Portsmouth, Virginia: Mystery of the orphan gravestone

Simon Leach Gravestone Portsmouth Va
The gravestone of Simon Leach? Mt. Olive Cemetery, Portsmouth, Virginia

In the rear portion of Mt. Olive Cemetery lies a broken headstone. Propped up against a tree, amidst other gravestone fragments, it is an “orphan;” misplaced due to flooding, vandalism, and neglect in the historic cemetery. At one point, it marked the burial site of a Portsmouth resident, a tangible remnant of a life lived in Tidewater, Virginia. Now, it its current condition, the stone offers few clues as to who this person was, or where they came from…a family legacy interrupted.

I’ve passed this stone on many occasions since 2007, seeking to learn every story this cemetery has to teach. Initially visiting the site to learn about my own family history, the scope of my research has broadened to include the cemetery in its entirety, ultimately an effort to nominate it to the National Register of Historic Places.

In learning my ancestors’ stories, I came to value the histories of their neighbors, members of the same community in which my ancestors once lived. They were not directly related to me, but had so much in common with the people who were a part of my lineage. They faced the same hardships, had the same dreams, and fought for the same rights that were once denied them during slavery and the Jim Crow South. In this way, the stories of genetic strangers became my own. I’ve come to learn that many of them are buried in the same cemeteries as my ancestors, and this broken headstone was a part of that history. All of their stories are worthy of being told, and preserved for future generations. Therefore I wondered: what was the name on the stone? Once upon a time, a headstone was purchased (or commissioned) and placed in Mt. Olive Cemetery, for the dearly departed. Who was this person?

Gravestones, and the cemeteries in which they lie, are an invaluable aspect of genealogical study, the process of identifying our ancestors. Sometimes, these sites are the last remaining clues that we have to their existence. So often in my research, I’ve found that each stone encountered in a cemetery is a something of a book, a link to a veritable biography of the person for whom the headstone was placed. However, any story that this particular stone fragment in Mt. Olive could relay was impossible without knowing the name.

A few things may be learned from a scientific study of the fragment. For one, the type of stone, which in this case is cement, one of the various headstone materials to be found in the cemetery. We also know the general location of the stone. Although it is propped up against a tree, possibly by a volunteer or maintenance crew, it is located in Mt. Olive Cemetery. So far, I have found few stones that have migrated more than ten to fifteen feet in the cemetery complex.

But what of the most pertinent question: who is it? From what I could see in my initial assessment, there were a few clues:

(1) the given name is Simon;

(2) the last name begins with the letters L-E-(possibly) A;

(3) possible date of birth January 27 (year unknown);

(4) possible date of death September 25 (year unknown);

The rest of his gravestone has not been found, so for identification purposes, I only had these initial clues to use.

To begin, I first looked through the database that I’ve compiled over the last four years, using a combination of death certificates, obituaries, and extant burial permits, of any and all persons that are buried in the cemetery. Most of the funeral homes that arranged the burials have gone out of business or have shut down.

Not seeing any “Simons” that matched the information from the gravestone fragment, I then turned to U. S. Federal Census Records and World War I Draft Registrations. The gravestone was present amongst burials dated between 1900 and 1940, and seemed more representative of that period than not. Perhaps this was the right era?

A generic search on Ancestry.com for a “Simon Lea?” produced multiple results, but only one in the Portsmouth area. In 1910, there was a “Simon Leach”, aged 24, of North Carolina, lodger, living in the home of Simon Battle (also a North Carolina native) and family on Griffin Street in Portsmouth’s 3rd Ward.

1910 Census, Simon Leach. Portsmouth, Va.
1910 Census, Simon Leach. Portsmouth, Virginia. Ancestry.com

A World War I Draft Registration Card notes a Simon Leach in Portsmouth, who registered on June 5, 1917. His residence is listed as 630 Griffin Street, born January 27, 1887, and place of birth Pittsboro, Chatham County, North Carolina. At the time, he worked as a janitor for the Seaboard Airline Railroad, was a single man, and signed his own name on the draft card. January 27 is the same month and day noted on the gravestone fragment in Mt. Olive Cemetery.

Simon Leach WWI Draft Card. 1917, Portsmouth Va.
Simon Leach WWI Draft Registration. 1917, Portsmouth, Virginia. Ancestry.com

By 1920, this Simon Leach is recorded in Portsmouth’s Jefferson Ward, on Green Street, along with wife Mabel, of Virginia, and Junius McClenny. Who was Mabel? Was she related to Junius McClenny? The couple was listed as two “lodgers” in the home on the 1920 Census.

1920 Census Simon Leach
1920 Census, Simon and Mabel Leach, Portsmouth, Va. Ancestry.com

Mabel wasn’t necessarily related to Junius McClenny, especially listed as a “lodger” in the census record. A review of the 1920 Portsmouth Census will produce thousands of African Americans listed as “lodgers” in various homes. There was a shortage of available housing for African Americans in Portsmouth during this period. Author Terry L. Jones mentions in Readings in Black and White: Lower Tidewater Virginia, that “the Norfolk Naval Shipyard located in Portsmouth has always played a significant role in the fluctuations of the population and economy of the city. Largely as a result of World War I, Portsmouth’s population grew from 33,190 in 1910 to 54,387 in 1920” (Jones, 55). To help address this need for housing, the historic neighborhood of Truxtun was developed and officially opened in 1919, and many African American Portsmouth homeowners rented out available rooms to those in need, a sometimes necessary move to help supplement their own income.

By 1930, the same Simon Leach is documented with wife Mabel, and children Charles T., Leonidas, Albert, and Edna, living on Griffin Street, just five houses down the street from my grandfather Horace L. Orton.

Simon Leach 1930 Census Portsmouth Va.
1930 Census. Simon Leach and family. Ancestry.com

Was this the right Simon? Where did Mabel come from?

To determine Mabel’s maiden name, I looked to marriage records. I did not see any marriages between  Simon Leach and Mabel in Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Suffolk, or Virginia Beach. However, there is a marriage recorded between a Simon Leach and a Mabel Fisher…in Chatham County, North Carolina. Mabel Fisher’s name was familiar. Where had I seen it? And Simon. The census records of 1910, 1920, and 1930, note his place of birth as North Carolina. The World War I Draft Card for Simon lists his place of birth as Pittsboro, the county seat of Chatham County. Did Simon go back to his home county in North Carolina to get married?

On September 4, 1918, in Centre (Center) Township, Chatham County, North Carolina, Simon Leach married Mabel Fisher, twenty-four years of age (born about 1894), from Portsmouth, Virginia. She was the daughter of Charles and Mary Fisher of Portsmouth, Virginia. Simon Leach’s place of birth in the record is noted as Pittsboro, Chatham County, North Carolina, born about 1884, with parents Thomas and Lizzie Leach. The date of Simon and Mabel’s marriage fits the period between 1910, when the Simon Leach I’d found in Portsmouth was a single man, and 1920, when he was married to Mabel, and living on Green Street.

One of the many families I’ve studied in Mt. Olive Cemetery is that of Charles and Mary Fisher of Portsmouth, Virginia. Charles Henry Fisher (1861-1922) was born in Princess Anne County (Virginia Beach) to Gattie (1824-1887) and Lettie (b. 1830) Fisher. He married Mary Davis (1865-1943), daughter of Edward and Sarah, on April 25, 1888, in Norfolk County, Virginia. A few sections of what was once Norfolk County (now City of Chesapeake) became a part of Portsmouth when they were annexed by 1923. Charles Henry and Mary Davis Fisher’s firstborn child was Mabel Fisher. In the Norfolk County, Virginia birth register, Mabel is possibly identified as ” —– Fisher, colored, female, born 1891. Parents, Charles and Mary, file number 19511.”

