Portsmouth, Virginia: Rev. Richard H. Govans, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

Mt.Calvary Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex), Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2014. All rights reserved.

Some of the most difficult work in the preservation of old cemeteries is the identification of lost interments. For a great majority of older, historically African American cemeteries, there are no extant cemetery records to consult. Much of this documentation has been lost over the years due to the racially-motivated burning of black churches between 1870-1968, arson attacks that are once again on the rise, designed not only to terrorize, but to destroy history. To piece together this important past, one must gather oral histories, and comb through a variety of documentation to compile a complete list of burials. Though extremely labor intensive, the research often proves rewarding when previously undocumented stories are revealed, to reconnect families, and preserve for future generations. One such story rediscovered this week concerns Rev. Richard H. Govans of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

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Location of Cecil County in the State of Maryland, 1877.

Rev. Richard H. Govans was born enslaved about 1835 in Cecil County, Maryland, the son of Richard and Mariah Govans.1 The family lived near Morgan’s Cross Roads, an early name of Cecilton, officially incorporated in 1864. At this point, I do not know if Richard’s parents were born enslaved or were manumitted, but I located a free African American man named Richard Govans, Sr., in the 1830 Census, head of a household of four “other free” African Americans in Cecil County, Maryland. Per the census estimate, Richard Govans, Sr., was born between 1776 and 1794, while the other members of his household included a woman, also born between 1776 and 1794, and two boys under the age of ten.

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Snow Hill near Port Deposit

Cecil County, Maryland


Over the years, Richard, Jr. worked on a physician’s estate in Cecil County, Maryland, and was sold twice. In 1854, he married Miss Ellen Brown of Cecil County, and the couple had two sons, Henry, born about 1851, and Nehemiah born about 1853. Ellen died a few years after their marriage. In 1857, Richard married Hester (born about 1830), who may have been a resident of Snow HIll, the free black community established in the mid-19th century located just north of Port Deposit. Richard was manumitted in 1859, and the family was documented in the 1860 census as free African Americans in Port Deposit, Maryland.

During the Civil War, Richard was drafted per the provisions of the Enrollment Act of 1863. He was documented as a thirty-six year old married laborer. I reviewed several military documents, but did not find any evidence that Richard served in an official capacity, or was ever assigned to a regiment. After the war, the young family moved to Baltimore, where Richard joined “Big” Bethel A.M.E. Church, organized in the late eighteenth century. Richard learned to preach under the tutelage of Rev. Southy L. Hammond, while his sons Henry and Nehemiah worked as barbers.2

A depiction of St. Peter’s Protestant Episcopal Church, Baltimore, which became the home of Bethel A.M.E. Church in 1910.

In 1868, Richard was sent to Nansemond County, Virginia by Bishop Alexander Walker Wayman, tasked with the construction of an African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1870, Richard was officially transferred to the Virginia Conference of the A.M.E. Church. He was documented as a resident of Cypress Chapel, Nansemond County, and lived with the family of George Morris, a young farmer. By June, 1870, the construction of Macedonia A.M.E. Church was complete. The dedication was attended by a large portion of Suffolk’s African American community, and presided over by Bishop Alexander W. Wayman, and Rev. William D. W. Schureman.

Letter by Rev. Richard H. Govans, June 20, 1870

Suffolk, Virginia

For some time the members of our church have been laboring hard to erect a new church in this town, which is situated on the Seaboard Railroad, about seventeen miles south of Portsmouth, Va. The ground was purchased about a year since and the building commenced. On Sunday, June 19th, was the day fixed upon for dedication.

Bishop Wayman and Rev. W.D.W. Schureman arrived on Saturday afternoon, which was hailed with delight by me and my people. Early on Sunday morning every road leading into town was filled with persons coming to witness the dedication of the first A.M.E. Church, in this part of Virginia. The people were conveyed mostly in ox and mule carts. At ten o’clock the Bishop and the rest of the ministers marched upon to the new church. They were met at the door by the trustees and stewards, who presented the Bishop the key. Then the exercises commenced.

After reading the dedicatory services, the Bishop announced for his text, Haggai, 2d Chap. ver. 9: ‘And in this place will I give peace saith the Lord of Hosts.’ The sermon was considered an able one.

At 3 o’clock Rev. W.D.W. Schureman preached from Rev. 12, 1: ‘And I saw a great wonder in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun.’ His sermon was clear and eloquent. Bishop Wayman preached again at night.

Thus ended one of the greatest Sundays in this part of Virginia for the A.M.E. Church. The collections amounted to one hundred dollars. The church cost about seven hundred and twenty-five dollars, and its is all paid except about one hundred and twenty dollars. And be it said to get credit of my people that it is the handsomest colored church in the whole country. Thus the great work goes on in this part of Virginia.

Rev. William D. W. Schureman
Bishop Alexander Walker Wayman
Macedonia A.M.E. Church, Suffolk, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, August 8, 2020. All rights reserved.

In 1871, Richard was admitted to full membership in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and was ordained an elder in 1872.

Between 1872 and 1879, Richard presided over the development of churches in Franktown (Northampton County) and Drummondtown (Accomack County), on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Salem (Roanoke County), in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Martinsville (Henry County), and Princess Anne County (Virginia Beach). By 1880, Richard and Hester were residents of Western Branch, (former) Norfolk County, Virginia. After the conclusion of his work in Princess Anne County, Richard was appointed to the Harmony Circuit, Wytheville, Virginia, and Norfolk’s Bridgetown Circuit, prior to settling in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Rev. Richard H. Govans was assigned to Portsmouth’s Getty’s Circuit, near Churchland, when he suddenly took ill, and passed away on December 20, 1894. His funeral was held at historic Emanuel A.M.E. Church, North Street, Portsmouth. The eulogy was delivered by Rev. George D. Jimmerson, Presiding Elder of the Portsmouth District of the A.M.E. Church. Rev. Govans was laid to rest in Mt. Calvary Cemetery. Although his grave has not been identified, we’re happy to be the first to reintroduce his incredible story, as we continue our work to assist in the preservation of the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, one of our family’s ancestral cemeteries, and one of Portsmouth’s most important historical institutions.

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2014. All rights reserved.

Timeline of Rev. Richard H. Govans

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  1. Various records and other documentation lists Richard’s date of birth as anywhere between 1820 and 1836. Richard used 1835 as his date of birth in personal testimony.
  2. After 1872, it is unknown what happened to Richard’s son Nehemiah, but Henry eventually moved to Massachusetts, where he worked as a barber until his death from consumption in Springfield, 1884.

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