Portsmouth, Virginia: The life and death of Rosebud Rudolph Douglass Aggrey (1882-1961)

Mrs. Rosebud “Rose” Rudolph Douglass Aggrey, Livingstone College, ca. 1927.

Anyone who briefly reviews my blog knows I’m a longtime researcher of African American cemeteries throughout the South. Ever since 2007, cemeteries have remained some of the primary sources through which I’ve learned priceless bits of information, details that helped complete our family’s historical narrative often in ways no other sources can. So you’d think it’d be no surprise to me that one can still glean interesting details from years-old cemetery photos, yet this is exactly what happened during a recent routine newspaper dive for family history.

As I reviewed news items in the New Journal and Guide, I came across an obituary of Rose Rudolph Douglass Aggrey, a noted educator of Livingstone College and other institutions, who is buried in Oakdale-Union Hill Cemetery in Salisbury, Rowan County, North Carolina. I first visited the historic cemetery in 2015. Located near the main entrance is the Aggrey Family Plot, containing headstones for Prof. James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey (1875-1927), his wife Rose, and daughter Rosebud Douglass Aggrey.

Main entrance, Oakdale-Union Hill Cemetery, Salisbury, Rowan County, North Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2015. All rights reserved.
(l-r) Gravestones of Rosebud Douglass Aggrey (1910-1990), and mother Rose Rudolph Douglass Aggrey (1882-1961). Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2015. All rights reserved.
Gravestone of James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey, Oakdale-Union Hill Cemetery, 2015. Photo: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.
Rose Douglass Aggrey (far right), at the grave of her husband, Prof. J. E. K. Aggrey, with Ghanaian Ambassador Daniel A. Chapman (left), and his wife. Oakdale-Union Hill Cemetery, Salisbury, North Carolina. Date unknown. Source: Ghana Today, volumes 1-2.

Reading the obituary, I learned that Rose was a Portsmouth, Virginia native, a detail that I hadn’t known when I photographed her headstone several years before.

Mrs. Rose Douglas Aggrey, widow of the late pioneer African educator, Dr. J. E. K. Aggrey, died Monday, Sept. 25 at a local hospital following a brief illness. Mrs. Aggrey was for more than 50 years a leader in the educational, social welfare, and women’s activities in North Carolina and the South.
 
Funeral services were held Thursday at 2pm at the Soldier’s Memorial AME Zion church. Hundreds turned out to pay their last respects to the deceased.
 
BORN IN Portsmouth, Va., Mrs. Aggrey was educated at Shaw university, Raleigh and at Columbia University, New York City. She came to Salisbury in 1905 shortly after her marriage to Dr. Aggrey, then a guest of the government.
 
A professional educator, Mrs. Aggrey taught at Livingstone College here and at North Carolina College in Durham, and served as principal of two Rowan County schools, R. A. Clement at Cleveland, and the Granite Quarry Negro school. For more than 20 years she served in North Carolina as supervisor of Negro schools.
 
ON A NUMBER of occasions, Mrs. Aggrey visited Africa, going first with her late husband in 1925, shortly after he helped to found the Achimota college. She visited the continent again in 1953, and was a guest of the government of Ghana at the nation’s independence ceremonies in 1957. In 1960, she visited Africa on the occasion of Ghana’s becoming a Republic.
 
Mrs. Aggrey traveled widely and was associated with many noble ventures at home and abroad. In this county she was very active in religious, social and community affairs. She was for more than 25 years a member of the Salisbury Interracial Council serving as vice chairman of the group and head of several of its important committees. In the state she served as president of the North Carolina Fed-Teachers Association, president of the North Carolina Federation of Negro Women’s Clubs, and founder and first editor of its publication the Federation Journal. In 1956, Governor Luther Hodges appointed her a member of the Advisory Board for Negro Correction Schools in the state.
 
SHE WAS awarded numerous citations and honors including those bestowed upon her by Shaw University at Raleigh, and the Zeta Phi Beta and Alpha Kappa Alpha sororities in this city.
 
Mrs. Aggrey is survived by four children: two daughters, Mrs. Abna Lancaster, a teacher at the J. C. Price high school, and Miss Rosebud Aggrey of the home a teacher at Granite Quarry; two sons, Kwegyir, assistant to the director of Aid to the Aged for the State of Ohio, Columbus; and Rudolph, Deputy Public Affairs Adviser in the Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs; and three grand-children.
 