Mabel Fisher 1900 Norfolk County Virginia
Mabel Fisher, 1900 Census. West Branch, Norfolk County, Virginia. Ancestry.com

The possible date of birth for the Mabel Fisher, daughter of Charles and Mary Fisher in Mt. Olive Cemetery, is close to the estimation of birth for the Mabel Fisher in the record of marriage to Simon Leach. As for Simon, the estimation of his year of birth from the Census and WWI Draft Registration Card records is close to the date of birth in the marriage record. The Federal Census notes Simon’s place of birth as North Carolina, and the marriage record and WWI Draft Registration Card lists Pittsboro, Chatham County, NC. For more information on Simon, I proceeded to review Chatham County, North Carolina vital records.

Pittsboro, Chatham County, North Carolina and Portsmouth, Virginia. Google Earth
Pittsboro, Chatham County, North Carolina and Portsmouth, Virginia. Google Earth

I found Simon Leach in the household of Thomas and Lizzie Leach in the 1900 Census, living in Center Township, Chatham County, NC.

Chatham County Township Map. chathamnc.org
Chatham County Township Map. chathamnc.org
1900 Census Simon Leach Chatham NC
1900 Census, Simon Leach. Center, Chatham County, NC. Ancestry.com

Also in the household are siblings Minnie, Lillie, Thomas Jr., George W., Lizzie, Benjamin, Bishop, Ludie, Albert, and Levi. Thomas Sr.  is noted as a “salesman-general merchandise,” and the seven eldest children, including Simon, were attending school. Simon Leach is not found in any other Chatham County records after 1900, when he presumably moved north to the Portsmouth, Virginia area.

Research into the Leach family in Pittsboro, North Carolina produced some interesting finds. Simon’s father, Thomas Leach Sr. (1854-1936), son of Everett Lovett and Winnie Leach, married Lizzie Council (1856-1920), daughter of Albert Council (1830-1908) and Dinah McClanahan (1817-1895), on January 17, 1878, in Chatham County.

In addition to marriage, the families were interconnected in other ways. There are numerous real estate transactions between the Leach and Council families in Chatham County records. Also, Thomas Leach, Sr., was the executor of Albert Council’s will, after the latter’s death in the month of December, 1908. At the time of his death, Albert Council (Lizzie Leach’s father), was possessed of an estate worth $950.00, the proceeds of which, by the provisions of his will, were distributed amongst his second wife Louisa, and four surviving children, Albert, John, Lizzie (Simon’s mom), and Liddy.

Albert Council Estate distribution, Thomas Leach, Sr., executor. Chatham County, NC, 1908. familysearch.org
Albert Council Estate distribution, Thomas Leach, Sr., executor. Chatham County, NC, 1908. familysearch.org

It’s important to note that the Albert Council and Thomas Leach families were part of a thriving community. They were land owners, running their own businesses, with children attending school, in spite of the ever-growing harsh conditions for African Americans in the post-Reconstruction South. At the same time Simon Leach was documented in the 1900 Census as a teenager, the local paper, The Chatham Record, ran stories celebrating white supremacy, maligning African American politicians, and supporting the future North Carolina suffrage amendment that would eventually pass that same year, effectively curtailing the African American vote in the state. Perhaps strong family ties unintentionally fostered by such a discriminatory environment are a possible reason why Simon Leach returned home to Chatham County to marry Mabel Fisher, before their eventual return to Portsmouth as a couple by 1920.

Front page of the Chatham Record, March 1, 1900. DigitalNC.org
Front page of the Chatham Record, March 1, 1900. DigitalNC.org

Most of the members of Simon’s immediate family continued to live in and around Pittsboro. His father Thomas Sr., mother Lizzie, sister Lillie, and brothers Bishop, George W., and Thomas Jr., are buried in Pittsboro’s Community Cemetery, once called the Pittsboro “Colored” Cemetery. The cemetery is located on the southern end of Fairgrounds Rd., directly across from the Chatham County Fairgrounds.

