Category Archives: Southampton County

Portsmouth, Virginia: Disappointments and Discoveries

Sgt. Williams Lincoln Cemetery Portsmouth Copyright 2018 Nadia Orton

The recently discovered grave of Sgt. George Williams, Company F, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, March 22, 2018.

 

On March 22, 2018, we visited Lincoln Memorial Cemetery (est. 1912), in Portsmouth, Virginia. Our family has long ties to the sacred ground, with ancestors from North Carolina and various areas of Tidewater, Virginia, being buried there for decades.

So, it was no surprise that, after a week of snow and rainstorms, we encountered major flooding in the cemetery. It happens often, as the grounds are low-lying with exceedingly poor drainage. But this flooding was horrible, perhaps the worst I’ve ever seen. It was present in the front of the cemetery…

 

Lincoln Memorial Flooding 2018 Copyright 2018 Nadia Orton

Waterlogged graves of Dr. William E. Reid and wife Cornelia, and Dr. Frank G. Elliott and wife Laura Carr Elliott. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, March 22, 2018.

 

the center of the cemetery…

 

Flood Graves Lincoln Copyright 2018 Nadia Orton

Submerged graves of Korean War veteran Leonard Walker, and Vietnam War veteran William McKentry. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, March 22, 2018.

 

and the rear…

 

Flooding in a rear section of Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, March 22, 2018. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

 

No section of the historic burial ground was spared, and hundreds of grave markers were barely visible beneath the rippling pools of water, mud, and random trash blown in from the roadway. I tried to muster my game face, and family members made a comment that was both practical and dispiriting. “I hope your boots don’t start leaking!” Sigh. This visit was supposed to be a positive one. We were there to mark the gravesite of Pvt. Albert Jones, a member of the 1st Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry. He died in a terrible house fire in 1940 at the age of one hundred and two, and for over seventy-eight years, had rested in an unmarked grave. In February, we submitted a request for a new headstone for Pvt. Jones, which was recently approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs and delivered to a local monument company for installation. It seemed a simple task: go to the cemetery, and flag his gravesite for the monument company. But the flood waters made the simple act of marking Albert’s grave practically impossible.

 

“…you better never let mastah catch yer wif a book or paper, and yer couldn’t praise God so he could hear yer. If yer done dem things, he sho’ would beat yer.”

 

Not long ago, I discovered Albert’s slave narrative, recorded in 1938 as part of the Works Progress Administration. Through it, I had the opportunity to learn details of his life not found in any other source. It’s simply stunning, reading first person testimony, feeling the inherent power of the words. Albert described being born enslaved in Southampton County, Virginia, site of the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831. Though he never shared his name, Albert stated that his owner was relatively decent. However, if the owner found any books, paper, or other reading or writing materials in the hands of the enslaved, they would be beaten or otherwise severely punished.

Albert had remained on the plantation until the age of twenty-one, when he’d escaped with his brother, and enlisted in the Union Army on December 3, 1864, at Newport News, Virginia. In the narrative, he described the living conditions in the Federal camps, and the roles of African American women there who’d joined their husbands in their flight to freedom.

In one battle, Albert had been shot through his right hand. At the time, Albert stated that he’d simply wrapped it with a bandage and continued to fight, but the wound would continue to plague him for the rest of his life. After showing her his injury, the WPA interviewer noted “it was half closed…this was as far as he could open his hand.”

Learning these fascinating tidbits about his life, coupled with the tragic way that he died, made me determined to mark Albert’s grave. He’d begun to feel like a long-lost member of our family. So as we would with any other family member, we tried to find his grave despite the flooding. But good intentions aside, there was no way it was going to happen that day…the whole area was underwater, a foot deep in some sections. Albert would have to wait, again.

 

Flooding in Albert’s section. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, March 22, 2018. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

 

Disappointed, I began to make my way back to the car, but was soon distracted by another grave. It was a headstone of government-issue, and judging by its weathered appearance, a very old one. Mindful of the sodden ground and flood waters, I leaned down as close as I dared, and made out a very faint inscription. “____ Williams, Co. __, __ U. S. C. I.” It certainly wasn’t Albert, so who was this? Had I found another United States Colored Troop?