Memorial tributes were paid by Miss Mae D. Holmes, N. C. Federation, Negro Women’s Clubs; Dr. S. E. Duncan, president, Livingstone College; Second Episcopal Area of the AME Zion church, and a representative from the Ghana Embassy. Bishop W. J. Walls of Yonkers, N. Y., senior bishop of the AME Zion church, delivered the eulogy.

Norfolk Journal and Guide, October 7, 1961
Walter E. Douglass, Sr.
Source: The Walter Douglass Family
Martha Ann Bell Douglass
Source: The Walter Douglass Family

Rosebud “Rose” Rudolph Douglass Aggrey was born on May 17, 1882, in Portsmouth, Virginia. Her parents were Walter E. Douglass, Sr. (1850-1919), of Perquimans County, North Carolina, and Martha Ann Bell (ca. 1858-1913), of Norfolk County, Virginia.

According to Virginia vital records, Walter E. Douglas married Martha Ann Bell on March 2, 1876, in Portsmouth, Virginia. I located the family in the 1880 Federal Census on South Street, Portsmouth, just around the corner from the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. The household included: Walter E. Douglass (29, barber), wife Martha (20, keeping house), son Walter D. (3), and daughter Josephine (1). Jennet Perry (40), listed as “Virginia” Perry in several vital records, and mother of Walker E. Douglass, was also documented in the household.

By 1900, the family was documented in the Western Branch District of (former) Norfolk County, Virginia, just outside of the existing Portsmouth City limits. The household included: Walter E. Douglass (49, barber), wife Martha (38, noted as mother of ten living children), sons Walter (23, barber), Frederick (12), George W. (7), Jessie E. (5), Morris (infant), and daughters Hattie (19), Rose (18), Martha (16), Mary (13), and Susan (9).

The Walter E. Douglass, Sr. Family, West Branch, Norfolk County, Virginia. 1900 census, source: Ancestry.com

In the 1910 Census, Rose’s family was documented at 1019 Florida Avenue, Portsmouth. The household included: Walter E. Sr. (58, barber, “own shop”), wife Martha (49), sons Walter E. Jr. (30, real estate), Frederick (22, carpenter teacher. public school), George (18, laborer, railroad), Jessie E. (14), Morris (10), and daughters Hattie (23), Martha (20, school teacher academy), and Susie (15.). Rose was absent, as she’d married Prof. James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey (1875-1927) in 1905, and had moved to Salisbury, Rowan County, North Carolina shortly thereafter.

Source: The Carolina Watchman, November 6, 1905.
The Douglass Family, ca. 1910, at their home on 1019 Florida Avenue, Portsmouth, Virginia.
Source: The Walter Douglass Family

Many of the oldest photos of my family have been lost over the years, so I treasure old photos of African Americans families, even when they’re not depicting my own relatives. I’ve studied every detail of Rosa’s family’s photos, who lived just a few blocks away from some of my ancestors in 1910. Coupled with the beauty of this photo of an early 20th-century African American family in Portsmouth is the realization that my ancestors, who worked mostly as oyster shuckers and general laborers during this period, probably didn’t travel in the same circles as the Douglass Family, class distinctions being what they were. Still, it’s interesting to think about the historical, long-term inequities of racial segregation. Though she possibly moved in different social circles, Martha Ann Bell Douglass, Rose’s mother, is buried in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex along with many of my ancestors. In 1913, the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, established in 1879, was the only extant public cemetery where African Americans could be buried in Portsmouth, Virginia.

To date, Martha Ann Bell Douglass’ grave has not been located, and is currently without a visible headstone, like most of the burials in the historic cemetery. I sincerely hope that it is found. It would provide a tangible connection to the fascinating history of the Douglass-Aggrey Family in Tidewater, Virginia and Salisbury, North Carolina. Perhaps luck is on our side: the cemetery was established the same year as Livingstone College, 1879. Fingers crossed!

Death certificate of Martha Ann Bell Douglass. Source: Ancestry.com

Highway historical marker in honor of Prof. J. E. K. Aggrey and Rosebud “Rose” Douglass. Salisbury, Rowan County, North Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, November 10, 2015. All rights reserved.

“Born in West Africa’s Gold Coast (now Ghana), James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey enrolled at Livingstone College in 1898 & later joined the faculty. In 1920 he returned to Africa where he influenced the course of post-colonialism. In 1905, Aggrey married Rose Douglass, teacher long active across the state in groups advocating education, social welfare, & racial harmony. This was their home.” – Highway historical marker text

Views of Livingstone College, November 10, 2015. Photos: Nadia K. Orton, all rights reserved.

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