Pittsboro Community Cemetery, Pittsboro, N.C. Google Maps
Pittsboro Community Cemetery, Pittsboro, N.C. Google Maps

Another brother, Albert June Leach, moved north to Cuyahoga County, Ohio, by 1930, and is buried there in Evergreen Memorial Park Cemetery. Simon’s brother Levi married Nettie Lee in Center Township, Chatham County, on July 29, 1923, relocated to the Waterbury, Connecticut area in the 1930s, and eventually made the city his home, passing in 1977.

What became of Simon in Portsmouth? As stated previously, he’s documented living in Portsmouth on Green and Griffin Streets between 1920 and 1930.  A long-time employee with the Seaboard Airline Railroad, he worked as a “general laborer” for the company in 1920, and was listed as a porter by 1930.

Simon’s wife, Mabel Fisher Leach, passed in the late 1930s, and by 1940, Simon lived at 628 Griffin St. (near the location of Saint James Episcopal Church), with sons Charles Thomas, Leonidas Nathaniel, and Albert Fisher Leach. A 1940 Portsmouth City Directory confirms his address at 628 Griffin Street, with the occupation “messenger” (with the SAL), along with Leonidus Nathaniel, listed as a student, and Charles Thomas, laborer.

In October of 1940, the Norfolk Journal and Guide reported that Simon Leach had taken ill, and was a patient in King’s Daughters’ Hospital in Portsmouth, Va. By 1941, there is no further mention of Simon Leach in local newspapers, city directories, or other documentation. I also did not locate him in the 1942 World War II Draft Registration, known as the “Old Man’s Draft.” Chicago’s Newberry Library notes this draft’s purpose “was to collect information on the industrial capacity and skills of men who were born between April 27, 1877 and February 16, 1897 (ages 45 to 64). It was not intended that these men be drafted into military service but to determine if their labor skills could be used in the war effort. The registration would provide a complete inventory of manpower resources in the United States.”

King's Daughters' Hospital, Portsmouth, Va. Boston Public Library
King’s Daughters’ Hospital, Portsmouth, Va. Boston Public Library, Mass.

Considering the second date on his gravestone of “Sept 25,” I estimate that Simon Leach passed away on (or about) September 25, 1941, in Portsmouth, and was laid to rest in Mt. Olive Cemetery. There is no direct mention of his passing that I could locate in the local Norfolk Journal and Guide, but several articles subsequent to 1941 make indirect mention of Simon Leach’s death.

When Simon’s youngest child, daughter Edna Mae Leach (1928-2002), married Col. Mertyn Elbert Byrd, son of Nathaniel and Cecilia Byrd of Churchland, on June 9, 1951, in Portsmouth, she was given away by her elder brother, Charles Thomas Leach. Also, upon the passing of George W. Leach, one of Simon’s brothers, in 1953, the Norfolk Journal and Guide carried the story, and mentioned the deceased as family to the “late” Simon Leach.

In many families, traditions may pass from one generation to the next. This seemed to be no less true with the family of Simon Leach. Simon’s daughter, Edna Mae, often visited her extended family members in Pittsboro, N.C., before and during her matriculation at Shaw University. And when George W. Leach passed, Simon’s sons Charles Thomas (with his wife Amanda Elizabeth Doughtie Leach), Leonidus Nathaniel, Albert Fisher (Leach), and Hazel Fisher Sheppard (one of the brothers’ maternal aunts), all attended George’s funeral in Pittsboro.

Another aspect of the strong family ties evident in the Leach Family (to this researcher), is the prevalence of the name “Albert.” You’ll remember that  Simon’s grandfather, his mother Lizzie’s father, was named Albert. One of Simon’s brothers, as well as a maternal uncle, were also named Albert. Simon himself named one of his sons Albert, and Levi, one of Simon’s brothers, named one son Albert.

Former Seaboard Air Line Railroad Building – Portsmouth Va.

