I see the fragility of this history every time I visit the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, with the caved-in graves, faded markers, and soggy ground. I feel the sentiment of our elderly friend at Lincoln Memorial when I see gravestones sinking, or peeking out from behind poison ivy, trees, or garbage. Although security is necessary, I feel an acute disappointment when barred access to a cemetery surrounded by a military base. Journalist Harvey Johnson, Jr., worried about this type of historical disconnect with the demolition of Grogan Hall, a fate shared by many tangible reminders of a people’s history that is not always equally shared.

How do we remember? We visit, we pay homage. We collect oral histories from our community elders. We fight to preserve our cemeteries, doing God’s work in speaking for those that can no longer speak for themselves. If, when you visit these hallowed grounds, and listen carefully, might one hear our ancestors say, “we were here?” Remember. I am here…we are all here, because they were here. Remember.

6 thoughts on “To Honor and Remember – Memorial Day Weekend, 2014

  1. I found great comfort knowing you did this for them. I’m sure they are saying Thank You for remembering us. Great and Heartwarming Nadia. Very sweet and kind what you did. Makes me want to keep stopping every time I see a Black Cemetery. God Keep You for doing this.

  2. As long as we have people like you these ancestors will never be forgotten. You are telling their story so they will live on and add to the fabric of our lives.

  3. This is such a helpful blog to so many who live in the area around those cemeteries. I man so glad that you continue to do this work and even more delighted that now you are writing about it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s