Norfolk, Virginia: Revelations at West Point Cemetery (1827)

West Point Cemetery, Norfolk, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2012. All rights reserved.

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At the last meeting of the Select Council the action taken some time ago by the Common Council in regard to changing the name of the old burying ground formerly known as Potters Field, to that of ‘West Point Cemetery‘ was agreed to. An ordinance has also been adopted by both branches of the Councils placing the care and management of the Committee of Cemeteries. As much interest is now being manifested by our most worthy and intelligent colored citizens in regard to the proper care and attention to be given to the graves of their departed friends, and in order, if possible, to increase that interest among them, it is now thought by many that the present is a fitting occasion to call attention to the past condition and management of the cemetery, and also to give a few suggestion as to how it ought to be managed and improved in the future. For many years past the ‘Potters Field’ was used as a burial ground for the dead of our colored citizens. Before the late war, this ground was under the superintendence of the keeper of the poorhouse, and during the war, the northern neck of which was used by the Federal troops as a burial place of their dead, but as soon as the war closed these bodies were disinterred and buried in the National Cemetery near Fort Monroe, thus giving room for a large number of new graves. Since that time it has been placed under the management of the keeper of the white cemetery, and at no time has much care or attention been given it, and as a natural consequence the ground was allowed to grow up in bushes, grass and other poisonous weeds, and to such an extent, that a few months ago it was almost impossible to walk through the grounds.

Owing to the former plan of disposing of the lots, no official record whatever of the lot, size, or location was kept, and hence there cannot be found any record upon which the title to the lots so purchased can be made good. Many white citizens obtained lots in this ground, in which they buried their old family servants, and scarcely a week passes but some of them are seen placing flowers, or otherwise fixing up the graves of some trusty servant. The improved condition of this ground is due to the untiring exertion of Councilman James E. Fuller, the colored member of the Cemetery Committee, and it was upon his suggestion that the name be changed to West Point Cemetery. The ordinance passed by the Council laying the cemetery off into lots, together with the regulations governing the same, was prepared and offered in the council by Mr. Fuller. A late survey made of this cemetery show that it contains about eight acres of ground, and a plat has been prepared by order of the Cemetery Committee, which gives twenty five full sections with twelve lots, each size 22X20 feet, with seven streets in the whole ground, twenty feet wide, running east and west; and seven avenues twenty feet wide, running north and south. Also three elipse intersection. It is proposed that each colored church in the city make an effort towards erecting in the centre of one of these elipse intersections a monument in memory of their dead buried in the ground, and in another of these intersections, it is further proposed to erect a monument over the remains of John Jones, better known among our oldest citizens as “Yellow Fever Jack,” on whose services in the epidemic of 1855 should never be forgotten. These plans when completed will reflect great credit on our colored citizens, proposed as they were by one of their own race, who was generously supported by the Committee on Cemeteries, and both branches of the Councils.” 1

Grave of QMS James E. Fuller, West Point Cemetery, 2012. Photo: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.

Family monument of James E. Fuller and Tamar Peterson Fuller. West Point Cemetery, 2012. Photo: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.

I was happy to find this article, an informative piece on West Point Cemetery. Beyond historically academic concerns, there was also a personal benefit, in that it taught me something unexpected about my own family history.

Our known family link to West Point Cemetery is through Cpl. Carey E. Lynch (ca. 1845-1891), a member of Company B, 2nd U. S. Colored Infantry. Carey was born enslaved in the Hickory district of (former) Norfolk County, Virginia (City of Chesapeake), the son of Peter and Bridget Lynch. He enlisted at the age of seventeen on July 6, 1863, at Portsmouth, Virginia, and mustered in six days later at Arlington, Virginia. He was promoted Corporal on November 14, 1864, and engaged in battle at Natural Bridge, Florida on March 6, 1865. He was discharged from service on January 5, 1866, at Key West, Florida.

In 1867, Carey married Miss Nancy Ellen Butt (ca. 1848-1879), my paternal great-great-grandaunt, and a native of Portsmouth, Virginia. Nancy was the daughter of Lovey Butt and J. Ang, a Chinese immigrant. After her death in 1879, Portsmouth, Carey moved to the City of Norfolk, and in 1884, married Leah J. Mason Mackey from Eastville, Northampton County, Virginia,the widow of Samuel Mackey. Carey died on October 24, 1891, from complications of consumption and diabetes.

Grave of Cpl. Carey E. Lynch, 2nd U. S. Colored Infantry. West Point Cemetery, 2012. Photo: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.
Interment card for Carey E. Lynch. West Point Cemetery, Norfolk, Virginia

I found Carey’s grave site in 2012, after thoroughly researching all extant African American burial grounds in Portsmouth, Virginia, and expanding the search to include Norfolk’s historic cemeteries. Although damaged a bit from lawnmowers or weed eaters, Carey’s headstone is fascinating in that it contains a personal inscription, a detail not found on the majority of military-issue headstones.