One may also divine that a strong work ethic ran in the family. Simon was a thirty-year employee of the Seaboard Airline Railroad, whose old headquarters is a fixture on Portsmouth’s waterfront. According to his obituary, Simon’s eldest son Charles Thomas, who passed in 1978, was a twenty-year employee at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, a member of Emanuel A.M.E. church, the Mosi Club, and the Alpha and Omega Masonic Lodge No. 46. Charles Thomas Leach was also a member of the Troubadours Social Club, along with my grandfather Horace L. Orton. Organized in 1940, The Troubadours regularly hosted annual formal dances at the old Carver Homes auditorium. It is interesting that this very site will again be a social gathering place for city residents when it is developed into a new recreation center later this year.

Although I can’t say with 100% certainty this particular gravestone fragment in Mt. Olive Cemetery is Simon Leach (genealogy often offers few absolutes), I have used various tools at my disposal in an attempt to do so. This attempt was born of a desire to show respect for who Simon was, and to bring a bit of honor back to his last resting place.

But one problem remains. Simon’s stone is still an “orphan.” Perhaps there’s little mystery left as to the identity of the stone. But the exact location of Simon’s burial site in Mt. Olive Cemetery is currently unknown.

And what to do with the headstone fragment? It’s temporary location still leaves it vulnerable to misplacement, and further deterioration from the elements and improper maintenance. Lynette Strangstad, author of A Graveyard Preservation Primer, suggests various procedures in how to deal with gravestone fragments.

Stone fragments are vulnerable to theft by collectors and thoughtless souvenir hunters, to damage by vandals and power maintenance equipment, to ill-informed cleanup crews who may discard them, to damage by visitors who may step on fragments, and to displacement if they are placed in a church or historical society basement for “safekeeping”…When yard cleanup takes place, and before any fragment is moved, make a clear and accurate catalog of each broken or dislodged stone and of each fragment. An acceptable procedure is to document each fragment and store it, clearly and securely identified, in a safe, dry place…

Another way to prevent deterioration is to set the individual stone pieces on a slightly raised platform such as a wooden pallet that again allows for water movement while keeping the stone above the moist ground and away from mowers, while minimizing the effects of numerous freeze-thaw cycles…

Another practical solution is to document all fragments and then to bury identifiable ones behind (or in front of, depending on orientation) the standing major fragment (“parent” stone) to which each belongs. (Strangstad, 71-73).

The City of Portsmouth is currently taking steps to restore Mt. Olive Cemetery, actions which should include and address the need to protect the various gravestone fragments that currently dot the cemetery. These stone pieces are symbolic remnants of people who were once a part of Portsmouth. If the exact burial sites of Simon Leach and all others interred without headstones are ultimately not rediscovered in the cemetery, at the very least, we have knowledge of where they were laid to rest. Friends and family sent them “home,” and over time, they were lost to history. However, hope remains, as the community-based effort to restore the cemetery proceeds, and hardworking volunteers continue to re-discover gravestones everyday. Perhaps, in time, a memorial to all of the unknowns and those without known burial sites may be erected. “Gone, but not forgotten” is a phrase often seen on many a gravestone. May these individuals be returned to light, and rejoin the annals of Portsmouth history. They may be gone, but are never forgotten. Simon, may you soon rest in peace.

2 thoughts on “Portsmouth, Virginia: Mystery of the orphan gravestone

  • This is a detailed genealogy for the fortunate family who chances upon it. I truly hope that someone discover if that is Simon’s stone and restore it to where it belongs.

  • Donna Greene Kaiser

    July 26, 2014 at 11:54 pm Reply

    A wonderfully researched, written and compiled genealogy of Simon’s ancestors and his decedents. Your reasoning is sound, and I know you are 99%, as right as you can be! Thanks for honoring this man and his life.

    I was from Portsmouth and ran across this while doing research. I am over-joyed at all you have done. Wake up Portsmouth and protect this stone!

    Donna Greene Kaiser (Mrs. Robert E.)
    1011 Ferndale Blvd.
    High Point, North Carolina 27262
    Immediate Past President of the High Point Historical Society

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