Photos: Nadia K. Orton, 2010-2019. All rights reserved
In the summer of 2007, I began a family history project to document all interments in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. Established in 1879, it is the oldest, extant African American cemetery in Portsmouth, Virginia. It’s a historic site near and dear to our family’s heart, having over forty-eight ancestors buried there, although most are without visible gravestones.
Nadia Orton ’98 made a pledge to document her family lineage. It’s turned into a mission to preserve disappearing and discarded history
Nadia Orton ’98 steps carefully around concrete vaults and sunken spots where pine caskets have collapsed inside century- old graves, her knee-high camo boots laced tight.
“I’ve had snakes and stray dogs come out of holes like that,” Orton says, nodding at a grave split in two by a fallen tree branch. Her family insists on the snake boots, a walking stick, a companion.
They tell her, “We know you love history, but you’re not supposed to be part of it yet.”
So the boots are always in the car. So are the thin purple gardening gloves she pulls on to protect her hands from her own impatience to sweep aside pine needles and poison ivy and run a finger over the engravings there, thinned by weather and time.
It is cool out, but still Orton has had to stay home and rest up for five days in order to muster the energy for this tour of Oak Lawn, an unmarked black cemetery in Suffolk, Virginia. The lupus that dogged her at Duke is dragging on her still, after kidney failure and dialysis, and finally a transplant, but it was also her lupus that led her on this quest to preserve black and African-American gravesites. Continue reading…
We had a great day on Saturday, February 9, 2019, at the Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Open House! Thanks to all who braved the cold to honor this sacred ground, including: the members of the Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Foundation – President Reginald H. Dirtion, Vice-President Rev. Oulaniece Saunders, Treasurer Wilbur Holland, Jr., Historian Nadia K. Orton; Delegate C. E. Cliff Hayes, Jr., chief sponsor, HB 2311; Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett (Suffolk); Suffolk Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 5; Frances McNair; Lt. Col./Chaplain William Burrell (USAF), President, Tidewater Chapter, Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.; Tuskegee Airman Dr. Harry Quinton; Mike Lane, Lane Environmental Consultants; Rev. Baker; the Orton Family. Also, huge thanks to M/M Hinton of Eye Catch Photos!
(Photos: courtesy R. Hinton, Eye Catch Photos, and Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved)