“Willis Fleming, Died 18 1935; Age 70 At Res” reads the worn inscription on a small cement marker in Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Portsmouth, Va. The historic cemetery contains gravestones of various materials, and some, such as the headstone for Mr. Fleming, are handmade.
Mr. Fleming was born on April 25, 1865, in Manson, Nutbush Township, Warren County, N.C., about five weeks before the end of the Civil War. The son of Phillip Fleming and Charity Mayfield, he was the sixth of nine children. Phillip and Charity were married on July 28, 1866, about four months after the North Carolina General Assembly legalized the marriages of the formerly enslaved.
Willis lost his mother Charity sometime in the early 1870s. His father, Phillip Fleming then married Frances Vanlandingham (1842-1920), daughter of Dawson Vanlandingham and Hulda, on January 25, 1872, in Warren County, North Carolina.
Working primarily as farm laborers, the family remained in Nutbush from the 1870s through the 1880s. Willis married Almeda Vanlandingham, daughter of George and Delia Vanlandingham, on December 29, 1886, in neighboring Henderson, Vance County, North Carolina. Phillip, his second wife Frances, and newlyweds Willis and Almeda moved to the Tidewater area by 1890. The family patriarch, Phillip Fleming, died on September 2, 1896, in the Western Branch District of the former Norfolk County, near Churchland.
By 1900, Willis and Almeda were documented in the Western Branch/West Norfolk area of Portsmouth, Virginia. Almeda V. Fleming died in the early 1900s (burial site unknown). Willis married Mary (surname unknown) soon thereafter. In 1910, the couple was documented in Western Branch District, where they would make their home for the next twenty-five years. Mary worked primarily as a laundress for private families, and Willis worked for the Virginia Smelting Company (later Virginia Chemicals, Inc.), located in the West Norfolk area of Portsmouth.
Willis Fleming died on September 18, 1935. His burial took place on September 22, 1935, and the Fisher Funeral Home, under the direction of John T. Fisher, handled the arrangements. Willis’ funeral was held at First Baptist Church, West Norfolk, established in 1889.
Willis Fleming’s obituary ran in the September 28, 1935 edition of the Norfolk Journal and Guide, one of nation’s leading African American newspapers during this period, under the stewardship of long-time publisher and editor Plummer Bernard Young, Sr. P. B. Young, Sr., is buried in Norfolk’s Calvary Cemetery.
Last Rites for Willis Fleming Held Sunday
Funeral services for Willis Fleming, of West Norfolk, who died suddenly at his residence early last Wednesday morning were held at the First Baptist Church, West Norfolk, Sunday afternoon with Rev. J. M. Douglas officiating, assisted by the Revs. W. H. Deberry, J. H. Hopkins and C. W. Logan.
The deceased had been an employee of the Virginia Smelting Co., of West Norfolk, for over 35 years where he held the friendship of fellow employees of both races. Charles W. Johnson, an official of the company spoke with high regard for the life of the veteran worker. There were also other white friends of the deceased attending the rites. There were several floral designs from his fellow workmen.
The funeral program included a duet by Mesdames Lula Wallace and Matilda Lewis; solos were sung by Mesdames Mary Bin, Gertie Elliott, Georgia Barnes, Eliza Randall and Josephine Wright; also Luke Sykes.
Active pallbearers were Lee Paschall, Theodore Adams, John Lassiter, Augustus Cherry, Fletcher Robertson, and Edward Hardy. Honorary pallbearers were Alex Wheeler, J. S. Thompson, L. D. Dickens, Peter Perry, Wesley Hill, J. H. Hollomon.
Mr. Fleming is survived by his widow, Mrs. Mary Fleming, and a son, Walter Fleming. Interment was in Mt. Calvary Cemetery. Funeral arrangements were under the direction of the Fisher Funeral Home.
Although rough in appearance, we cannot judge the family by the type of gravestone placed in honor of Willis Fleming. The Great Depression affected countless households around the country; economic realities likely affected the choice of gravemarker. The headstone was fashioned from a wooden mold, and set around a metal support of some kind. Ironically, the metal meant to support and protect the stone has caused the concrete to crack in several places, hastening the need for immediate preservation before Willis’ grave marker becomes completely illegible or disappears.
Unlike other handmade monuments to the deceased made of cement or wood, Willis Fleming’s headstone has stood the test of time and the elements. A fortunate thing, allowing us to remember and honor a hard-working, well-esteemed North Carolina native, and resident of Portsmouth, Virginia.