Recovering and Preserving African American Cemeteries – Preservation Leadership Forum, National Trust for Historic Preservation

Pinewood Cemetery COPYRIGHT Nadia Orton
Pine Forest Cemetery, Wilmington, North Carolina

The reverence attached to cemeteries and burial grounds, which have long been considered sacred sites, is an example of enduring Africanisms and cultural tradition in the African American community. Burial grounds have always been regarded as places where ancestors could be properly honored and provided with the dignity, care, and respect in death that had often been denied them in life.

Interest in the study of my family tree has led me to over a dozen cemeteries throughout Tidewater Virginia and North Carolina, and helped reconstruct a family legacy spanning over 400 years. Cemeteries offer an important, tangible connection to history allowing closer interpretation of days past than most other sources can. Genealogists and family historians have long recognized the benefit of cemeteries in the study of family history and an increasing popular interest in genealogy has led to an increased focus on them.  READ MORE

Portsmouth, Virginia: Mount Calvary Cemetery, a battle with time and neglect – African American Today, The Virginian Pilot

Mt. Calvary Cemetery Virginian-Pilot
Brenda Orton, left, and daughter Nadia walk through the Mount Calvary Cemetery, part of a complex of graveyards they hope to get included on the National Register of Historic Places. (Photo: Steve Earley, The Virginian-Pilot)

By Cherise Newsome

In a cemetery complex tucked off of Deep Creek Boulevard and Pulaski Street, Nadia Orton tiptoes among the dead.

Stepping on the sunken, wet ground, Orton keeps an eye out for feral dogs that have roamed the field for the last few months.

“I think they were marking their territory,” she said.

But the dogs are mistaken. This grave site doesn’t belong to them. Orton says it belongs to the city, to the community, to the families of the 8,000-plus people who lay in one of Portsmouth’s oldest black cemeteries, referred to as the Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex. Some scholars estimate 15,000 may lie at the site originally used when burials were segregated. It formally opened in 1879, though some burials happened earlier.

Notables like former slave-turned-newspaper columnist Jeffrey T. Wilson is buried there. So is prominent black educator I.C. Norcom, though his gravestone has vanished. Children’s advocate Ida Barbour rests there, too, along with musicians, oystermen and business leaders. Orton wants their legacy to stand for generations to come.  READ MORE