She Promised to Honor Her Ancestors. First She Had to Find Them. The State of Things, WUNC 91.5, North Carolina Public Radio

Nadia Orton stands with the replacement gravestone she secured for African American Civil War veteran Sgt. Ashley H. Lewis (1842-1890), 1st U.S. Colored Cavalry. She has replaced 20 gravestones for African American Civil War veterans, most from various counties in North Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, December, 2018. All rights reserved
Warren County NC Rosenwald Orton
Mayflower Rosenwald School (ca. 1924), Inez, Warren County, North Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2015. All rights reserved.
The gravestone of Cherry Williams Sutton (1860-1911), Nadia Orton’s maternal great-great-grandmother, located in a slave cemetery. Inez, Warren County, North Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2015. All rights reserved.

When Nadia Orton’s kidneys were failing, she sent letters to friends and relatives in the hopes that someone could be a donor or help defray the cost. Orton’s great-aunt Philgrador responded with money from her church. So a few years later, when Aunt Phil asked on her deathbed that her family not be forgotten, Orton knew she had to find a way to honor her ancestors. The problem was that she didn’t know who they were, or where to find them.
 
As she started tracing her lineage and locating her ancestors’ final resting places in North Carolina and Virginia, Orton began to notice the state of black cemeteries. Many were overgrown, unprotected and unmapped. Seeing the condition of these sacred spaces sparked a passion for protecting them.
 
Orton has since visited hundreds of cemeteries, and helps other families identify their ancestors’ plots. Host Frank Stasio talks with Nadia Orton, a public historian and professional genealogist, about how she uncovers the past and how it feels to find who came before you

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Virginia: Update on a Tidewater Freedom Fighter

Pvt. Jones Portsmouth Enlistment Card
Pvt. Albert Jones, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry, enlistment card

Great news for Spring. Pvt. Albert Jones is getting a new headstone! Our request from February has been approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs. It was delivered to Ogg Stone Works on March 21st. Pvt. Jones’ grave has been unmarked for over 78 years, ever since the terrible tragedy that claimed his life on February 27, 1940. The recent rains have caused a terrible bout of flooding in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. We hope to be able to mark his gravesite for the monument company as soon as the flood waters recede.

Pvt. Albert Jones will be the 19th Civil War veteran to receive a new headstone. The others are: Cpl. John Cross, 10th U. S. Colored Infantry; Sgt. Ashley Lewis, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry; Pvt. Arthur Beasley, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry; Pvt. David Bailey, 10th U. S. Colored Infantry; Cpl George Baysmore, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry; Pvt. Austin Smallwood, 14th U. S. Colored Heavy Artillery; Pvt. Richard Reddick, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry; Pvt. Thomas Reddick, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry; Pvt/Landsman Samuel Morris; Sgt. Lewis Rodgers, 28th U. S. Colored Infantry; Pvt. Zachariah Taylor, 5th U. S. Colored Infantry; Pvt. Samuel Dyes, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry; Pvt. Washington Milbey, 10th U. S. Colored Infantry; Sgt. James “Jim” Edwards, 2nd U. S. Colored Cavalry; Pvt. Edmond Riddick, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry; Pvt. Henry Brinkley, 2nd U. S. Colored Cavalry; Pvt. Alfred Savage, 2nd U. S. Colored Cavalry; and Landsman John Hodges. ♥

Portsmouth, Virginia: Four United States Colored Troops receive new headstones

Four more replacement headstones for Portsmouth, Virginia Civil War veterans have been installed in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. These brave men, who fought for freedom and equality, were from Hinds County, Mississippi, Currituck County, North Carolina, and the independent cities of Chesapeake and Suffolk, Virginia. Stay tuned for more updates!