I trudged back to the car a little faster, and retrieved a pair of gloves, an old towel, and our trusty brush/ice-scraper for an impromptu cleaning (brush for the stone, ice-scraper for the mud at the base). After a few minutes, the inscription was clear enough to read: “Sergt. Geo. Williams/Co. F/36 U. S. C. I.” Indeed, I had discovered another freedom fighter.

 

Sgt. George Williams 36th USCI Portsmouth Copyright 2018 Nadia Orton

Clearing the gravestone of Sgt. George Williams, 36th Regiment, U. S.Colored Infantry. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, March 22, 2018. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

 

Sgt. Williams Lincoln Cemetery Portsmouth Copyright 2018 Nadia Orton

The recently discovered grave of Sgt. George Williams, Company F, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, March 22, 2018.

 

Returning home, I looked up Sgt. Williams’ service record. He was born about 1843 in Suffolk, Virginia, and described as five feet, five inches tall, with “black eyes, complexion, and hair,” occupation farmer.  He’d enlisted on August 13, 1863, in Norfolk, Virginia, and mustered in at Portsmouth on October 28th. While his service record doesn’t indicate his participation in any battles, it does note his intermittent assignments with the Quartermaster Department. He was appointed Corporal on September 9, 1863, and Sergeant on July 24, 1866. He mustered out on August 13, 1866, at Brazos Santiago, Texas, after a term of three years.

Excited, I continued to dig. After the war, George married Jennie Knight, daughter of Paul and Jennie Knight. According to later

Enlistment record of Sgt. George Williams, 36th U. S.Colored Infantry.

testimony of their children, both George and Jennie had ancestral ties to Richmond, Virginia. In the 1870 and 1880 census, George, Jennie and family were documented in Portsmouth, with George working as a general laborer. Not having much luck finding the family in the 1900 census, I did learn that Jennie Knight Williams passed away in 1909, and was interred in Mount Olive Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in the historic Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex, Portsmouth. To date, Jennie’s grave has not been located.

In Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, Sgt. George Williams is interred with several other family members, Present are the graves of some of his children, including sons George, Jr. (1878-1941), and Edward (Edinborough) (1866-1934). Edward (Edinborough) Williams is interred next to his wife, Hattie A. Churchwell Williams (1867-1934), daughter of Isaac and Ellen Churchwell, free persons of color.

 

Central portion of Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. The Williams Family plot is on the lower left. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, March 22, 2018.

 

Over the years, flooding hasn’t spared Sgt. George William’s family plot either. Edward’s (Edinborough’s) gravestone is currently upside down, and his wife Hattie’s has shifted slowly to the right of its original location. And I’ve come to wonder how Sgt. George Williams is even buried in Lincoln Memorial. After all, according to military records, he’d died about 1901, and yet the earliest recorded burials in Lincoln Memorial began in 1913.

One possibility is that Sgt. Williams’ children had his grave moved to Lincoln after the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex became increasingly overgrown in the 1940s. It wouldn’t be the first instance of grave relocations to Lincoln from other historically African American burial grounds in the area. The family of realtor and businessman Thomas William Newbie (1879-1936), had done the same in the 1970s, and the grave of Sgt. Lewis Rodgers (1844-1884), of the 28th U. S. Colored Infantry, was moved to Lincoln during the construction of Portsmouth’s historic Truxtun community in 1919. Although George rests among family in Lincoln Memorial, it’s still somewhat disheartening to think of him resting apart from his wife, Jennie, buried somewhere in the rear of the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. There’s a logical conclusion; George’s children had moved the only ancestral grave they could find amidst the overgrowth.

