A Personal Journey Through African-American Cemeteries – National Trust for Historic Preservation

Copyright Nadia Orton
At the gravesite of my great-great-great-grandfather Alexander Orton, 10th U. S. Colored Infantry, at Grove Baptist Church Cemetery in Portsmouth, Virginia.

I’ll never forget the exciting moment when I found the gravesite of Alexander Orton, my paternal great-great-great-grandfather. Born in 1842 in Virginia, he was a Civil War veteran and member of the 10th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry.

Finding his last resting place was part of a genealogy project I’ve been pursuing for nine years now, keeping a long-standing promise made to an elder. Diagnosed with a serious chronic illness as a teenager, I needed a kidney transplant soon after college. My great-aunt gathered her entire church congregation to support my transplant fund, but held a lingering concern about our family legacy.

“Do not let our history die,” she told my father shortly before her passing in 2007. To honor her last wish, I vowed to make the most of my second chance and do my part in documenting our family history.

I’ve traced my father’s ancestry to 1630 in Virginia, and my mother’s to 1770 in North Carolina. Some of my ancestors were born free, while others were enslaved. Like Alexander, some enlisted in the Union Army to fight for freedom in the Civil War. They’d founded four African-American communities in Tidewater, Virginia, along with masonic lodges, banks, churches, and schools. They were oystermen, carpenters, farmers, teachers, Pullman porters, and teamsters at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. READ MORE

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All photos by Nadia K. Orton (unless otherwise noted). All rights reserved.

Shepherdsville Baptist Gloucester Orton 2016
Shepherdsville Baptist Church, Gloucester, Virginia

Over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, our family visited Shepherdsville Baptist Church, established in the late 1800s, near the community of Ark in Gloucester County, Virginia. It was a stop on one of our regular trips to historic sites along Highway 17, a mostly coastal, multi-state route we’d begun exploring in 2009, soon after relocating from Richmond, Virginia, to lower Tidewater to help preserve an ancestral cemetery, the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (1879). Part of that preservation effort includes my ongoing study of the over 100 Civil War veterans buried in the eleven-acre cemetery, the majority of whom were enslaved prior to 1863. These men had all escaped to various Union lines from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., to fight for freedom against the “peculiar institution” of slavery. Representing over one dozen regiments, I’ve found that many served in the 36th Regiment, formerly, the 2nd North Carolina Colored Infantry, and that some had Gloucester County roots. The goal of this particular cemetery visit was to see the gravesite of Rev. Frank Page (1844-1916), who served with Company I of the 36th USCT.