Pvt. Zachariah Taylor, Company H, 5th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. Born September 2, 1846, in Hinds County, Mississippi. Enlisted on May 18, 1864, at City Point, Virginia. Mustered in seven days later at City Point, May 25, 1864. Mustered out on September 20, 1865, at Carolina City, North Carolina. Passed on September 4, 1909, Portsmouth, Virginia. ♥

Taylor USCT Portsmouth Copyright Nadia Orton
Mt. Olive Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 25, 2010.
Copyright Nadia K. Orton 2017
New headstone, installed July 26, 2017. Mt. Olive Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, July 27, 2017

Pvt. Samuel Dyes, Company G, 36th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. Born October 8, 1835, Norfolk County (City of Chesapeake), Virginia. Enlisted December 9, 1863, Norfolk, Virginia. Mustered December 28, 1863, Norfolk, Virginia. Mustered out October 28, 1866, Brazos Santiago, Texas. Died July 25, 1925, Portsmouth, Virginia. ♥

Copyright 2010 Nadia K. Orton
Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 25, 2010. Mount Calvary Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex)
Copyright 2017 Nadia Orton Portsmouth VA
New headstone, installed July 26, 2017. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, July 27, 2017. Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex.

Pvt. Washington Milbey, Company F, 10th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. Born ca. 1818, Nansemond County (City of Suffolk), Virginia. Enlisted November 25, 1863, Craney Island, Virginia. Mustered December 17, 1863, Fort Monroe, Virginia. Mustered out May 17, 1866, Galveston, Texas. Died January 22, 1894, Portsmouth, Virginia. ♥

Copyright Nadia K. Orton 2010
Photo: Nadia K. Orton, December 9, 2010. Mt. Olive Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex.
Copyright 2017 Nadia Orton Portsmouth VA
New headstone, installed July 26, 2017. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, July 27, 2017. Mt. Olive Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex.

Sgt. James “Jim” Edwards, Company C, 2nd Regiment, United States Colored Cavalry. Born ca. 1840, Currituck County, North Carolina. Enlisted and mustered December 24, 1863, Fort Monroe, Virginia. Mustered out February 12, 1866, Brazos Santiago, Texas. Died September 15, 1901, Portsmouth, Virginia. ♥

Sgt. James Edwards USCT Mt. Olive Portsmouth Orton
Sgt. James Edwards, 2nd U. S. Colored Cavalry. Mt. Olive Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2015
Copyright 2017 Nadia Orton Portsmouth VA
New headstone, installed July 26, 2017. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, July 27, 2017. Mt. Olive Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex.

Edgecombe County, North Carolina: Historical marker dedication, State v. Will, 1834

State v Will marker Battleboro NC Copyrigh 2017 Nadia Orton
Historical Marker, State v Will, 1834. Battleboro, NC, June 10, 2017

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to join fellow members of the Phoenix Historical Society of Edgecombe County, North Carolina, for the dedication of the historical marker commemorating the landmark State v. Will Case of 1834. From the pamphlet distributed during the program:

The North Carolina Star, January 31, 1834

On January 22, 1834, Will, a slave belonging to James Battle at his Edgecombe County plantation, Walnut Creek, killed a white man. The charges brought against Will at the time resulted in the State v. Will case, in which the North Carolina Supreme Court protected slaves from a charge of murder when acting in self-defense.

The day started with an argument between Will a slave foreman named Allen over the possession of a hoe that Will had made by hand. Tempers flared and Will broke the hoe before going to work at a nearby cotton mill. After learning of Will’s behavior, Richard Baxter, Battle’s overseer, set off on horseback with his gun. Allen followed with his whip. Confronted by Baxter, Will attempted to flee but was shot in the back. Wounded and running for his life, Will was overtaken. Armed with a knife, Will fought off Baxter. A deep knife wound to Baxter’s arm proved fatal.

Will was charged with murder, although a white man in the same circumstances would have been charged with manslaughter. After looking at the evidence Battle believed that Will acted in self-defense, and he hired two prominent attorneys, Bartholomew Figures Moore and George Washington Mordecai, to defend Will against the murder conviction.

The case was appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that any slave under such provocation could only be charged with manslaughter. This challenged the 1829 State v. Mann decision which held that a master’s power over a slave was absolute and that the slave’s submission must be “perfect.”