Perhaps fate is the reason why I stumbled across Sgt. Williams’ gravesite, to help tell his family story. Or maybe I just got lucky, spotting the grave of a local freedom fighter I didn’t expect to find while carefully tracing a path amidst flood waters and sunken graves. Or maybe I’m just overthinking again, and the buzzing sounds in my ear are my annoyed ancestors telling me to just be happy with the discovery. Either way, finding Sgt. George Williams is a great reminder that in cemetery preservation, despite all disappointments, the delays, lack of funding, cooperation, and in my case, chronic health issues, there are still wonderful discoveries to be made that keep the awful tug of hopelessness at bay. The job’s never a small task, but every little bit helps the larger goal. You have to keep trying, no matter what.

As for the flooding, I hope someday that funds can be secured to fix the problem. Thousands of families have connections to Lincoln Memorial, and no matter the conditions, descendants and the surrounding community remain committed to maintaining family connections to this sacred ground. This is especially evident every Memorial Day (Decoration Day) weekend, where hundreds come out, clean the gravesites they can reach, and decorate them with flowers, telling stories of ancestors and sharing memories while they work. The constant flooding only makes these family moments, precious as they are, that much harder to accomplish. Floods erase inscriptions and valuable history. It has to be remedied. There are simply too many priceless stories and family legacies at peril. ♦

 

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Filed under Brazos Santiago, Brunswick County, Civil War, Edgecombe County, Franklin County, Gates County, Grand Army of the Republic, Hampton, Hertford County, Memorials to Civil War Veterans, New Hanover County, Newport News, Norfolk, Norfolk County, North Carolina, Portsmouth, Richmond, Slavery, Southampton County, Suffolk, Texas, Tombstone Tales, U. S. Colored Troops, Vance County, Virginia, Warren County

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. ♥

 

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Portsmouth, Virginia: Albert Jones, United States Colored Troop

 

Pvt. Jones Portsmouth Enlistment Card

Pvt. Albert Jones, Enlistment Card

 

Albert Jones, United States Colored Troop

 

“On the out skirts of Portsmouth, Virginia, where one seldom hears of or goes for sight seeing lives Mr. Albert Jones. In a four room cottage at 726 Lindsey Avenue, the aged Civil War veteran lives alone with the care of Mr. Jones’ niece, who resides next door to him. He has managed to survive his ninety-fifth year. It is almost a miracle to see a man at his age as supple as he.

On entering a scanty room in the small house, Mr. Jones was nodding in a chair near the stove. When asked about his early life, he straightened up, crossed his legs, and said, “I’s perty old – ninety six. I was born a slave in Souf Hampton county, but my mastah was mighty good to me. He won’t ruff; dat is ‘f yer done right.”

The aged man cleared his throat and chuckled. Then he said, “But you better never let mastah catch yer wif a book or paper, and yer couldn’t praise God so he could hear yer. If yer done dem things, he sho’ would beat yer. ‘Course he wuz good to me, ‘cause I never done none of ‘em. My work won’t hard neiver. I had to wait on my mastah, open de gates for him, drive de wagon and tend de horses. I was sort of a house boy.”

“Fer twenty years I stayed wif mastah, and I didn’t try to run away. When I wuz twenty one, me and one of my brothers run away to fight wif the Yankees. Us left Souf Hampton county and went to Petersburg. Dere we got some food. Den us went to Fort Hatton where we met some more slaves who had done run away. When we got in Fort Hatton, us had to cross a bridge to git to de Yankees. De rebels had torn de bridge down. We all got together and builded back de bridge, and we went on to de Yankees. Dey give us food and clothes.

The old man then got up and emptied his mouth of the tobacco juice, scratched his bald head and continued. “Yer know, I was one of de first colored cavalry soljers, and I fought in Company ‘K.’ I fought for three years and a half. Sometimes I slept out doors, and sometimes I slept in a tent. De Yankees always give us plenty of blankets.”

“During the war some un us had to always stay up nights and watch fer de rebels. Plenty of nights I has watched, but de rebels never ‘tacked us when I wuz on.”

“Not only wuz dere men slaves dat run to de Yankees, but some un de women slaves followed dere husbands. Dey use to help by washing and cooking.”

“One day when I wuz fighting, de rebels shot at me, and dey sent a bullet through my hand. I wuz lucky not to be kilt. Look! See how my hand is?”

