Wilmington, North Carolina: The Funeral of Cornelia Simmons

Funeral of Cornelia Simmons (1872)

We always like to see proper respect paid to the departed and in this particular the colored people have ever evinced a commendable disposition. On Sunday last the remains of Cornelia Simmons, a colored girl, aged about 16 years, were consigned to their last resting place. She had been a regular attendant at the Red Cross A. M. E. church Sabbath School.1 The teachers and pupils of the school, numbering some 550, under the supervision of Jos. C. Hill and Fannie Jackson, met and proceeded to the residence of J. R. Russ, corner of Third and Castle streets, where deceased had lived, and then proceeded to the church, where the funeral sermon was preached by Rev. Jas. W. Telfair. We learn that there were at least 1,7000 people in the church during the services. It was interesting to witness the large number of children represented in the funeral cortege as it moved to Pine Forest Cemetery.”2


St. Stephen A. M. E. Church, Wilmington. Photo: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.

In the 1870 Census, I could find no mention of a “Cornelia Simmons,” who lived in Wilmington, nor with a “J. R. Russ,” near Castle Street, Wilmington. However, a “Henrietta Simmons,” aged twelve, is identified in the home of Sarah Ashe, aged fifty-eight, of North Carolina. Henrietta was noted as “going to school.” Their household also included Joshua Russ, aged thirty-eight, laborer, Sarah J. Russ, aged thirty, seamstress, William Russ, aged eleven, also “attending school,” Mary jones, aged sixty-eight, and John Hollister, laborer, aged nineteen. 3 In an 1875 Wilmington city directory, Joshua Russ, laborer, was documented in a residence at the corner of Castle Street and 3rd Avenue.

Pine Forest Cemetery, and Red Cross and Walnut streets, Wilmington, ca. 1946. North Carolina State Library.

In 1880, Sarah Ashe, aged sixty-eight, was documented as the head of household on Walnut Street, Wilmington, She lived with her daughter Nancy Simmons, aged forty-seven, son James A. Ashe, aged thirty-three (epileptic), son-in-law Josh Russ, aged forty, a widowed railroad worker, grandson William Russ, aged twenty, and granddaughters Anna Simmons, aged eighteen, Sarah Wilbert, aged seventeen, and Martha Russ, aged sixteen. 4

1910 Sanborn map featuring St. Stephen A. M. E. Church and Sunday School building. North Carolina State Library.

Cornelia (Henrietta) Simmons may have been the daughter of Nancy Simmons, and granddaughter of Mrs. Sarah Ashe. Her obituary notes that Cornelia (Henrietta) was interred in Pine Forest Cemetery. I thought it might be likely that her mother, Nancy, and grandmother, Sarah Ashe, would also have been interred in Pine Forest, and wondered if I could find photos of their graves or any other family members in my research files.

After a few minutes search, I did, which surprised me. Pine Forest is a large cemetery, currently documented in Wilmington property records at eleven-plus acres. The headstones of the Ashe/Simmons family likely stood out because of the prevalence of the Ash/Ashe surname in my own paternal family tree in Virginia and North Carolina.


Pine Forest Cemetery, October 18, 2014. Photo: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.

I located a photo of Wilmington native Rev. James W. Telfair, pastor of St. Stephen A.M.E., who gave the eulogy at Cornelia’s (Henrietta’s) funeral. Rev. Telfair, pastor of St. Stephen A. M. E. Church, passed away in 1914.5

Cornelia’s (Henrietta’s) family members are interred near Rev. James. W. Telfair.

Simon Ash Family, Pine Forest Cemetery, March 8, 2015. Photo: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.

Left to right are the gravestones of Simon Ash (ca. 1795-1850), Sarah Ash (ca. 1810-1887), identified as Simon’s wife, and Nancy Simmons (ca. 1833-1899), wife of Henry Simmons. Thanks to the gravestones, if Cornelia (Henrietta) Simmons was indeed the daughter of Henry and Nancy Simmons, I’ve also been able to uncover information about her grandfather, Simon. The Ash Family gravestones appear to be similar in nature, with the inscriptions carved in the same manner. It’s possible the family consulted the same designer, but my instinct is that they were all purchased and installed about the same time, likely after, or directly before, Nancy Simmons’ decease.6


  1. This is a reference to St. Stephen A. M. E. Church, located on Red Cross Street, Wilmington. Established in 1865, the church celebrated its 150th anniversary in September, 2015. See: “St. Stephen AME Church marks 150 years,” Wilmington Morning Star, September 11, 2015.
  2. The Pine Forest Cemetery Company was incorporated in 1869. The Wilmington Journal (Wilmington, North Carolina), 16 April 1869, p. 2, c. 4; image copy, Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com : accessed 14 Jul 2020).
  3. Ancestry, “U. S. Census 1870,” Ancestry (https://ancestry.com : accessed July 14 2020), North Carolina, New Hanover, dist. Wilmington, citing “Year: 1870; Census Place: Wilmington, New Hanover, North Carolina,; Roll: M593_1151; Page: 463A; Family History Library Film: 552650“; According to North Carolina marriage records, Joshua Russ, son of Mary Jones, became the husband of Miss Sarah Jane Ashe, daughter of Sarah Ashe, on January 18, 1857. As at least one of the parties were born enslaved, their cohabitation as man and wife would likely have been granted by consent of the technical “owner” of record. The couple were officially married on August 6, 1866, New Hanover County, North Carolina. “Virginia, “New Hanover, Cohabitation Records, 1846-1866,” Joshua Russ-Sarah Jane Ashe, 18 January 1857; image, “North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011,” Ancestry (https://ancestry.com: accessed 14 July 2020).
  4. “U. S. Census 1880,” Ancestry (https://ancestry.com : accessed July 14 2020), North Carolina, New Hanover, Wilmington, dist. 143, p. 2, citing “Year: 1880; Census Place: Wilmington, New Hanover, North Carolina; Roll: 974; Page: 67B; Enumeration District: 143.”
  5. “Rev. James W. Telfair, D. D., former pastor of St. Stephen’s A.M.E. church of Wilmington, died at his home, No. 615 Walnut street, Sunday afternoon at 12:45 o’clock. He was an ex-presiding elder of the North Carolina Conference of the A.M.E. church, ex-most worshipful grand master of the Lodge of Colored Masons for the jurisdiction of North Carolina, ex-alderman of the city of Wilmington, and ex-commander of the Mystic Shriners of the colored race. He was well-known and highly respected by the members of both races. He was born in Wilmington, August 28, 1837, and was, therefore, 77 years old. He was born a slave and his rise in negro colored and fraternal circles is remarkable. His life was full of service. The funeral services will be conducted from St. Stephen’s A.M.E. church this afternoon at 2 o’clock. The body will lie in state at that church between the hours of 12 and 2 this afternoon in order that friends may view the remains.” The Wilmington Morning Star (Wilmington, North Carolina), 15 December 1914, p. 3, c. 1; image copy, Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com : accessed 14 July 2020.)
  6. Sarah Ash/Ashe died intestate, but in possession of the land and home on Walnut Street. After her death in 1887, there was a disagreement among the surviving descendants over the future of the property. It was later sold, and the proceeds split amongst the surviving heirs. New Hanover County, North Carolina, probate case, Sarah Ashe (1887); imaged in “Estate Records, Abbott, Joseph C. – Ashe, Tinsky — Ca. 1779-1907,” North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998, Ancestry (https://ancestry.com : accessed 14 July 2020).

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