The first time I came across the name Olivia Jordan Butt Smith, my paternal great-great-grandaunt, was twelve years ago. I was researching a branch on the paternal side of my family tree, the Youngs of Portsmouth, Virginia. Olivia was born in 1862, in Portsmouth, the daughter of Jordan and Lovey Butt (ca. 1829-1895). She was the sister of Mary Alice Butt Young (1865-1929), my paternal great-great-grandmother, Matilda A. Butt Colden (1856-1910), Anna Butt Schofield (b, ca. 1855), and Nancy Ellen Butt Lynch (ca. 1848-1879), my paternal great-great-grandaunts.
Over the years, finding family in the annals of history was a pretty large task. In the beginning, I’d received priceless oral history about certain ancestors from living elders, like my cousin Belvedere Sanita Duke Andrews, of Truxtun, but on other lines (mostly maternal) had to start cold, from scratch, pursuing ancestors that were mostly unknown. I’d realized it was easy to become overwhelmed, and disappear down the proverbial genealogy rabbit hole of research, so I’d chosen to focus on just my direct ancestors. The sisters and brothers of those direct ancestors were sketched out generically, with basic vital records, summarily recorded, and subsequently placed aside. In this way, Olivia and her family took an unintentional backseat. I tracked her through census, marriage, and death records, but knew little about her life in Portsmouth. Recently, that all changed when I found two very interesting articles that filled in key details about Olivia’s life, and added an additional personal context to subjects and places previously researched.
Both articles were featured in the New Journal and Guide, whose founder and editor, Plummer Bernard Young. Sr. (no relation), was born in Halifax County, North Carolina.
Mrs. Olivia J. Smith of 1509 Summit avenue, Portsmouth observed her 100th birthday Wednesday, July 25, with many friends and relatives dropping in ‘after five’ to wish her many more happy returns of the day.
Members of her family who were with her on the momentous occasion were a daughter, Mrs. Ernestine Griffin, a granddaughter, Mrs. Lottie Corbin, daughter of Mrs. Griffin, who motored from their homes in Washington; another granddaughter, Mrs. Olivia Keck, wife of Gilbert Keck, of the Summit avenue address, who has made her home with her grandmother all her life; a grandson, William H. Magee, Jr., of Henderson street, Cavalier Manor, and numbers of her great-grandchildren and other relatives.
Mrs. Smith is a native Virginian, the former Olivia Butts, a daughter of slave parents. Her early life was spent in the Lincolnsville section of Portsmouth. She has resided the past 68 years in the South Portsmouth area. She holds membership in St. Paul’s Church and a local Tents’ lodge.
The widow of Earnest Smith, Mrs. Smith was the mother of 12 children, three of whom are living. In addition to Mrs. Griffin, they are Misses Mattie and Lovey E. Smith, both of New York City.
She has five grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. The grandchildren, besides Mrs. Keck, Mr. Magee and Mrs. Corbin, are Oscar Herron and Mrs. Florence Williams, both of Washington.
Mrs. Smith leads a normal life for a woman of her years, spending the most of her time ‘upstairs’ at her home, reading with the aid of a magnifying glass. She is able to some downstairs for her meals, but doesn’t get far beyond the confines of her comfortable home.
She does not recall ever being sick for a day, and credits her faith in God and fair treatment of others for extension of her years.”
A grainy photo accompanied the article, the caption of which stated “She will never stop learning.” Our family has had many priceless family photos disappear over the years, so this was the first time I’d ever been able to “see” Olivia, or any descendant of Lovey Butt, Including my great-great grandmother Mary Alice Butt Young. Grainy or not, the photo was a revelation.
Olivia was a centenarian, and an avid reader as well. I’d always thought that my love of books, reading, and learning came from my parents, who made it a point to read to me every night as a child. I was the kid who was super excited to get my monthly volume of the Childcraft series in 1984 (World Book). There were the days spent tagging along with my father to local bookstores in Oakland, California, looking for nothing in particular, yet always leaving with something amazing (Marcus Books I miss you!). I fully appreciated the works of Ida B. Wells, Marcus Garvey, Frantz Fanon, W. E. B. DuBois, and Mary Church Terrell before I learned how to drive. I’m positive that type of upbringing had an immeasurable impact on my love of knowledge, and true history of African Americans and the African diaspora, but in reading Olivia’s obituary, I wondered if there wasn’t something of a genetic origin of that thirst for knowledge. Had it always been there? A subtle, yet enduring desire to know the whys and whats of everything around us? If true, what was it like for my early ancestors, to have that desire, yet face the possibility of corporal punishment or death for trying to read, write, or both, prior to 1866? Here’s Olivia, born in 1862, chronicled at one hundred years old, determined to read, with the aid of a magnifying glass. Did she remember, acutely, that risk, how literacy had been forbidden for most enslaved African Americans? Olivia was just an infant when the Union Army occupied Portsmouth (beginning May, 1862), but perhaps Olivia’s mother, Lovey, my great-great-great-grandmother, directly faced that danger. It was yet another reminder: just how much have I not realized that I’ve taken for granted?
