Nansemond county’s oldest resident—‘Aunt’ Margaret Fleming, aged 109—was buried yesterday at Oakland cemetery, Chuckatuck, with friends of both races paying tribute to their oldest neighbor.
Born in slavery on the Whitney plantation in 1827, Margaret Anne was a woman of 34 years when the War Between the States commenced, and was a middle-aged mother of several children when peace brought her emancipation.
She died last Wednesday afternoon while feeding chickens at the home of her son, Cleveland Hall. She was active until fatally stricken.
‘Aunt’ Margaret, as the century-plus old Negress was known to everyone in Chuckatuck, was the mother of 17 children, of which 13 are still living. The oldest is John Hall, 85, who lives on Pitchkettle Road, Suffolk. The youngest is Sylvester Hall, of Nansemond county. She has 79 grandchildren and 53 great-grandchildren.
At the death of her husband, she married William Fleming, a blacksmith, who followed his trade for many years at Chuckatuck.
The funeral services for ‘Aunt’ Margaret were conducted from Bethel Baptist church, of which she was a charter member, by the Rev. Vann,assisted by Rev. Mills Riddick.Suffolk News Herald, 1936
According to vital records, Mrs. Margaret Ann Hall Fleming was the daughter of Louisa Whitney, and was born in Isle of Wight County, Virginia. Her “slave” husband, per the obituary, was Mr. Daniel Hall, who was born enslaved about 1840 in either Isle of Wight, or Nansemond County, Virginia. Daniel may have passed on as early as 1899, although he was documented in the 1900 Census.1 Margaret married her second husband, William Fleming, on December 28, 1903, in Chuckatuck.
Per census and marriage records, Margaret’s date of birth was usually recorded between 1840 and 1845, a difference from her age noted in both obituaries. However, such estimates of birth are common when researching formerly enslaved individuals. It was just one of the many dehumanizing elements of the “peculiar institution” of slavery: to be forbidden to know, or be unaware of one’s own birthday.
I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood.FREDERICK DOUGLASS, NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS
On an impulse, I decided to follow the life of Mrs. Margaret in Chuckatuck and took a few days to construct her family tree. Even during that short time, it became abundantly clear just how large the tree was and could become with further research. Though incomplete, I have included the tree, divided into five parts, due to their relative size.
Hall-Fleming Family Tree
Chuckatuck, Nansemond County, Virginia
Hall-Fleming Family Tree, Section 1
Hall-Fleming Family Tree, Section II
Hall-Fleming Family Tree, Section III
Hall-Fleming Family Tree, Section IV
The trees provide a visual representation of just how many people, on average, can be affected or impacted by the preservation of one headstone, or a story, in this case. Now, just think about how many families can benefit from the preservation of an entire cemetery?
I first visited Oakland Cemetery on a sweltering day last summer. I had no self-interest in the cemetery, not being aware of any relatives interred there, and had only written about it on one previous occasion. But it was on the way to Smithfield, and I had never seen it in person. Cemeteries, after all, are the primary way that I was able to document my own history, and I always manage to visit/research one nearly every weekend. Having visited hundreds of them in several states, both marked and unmarked, I have witnessed firsthand the fragile and precarious nature of the collective history they hold, a history that remains in constant danger of disappearing on a regular basis.
The African American section of Oakland Cemetery is maintained by Little Bethel Baptist Church. It is separated from the gated, historically white section of Oakland Christian UCC cemetery by an unpaved, narrow drive. While reviewing the photos taken that day, it was exciting to see that I had unintentionally captured several gravesites of individuals in the Hall-Fleming Family tree. In the shaded, rear section of the cemetery is the headstone of Anthony Cowling, father of Julia E. Cowling, who married Daniel Hall, Jr. on November 12, 1902, in Chuckatuck. Anthony passed away in 1921. His wife (and Julia’s mom), Josephine Florence Tynes Cowling, passed away ten years later, and is also interred in Oakland. Julia descended from a line of free persons of color in Isle of Wight County, Virginia, freed by the will of Timothy Tynes in 1802.
I have not found Margaret’s grave yet, and hers may be one of the illegible graves in the cemetery. Whether I find it or not, this short foray into one aspect of Chuckatuck’s African American legacy helps to expand the narrative of African American burial grounds. Though technically cemeteries, they also represent, and are at times the last tangible evidence of, historical African American communities. While visiting Oakland, it felt less like a cemetery, and more like a type of homecoming, a chance to literally walk through the history of a community I was only beginning to know. As I have often written, the conditions of African American cemeteries often match the state of their representative African American communities, tangible barometers that can provide clues as to the relative cohesion of the community, or whether it has been torn apart by commercial development, economic deprivation, and gentrification. The preservation of these sites is therefore critical in the ongoing need to properly acknowledge and address the legacy of federal policies and practices that have destroyed African American communities. Black lives matter, even in death.