Died Oct. 24 1891

Aged 45 years

Rest in Peace Dear Husband

The personal inscription was directly requested by Carey’s second wife, Leah, possibly at an additional monetary cost. After years of research, I thought I knew the most important information about Leah, until I reviewed some of my older photos of West Point in a follow-up of the article.

West Point Cemetery, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is famous for its Civil War monument, completed in 1920. It celebrates and honors the service and sacrifice of African American veterans of the Civil War, and is often written about in local news media around Black History Month. At the top of the monument is a sculpture in honor of Sgt. William H. Carney, from Norfolk, Virginia, a member of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first African American recipient of the Medal of Honor.

West Point Cemetery Civil War monument. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2012. All rights reserved.

Located in the center of the base of the monument is a panel placed by the Norfolk Memorial Association, the organization responsible for the fundraising and erection of the monument. 2

Norfolk Memorial Association panel, West Point Cemetery. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2012. All rights reserved.

The whole of section No. 20 – Donated to the Union Veterans Hall Association by resolution proposed by comrade James E. Fuller, adopted by the Common Council March 3rd 1886, and by the Select Council April 13th, 1880.

This Monument Alter – Laid for dedication May 30th 1906, by The Norfolk Memorial Association to receive the shaft already pledged by the citizens in honor of all the colored soldiers and sailors buried in West Point Cemetery and Berkley from 1860 to the last veteran to be buried in the Cemeteries, as recommended and approved by contributors March 2nd 1906.

The Norfolk Memorial Asso

Jas. E. Fuller, 1st President, Mrs. R. Langley, 1st Vice President

Mrs. L. J. Lynch, 1st Secretary

James P. Carter, President

Abel C. Carter, Secretary                              James E. Fuller, Custodian

Magnes Riggins, Treasurer

Norfolk Memorial Association panel inscription, West Point Cemetery

Leah J. Mason Mackey Lynch, Carey’s second wife, was the first secretary of the Norfolk Memorial Association. I’ve visited West Point and its celebrated monument at least twenty times, and I’ve never noticed this amazing fact before. An ancestral in-law of our family was an integral member of the African American committee that raised this historic landmark in Virginia, nearly one hundred years ago. Leah passed away in 1917, and was also buried in West Point Cemetery. Ironically, while the monument to which she gave her valuable time and effort has been protected, her own grave is unmarked, and its location within West Point Cemetery unknown. 3

The experience serves as an important reminder to leave no stone unturned (pun intended), when it comes to research of family history. Leah J. Mason Mackey Lynch and her family represents a collateral line in our family tree, and while I thought I’d researched it fairly well, had missed her important contribution to one of Virginia’s most famous African American landmarks. I suppose, on whole, that it’s a healthy thing to receive these ancestral nudges, to continue to review existing documentation with a fresh perspective. Until today, I thought our family had one salient connection to Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Now I know we have at least two. I think I’ll be making another trip to visit Carey Lynch and the monument at West Point in the near future, and this time, with new eyes and a more accurate perspective.

  1. From the Norfolk Virginian, 1883. John Jones passed away August 9, 1868, and is buried in West Point Cemetery. His obituary, carried in the August 10th edition of the Norfolk Virginian read: “Death of a Good Negro – John Jones, a worthy and estimable negro, died suddenly in this city yesterday. During the yellow fever, in 1855, John Jones’ name was as familiar as ‘house-hold words.’ His self sacrificing efforts at that time are well known to our citizens, among whom he was a general favorite. The citizens of Norfolk after the pestilence proposed buying John his freedom, but as the laws of the State required all manumitted slaves to leave the State, he preferred to stay as a slave.John has now passed away from all earthly cares and a monument should record the good deeds he did whilst living.”
  2. QMS James E. Fuller, of the 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry, enlisted on December 13, 1863, at Fort Monroe, Virginia. He mustered in on December 22, 1863, at Camp Hamilton, and was discharged at Brazos Santiago, Texas, on February 4, 1866. He was the first African American City Councilman, and passed away in 1907.
  3. The other members of the Norfolk Memorial Association, James P. Carter (2nd U. S. Colored Infantry), Abel C. Carter (10th U. S. Colored Infantry), and Magness Riggin (38th U. S. Colored Infantry), rest in Calvary Cemetery. Mrs. Rebecca Langley, wife of Daniel Langley (2nd U. S. Colored Infantry), rests in West Point Cemetery with her husband.

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