Recently, I came across a short article that describes the Rev. Richard Parker monument, located in Mount Olive Cemetery, Berkley, Norfolk, Virginia. The cemetery was established in the late 19th-century by Richard Gault Leslie Paige (1846-1904), recognized as the first African American lawyer in Norfolk, and among the first in Virginia, who was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates during Reconstruction.
Rev. Richard Parker (1804-1878) was connected to historic St. John’s A.M.E. Church, Norfolk. I first encountered the monument in 2014, during a research visit to Mount Olive Cemetery. According to church history, St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, Bute Street, was established in the 1840s. The current building was erected in 1888. St. John’s was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
St. John’s A.M.E. Church, Norfolk
“Yesterday afternoon, at Mount Olive Cemetery, near Berkley, a monument was erected by the congregation and Sunday School connected with the Bute Street A.M.E. Church, to the late Rev. Richard Parker of the A.M.E. Church, and for many years connected with the Bute Street Methodist Church of this city. The monument was eighteen feet high, made by Mr. John P. Hall of Norfolk, and was a very handsome shaft. It was unveiled by Peter Shepherd of the St. John’s Sabbath School. The ceremonies, which were very impressive, were witnessed by several thousand spectators. The oration was delivered by R. G. L. Paige, and was an able and interesting discourse. At its conclusion and after singing by the multitude, Rev. Richard Spiller delivered an address and was in turn followed by Bishop Brown, presiding officer of the late A.M.E. Conference, now in session in this city.
The services were interspersed by singing and were very interesting. A number of societies were present to witness them, and the occasion was one of much interest for the colored people of this vicinity, as was attested by the vast concourse in attendance.”1
Rev. Richard Parker’s monument was dedicated during the 14th annual Virginia Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, hosted by St. John’s A.M.E. Church, during the first week of April, 1880. The conference was attended by leading figures of the church, including Bishop Alexander Walker Wayman (1821-1895), Bishop Henry McNeal Turner (1834-1915), Rev. William D. W. Schureman (b. 1836), and Rev. Peter Shepherd (1816-1907), who spearheaded the effort for the monument. 2
Soon after Rev. Parker’s decease, several benefits were sponsored by St. John’s A. M. E., to help defray the cost of the monument. They were led by Peter Shepherd, head of St. John’s Sunday School, who, according to fellow church elder and Civil War veteran, Rev. Israel LaFayette Butt, was the “first to place a brick” in the erection of St. John’s A. M. E. in 1888.
By all accounts, the concerts were very popular and well attended, and included various musical selections, readings, and comedy skits. The price of admission was fifteen cents for single adults, ten cents for children, and twenty-five cents for couples. It’s key here to note the overall importance of the public aspect of St. John’s fundraiser. Through advertisement, inclusion of the broader, African American community, and dedication of the monument during the Virginia A. M. E. Conference, Rev. Peter Shepherd and others, had led a grassroots initiative for the preservation of African American history, a notable, yet hardly uncommon, community-driven effort to recognize the life and legacy of one of their own. Rev. Parker’s monument project was a significant accomplishment, and achieved by the solidarity and cooperative work among the three institutions that buttressed most historical African American communities: a school (St. John’s Sunday School), a church (St. John’s A.M.E), and a cemetery, in this case, historic Mount Olive. 3
The manufacturer of the monument, John P. Hall (1843-1911), was a former Confederate soldier, and partner of John D. Couper, founder of Couper Marble Works (1848). In 1878, Hall broke from Couper Marble Works, and established his own company in Norfolk. St. John’s Sunday School likely chose the most pre-eminent local monument manufacturer they could secure for the project, and it’s possible the work order for Rev. Parker’s monument was the first, or among the first, jobs Hall accepted as an independent contractor. Nine years after the dedication of Rev. Parker’s monument, John P. Hall designed the Confederate monument that currently stands in Cedar Hill Cemetery, Suffolk, Virginia. The monument was noted as a singular feature in the nomination and eventual acceptance of Cedar Hill to the National Register of Historic Places.4
Rev. Richard Parker Monument
Mount Olive Cemetery, Berkley
I was glad to find the article for Rev. Parker’s monument, as it made me pay strict attention to one key detail I hadn’t noticed in years. The article mentions that Rev. Parker’s monument was “over eighteen feet tall,” which was certainly surprising, because I didn’t remember it being that tall. In studying one of my photos, I noticed what appeared to be the top of the monument, broken off, and lodged into the ground just to right of the base. I’d simply stepped over it, without really looking at it. So, the monument may be eighteen feet tall, which would mean a healthy portion of its “crown” is buried in the earth.
Is the existing damage to the monument due to a construction accident, or vandalism? I can’t be sure, though damage concerning African American cemeteries is usually due to racialized vandalism. Hopefully it can be repaired, once the very real and serious dangers presented by the COVID-19 global pandemic subside a bit. Once again, I see the benefit of a constant review of older genealogy research. Small yet important details, previously missed, may still be revealed, and provide a fuller understanding of history.
- “Erection of a Monument,” The Norfolk-Virginian (Norfolk, Virginia), 6 April 1880, p. 1, c. 2; image copy, Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com : accessed 13 May 2020).
- “Virginia Conference A.M.E. Church – 14th Annual Session,” The Norfolk-Virginian (Norfolk, Virginia), 1 April 1880, p. 1, c. 1; image copy, Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com : accessed 13 May 2020).
- “Sacred Concert,” The Norfolk-Virginian (Norfolk, Virginia), 13 July 1879, p. 1, c. 6; image copy, Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com : accessed 13 May 2020).
- See: “J. P. Hall Gallant Soldier,” The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 19 April 1911, p. 11, c. 6; image copy, Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com : accessed 13 May 2020; “A Norfolk Man’s Work,” Norfolk-Virginian (Norfolk, Virginia), 16 November 1889, p. 1, c. 4; image copy, Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com: accessed 13 May 2020); “New Marble Yard,” The Norfolk-Virginian (Norfolk, Virginia), 5 May 1878, p. 1, c. 7; image copy, Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com : accessed 13 May 2020).