Justice William Gaston, who wrote the opinion, said that the law required exceptions to the unconditional and absolute power over slaves as described in Justice Thomas Ruffin’s State v. Mann. Ina direct reference to Thomas Ruffin’s opinion in Mann, Moore had opened his argument with the point that “absolute power is irresponsible power, circumscribed by no limits save its own imbecility and selecting its own means with unfettered discretion.” Gaston reasoned that the act was “a brief fury” that left Will incapable of rational thought. Further humanizing Will he wrote that it was “instinctive to fly, human to struggle, and terror or resentment the strongest of passions, had given the struggle its fatal issue.”

It was Gaston’s conclusion that the law must treat slaves as any other human in such a case. He stated, “If the passions of the slave be excited into unlawful violence by the inhumanity of a master…is it a conclusion of law that such passion must spring from diabolical malice?” The decision was praised by abolitionists, covered by newspapers around the country, and cited as precedent in other legal cases. Will’s bold act of resistance served to humanize slaves in the eyes of the law.” (ncmarkers.com)

The dedication of the marker was held at the Dunbar Community Center in Battleboro, North Carolina. During the program, I learned that the director of the Dunbar Center and members of the Dunbar community had graciously allowed the center’s use for the program, and I once again appreciated the maintenance of ties between extant black communities and the preservation of African American history. The center was once a funeral home, donated to the community, and preserved and enlarged through several state and private grants. Others in attendance included representatives of the Edgecombe County Board of Commissioners, the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Black Workers for Justice, and the Carolina Auto, Aerospace and Machine Workers Union (CAAMWU)  . The Benediction and Grace was delivered by Deacon Linwood Armston of Holy Temple Holiness Church, Tarboro, North Carolina.

Dunbar Community Center Battleboro NC 2017 Copyright Nadia Orton
Dunbar Community Center, Battleboro, North Carolina
Dunbar Center North Carolina Copyright 2017 Nadia Orton
Dunbar Community Center, June 10, 2017. Edgecombe County, North Carolina
Keynote Preservation State V Will Copyright 2017 Nadia Orton
Keynote speaker, Dr. David Dennard, Director African and African American Studies, East Carolina University, and member of the North Carolina Historical Commission

State v. Will is an extremely interesting piece of history, and it must be placed within its appropriate historical context, occurring between the publication of David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829), Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831, in Southampton County, Virginia, and the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford case, or Dred Scott Decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that “a black man has no rights which a white man is bound to respect.” In 1834, Will, through his act of self-defense, had essentially asserted his own humanity. In the aftermath of the case, Will’s owner, James Smith Battle (1786-1854), sent Will to Mississippi, where he was later executed (by hanging) for the murder of another slave. As reported in an article by the News and Observer, Will’s wife,  “Aunt Rose,” was overheard saying “Will surely had hard luck.” On June 10th, the program held in commemoration of Will’s act of resistance provided some small measure of dignity to a man who was afforded so little in life. And in learning more of Will’s story, I came to fully  appreciate the symbolism inherent within the program’s location: in an early institution of the Dunbar community (former funeral home), preserved as a recreation and heritage center, and surrounded by living descendants of the enslaved on the Battle plantation.

State v. Will (1834), near Tarboro, NC, is the sixth historical marker sponsored by the Phoenix Historical Society of Edgecombe County, North Carolina. Others include: African Americans Defend Washington (1863), Washington, NC; the Knights of Labor (1886-1890), Tarboro, NC; Congressman George H. White & Black Second District (1897-1901), Tarboro, NC:  Thelonious Monk (1917), Rocky Mount, NC; and Operation Dixie: Tobacco Leaf House Workers Organizing Campaign (1946), Rocky Mount, NC.

The Phoenix Historical Society of Edgecombe County, North Carolina

“To recover, record, and promote the unique history of Edgecombe County experienced by members of its African American community.”

State v Will Historical Marker Copyright 2017 Nadia Orton
State v Will Historical Marker. Battleboro, North Carolina, June 10, 2017