The second article sadly described Olivia’s death. Entitled “Mrs. Smith Dies 2 weeks before her 101st Birthday,” it appeared in the July 20th, 1963 edition of the New Journal and Guide.
Mrs. Olive Gordon (sp) Smith of 1509 Summitt avenue, senior resident, died Friday at her home after a short illness. She would have reached her 101st birthday on July 25.
A funeral service was conducted at St. Paul A. M. E. Church where she was an honorary stewardess. The Rev. J. M. Middleton, pastor, officiated and delivered the eulogy. He read the scripture, the 34th Psalm, and based his message on the 19th verse of that passage.
Remarks were made by the Rev. C. J. Freeman, pastor of St. John Baptist Church. Mrs. Marian Walker, church clerk, read the church statement. Mrs. Doris Arrington sang a solo. Interment was in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery with Colden Funeral Home in charge.
A native of Berkley, Mrs. Smith was the daughter of the late Jordan and Mrs. Lovey Butts and widow of Ernest L. Smith. Her survivors are three daughters, Miss Lovey Smith and Miss Mattie Smith of New York and Mrs. Ernest L. Griffin of Washington, D. C.; five grandchildren, Mrs. Olivia Keck of the Summitt avenue residence; William H. Magee, II of Portsmouth; Mrs. Lottie Corbin, Oscar Herron, and Mrs. Florence Williams all of Washington, and 19 great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Smith was the daughter of slave parents. Her early life was spent in Lincolnsville section of Portsmouth. She resided almost 70 years in the South Portsmouth area. She was the mother of 12 children.Upon the occasion of her 100th birthday last July, she credited her long life to her ‘faith in God and fair treatment of others.’ At that time, she led a normal life for a woman of her years and spent much of her time reading with the aid of a magnifying glass.New Journal and Guide, July 20, 1963
Olivia was laid to rest in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, Portsmouth. Funeral director George A. Colden handled the arrangements. Although I have not yet located Olivia’s gravestone in the cemetery, I have found several other family members, including daughter Lottie A. Smith (1896-1956), granddaughter Olive Magee Keck (1918-1999), and Olivia’s sister, Mary Alice Butt Young (ca. 1865-1929), my great-great-grandmother. Olivia’s mother, Lovey Butt, and sister, Matilda A. Butt Colden (1845-1910), wife of Jesse Colden (1862-1915), are buried in Mt. Olive Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex), Portsmouth.
Olivia represents yet another tie our family has to historic Lincolnsville, one of the earliest (if not the earliest), African American communities established in Portsmouth, Virginia. The grounds were marshy, and various bridges were used by the community in order to get around. The area was annexed by the City of Portsmouth in the 1890s, but had been identified as “Lincolnsville” in various forms of documentation since the early 1870s. One ancestor, Joel Elliott (1818-1873), my great-great-great-great-grandfather, a free person of color from Suffolk, Virginia, was one of the first landowners in Lincolnsville. In 1865, he was literally the fourth African American to purchase land and erect a home. Other ancestors who were residents of Lincolnsville included my great-great-great-grandfather, Max J. Orton (ca. 1850-1902), Navy veteran, and Dempsey Copeland (ca. 1848-1899), of the 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry. Dempsey was the husband of my great-great-great-grandmother Easter Williams (ca. 1845-1910). Max and Dempsey were regularly listed in Portsmouth city directories as residents of Lincolnsville. They are both buried in Mt. Olive Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex).
Lincolnsville was razed by the city in the 1960s, part of an “urban renewal” program, after the thriving community was labeled a slum full of substandard housing by the City of Portsmouth, All residents, mostly African American, were forced to move out. Homes, like the ones my ancestors Joel Elliott, and Max Orton built, that had stood for over seventy years, were destroyed. Adding insult to injury, former residents were not allowed to return, most not able to afford to move back, and others directly barred. Civil rights leader Dr. Hugo A. Owens, was one of the former residents unable to return.
I knew that once construction was all over, it would be a prime piece of property. They had moved all the Black people out of the area. And they were determined not to allow any Blacks to come back.
(After hiring a white agent to negotiate on his behalf)
The agent told me…that they told him…before they would sell that land to a nigger…there would have to be a Supreme Court order…Well, it never got that far.
Every once in a while I drive by just to look at the property which sits right on the waterfront looking over at Norfolk…it is beautiful. I would be living there, too, but I guess my being an activist to help move the city forward stopped it…but I have no regrets.The New Journal and Guide, August 4, 1999
Although Lincolnsville is gone, it lives on through the stories of my ancestors, Joel, Max, Dempsey, and now…Olivia. What a joy to “meet” her! A wonderful woman, determined to read despite failing eyesight, wife to Ernest L. Smith, and mother of twelve. I wonder how many other ancestors lived there? I’ll continue to research and document them. One thing is for certain: thanks to finding Olivia and more of her story, I have many more cousins to find! Thank you for being a guide, Olivia. Your story will never be forgotten.