The old man held up his right hand, and it was half closed. Due to the wound he received in the war, that was as far as he could open his hand.

Still looking at his hand Mr. Jones said, “But dat didn’t stop me, I had it bandaged and kept on fighting.”

“The uniform dat I wore wuz blue wif brass buttons; a blue cape, lined wif red flannel, black leather boots and a blue cap. I rode on a bay color horse – fact every body in Company ‘K’ had bay colored horses. I tooked my knap-sack and blankets on de horse back. In my knap-sack I had water, hard tacks and other food.”

“When de war ended, I goes back to my mastah and he treated me like his brother. Guess he wuz scared of me ‘cause I had so much ammunition on me. My brother, who went wif me to de Yankees, caught rheumatism doing de war. He died after de war ended.”


 

Lincoln Cemetery Portsmouth Copyright Nadia Orton 2011

Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, August 23, 2011.

 

Albert Jones died the morning of  February 27, 1940, burned to death in a terrible house fire. Later that day, he was interred in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery by the Home Burial Company. He was 102 years old. As his burial site is currently unmarked, we have submitted the application for a new gravestone. ♦

(Source: WPA Slave Narratives, January 8, 1937)

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Filed under Civil War, In Memoriam, Memorials to Civil War Veterans, Norfolk County, Portsmouth, Saltville, Slavery, Smyth County, Southampton County, U. S. Colored Troops, USCT Diaries, Virginia, Washington County

Portsmouth, Virginia: Eight local heroes to receive new headstones

Eight more local heroes to receive new headstones. They were all born enslaved, and risked all in their collective escape to freedom to fight against the institution of slavery. Over the years, their gravestones have become weathered, vandalized, and nearly forgotten. The replacement gravestones for Pvt. Arthur Beasley, Pvt. David Bailey, and Cpl. George Baysmore, have already been approved and delivered to a local monument company for installation. Now, five others join them, and will be installed soon, weather permitting. They are:

 

Pvt. Austin Smallwood (ca. 1845-1894)

Bertie County, North Carolina

Co. I, 14th Regiment, U. S. Colored Heavy Artillery

Mount Calvary Cemetery (Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex)

Smallwood USCT Copyright Orton 2010

Pvt. Austin Smallwood. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 25, 2010

 


 

Pvt. Richard Reddick (ca. 1847-1896)

Perquimans County, North Carolina

Co. F, 1st Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry

Mount Calvary Cemetery (Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex)

 

Pvt Reddick Copyright 2010 Nadia Orton

Pvt. Richard Reddick. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 25, 2010

 


 

Pvt. Thomas Reddick (ca. 1838-1901)

Suffolk, Virginia

Co. K, 1st Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry

Mount Olive Cemetery (Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex)

 

Pvt Reddick Copyright 2014 Nadia Orton

Pvt. Thomas Reddick. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, May 24, 2014

 


 

Pvt/Landsman Samuel Morris (1839-1902)

Suffolk, Virginia

Co. A, 30th Regiment, U. S. Colored infantry

Landsman, USS Allegheny

USS North Carolina, USS Cyane, USS Independence

Mount Olive Cemetery (Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex)

 

Morris USCT Copyright 2011 Nadia K. Orton

Pvt/Landsman Samuel Morris. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, November 5, 2011

 


 

Sgt. Lewis Rodgers (1844-1884)

Gates County, North Carolina

Co. G, 28th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry

Lincoln Memorial Cemetery

 

Sgt. Rodgers Copyright 2012 Nadia Orton

Sgt. Lewis Rodgers. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, January 22, 2012

 

 

 

 

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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

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Filed under Edgecombe County, Mississippi, North Carolina, Slavery, Southampton County, Suffolk, Virginia

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Filed under Bertie County, Chesapeake, Civil War, Gates County, Hampton, Norfolk, North Carolina, Portsmouth, Richmond, Southampton County, Suffolk, Surry County, Tombstone Tales, U. S. Colored Troops, USCT Diaries, Virginia, Virginia Beach