In Their Own Words: Voices of African American WWI Veterans

On Sunday, November 11, 2018, the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, the technical end of World War I, was observed by our nation and many countries throughout the world. As with other major historical events, I viewed the day through the lens of a historian and genealogist. It can be quite an interesting enterprise; as a historian, you want to know all of the facts of an event, and as a genealogist, you’re eager to place your ancestors within the context of those events. 

Over the years, our family has located the grave sites of many of our ancestors that served in World War I. We’ve tracked them to historic African American cemeteries in Portsmouth, Richmond and Suffolk in Virginia, Buncombe, Franklin, Henderson, Hertford, and Warren counties in North Carolina, and Knoxville National Cemetery in Tennessee.

At times, whether simply visiting their gravesites, or planting flags, I’d find myself staring down at the stones, and wondering what their WWI experience was like. Sure, I could review the details of the various battles and engagements in books, or read first-person accounts from some of the more famous veterans, but those sources wouldn’t tell me what my ancestors thought, nor how they felt about the war.

That’s why I was so excited to learn about the WWI History Commission questionnaires, many of which have been or are currently being digitized by local and state libraries. A historical window into the minds and memories of long-deceased ancestors? Perfect!

Colored Soldiers Attention – The Virginia War History Commission has decided to place record of the achievements of the colored soldiers from Virginia in the World War in the volumes with the record of the white soldiers, for this purpose of Board of Negro Collaborators has been appointed to collect this data. Headquarters have been established at the Mechanics Savings Bank building and all persons knowing of persons, who distinguished themselves abroad will send their names and addresses to Prof. T. C. Erwin, Secretary, Mechanics Savings Bank Building, Richmond, Va. As there is but a limited time to secure this information all persons are urged to act at once. It will be very unfortunate if this history should be published and the colored troops not recognized in the compilation due to negligence or failure to send in the information. Questionnaires may be obtained for the asking by sending for the same as indicated. Write at once and help this worthy cause.

The Richmond Planet, Saturday, April 24, 1920

During a two-day visit to the Library of Virginia, I eagerly reviewed reels of microfilm, looking for any applications that our ancestors submitted to the commission. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any at all, and felt the familiar feeling of smacking into another genealogy “brick wall.” However, amidst my disappointment, I noticed something else; some of the veterans had chosen to fill out their applications thoroughly, supplying detailed answers to questions about their views on religion, the war, and (if relevant) their combat experience. I paid close attention to applications submitted by veterans that lived in the same neighborhoods as my ancestors, and have included a small portion of them here.

Richmond, Virginia

Pvt. Otis P. Robinson (1890-1918) – Company B, 545 Engrs

Original gravesite of Pvt. Otis P. Robinson, American Cemetery, St. Nazaire, France, 1918. Library of Virginia

Otis Purcell Robinson was born on March 2, 1890 in Richmond, Virginia. He was the son of William T. Robinson and Victoria Edmonds, who are both interred in Evergreen Cemetery. He was the brother of Carrie Gustava Robinson Harris Gladden (1880-1948), William Bernard Robinson (ca.1884), Oscar C. Robinson, and Julian Merchant Robinson (ca. 1889).

Prior to World War I, Pvt. Robinson worked as a porter, and general laborer with the British American Tobacco Company (est. 1902). He was a member of Sharon Baptist Church. He enlisted on June 5, 1917, and left for Europe on September 23, 1918 aboard the Rijndam, a Dutch-owned vessel built in Ireland in 1901, acquired by the U. S. Navy for troop transport on May 1, 1918. 

Sometime during the voyage to Europe, Otis P. Robinson contracted pneumonia, and died on October 15, 1918. He was originally interred on October 19, 1918, in grave 326, plot K, square #1 of the American Cemetery, located in St. Nazaire, France. He was disinterred on November 7, 1921, and re-interred in Richmond National Cemetery, Virginia, in February, 1922.

Grave of Pvt. Otis Purcell Robinson, Richmond National Cemetery. Source: Ancestry.com

From his last letter to sister Carrie:

“Dear Sister, pray for me, or pray to God in heaven, is better than anything else I know; pray God Bless you and be with you, until we meet again. From your devoted brother Otis P. Robinson – Camp Humphreys Va. 545 Co. Engrs.”

Pvt.Robinson’s 1920 questionnaire was filled out by his sister, Carrie. In it, she included the following words:

“My star of hope — I looked from out my window and in the sky afar a tiny ship a anchor, There shone a golden star. Tis a lamp set in his window, a light unto my feet, Both he, and I are waiting until we two shall meet; It beams before my vision, It sooths my weary brains; It gives me peace in sadness and banishes the pain; My star of hope so precious I call this Golden Star; It shineth in my (unreadable); my loved one lost in War; devoted sister Carrie G. Harris.”

Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr. (1899-1963) – Pvt., Student Army Training Corps, Virginia Union University 

A. Lincoln Harris, Jr., The Crisis (1922)

Dr. Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr., regarded as the first nationally recognized African American economist, was born on January 17, 1899, Richmond, Virginia, to Abram Lincoln Harris, Sr. and Mary E. Lee , who are interred in East End Cemetery. He was the brother of Edna Celeste Harris Johnson, Cyril David Harris (1908-1909), Miriam Harris Fisher, Collins Jonathan Harris, John Malcolm Harris (1907-1937), and Madelyn G. Harris. A Baptist in faith, he was a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity.

His attitude towards military service:

“Prior to being inducted into the army I felt that any war fought to preserve the autonomy of weaker people should be supported by all liberty loving persons.”

On the effects of camp experience in the United States:

“Camp life such as I experienced was physically wholesome. I was more fit physically after discharge mentally, conditions were less favorable.”

Overall effect of war experience with his state of mind before the war:

“My actual experience had no effect upon my religious beliefs because I had no oversea experience. But the basic causes underlying the World War with its subsequent horrors and brutalities which are constantly referred to by eminent scholars some of whom had actual experience in the conflict force me to conclude that religion is inefficacious as a panacea for human social ills. Religionists have used the channels of public expression for the purpose of sowing the seeds of discord, racial and international hatred.

Still as a believer in the potency and effectiveness of the doctrines of Jesus Christ, my faith is unshaken. The solution of international problems is to be had only by the application of these teachings in social as well as individual life. Until now, hardly can any nation boast of having lived in accordance with the ideas of Christ. One nation is no more reprehensible than another.

In short, my knowledge of the recent war forces me to draw a hard line of demarcation between religion and Christianity, for surely ardent religious fervor was amply demonstrated on all sides during the recent crisis but the love of Jesus Christ was woefully lacking.”

Dr. Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr. Photo: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Dr. Abram Lincoln Harris passed away on November 15, 1963, and was interred in Montrose Cemetery, Chicago. His obituary in the November 18, 1963 edition of the Chicago Tribune described Dr. Harris as a “distinguished economist, social theorist, teacher, and writer.” On Dr. Harris’ legacy, the Richmond Times Dispatch wrote:

“Abram L. Harris, 64, formerly of Richmond,professor of economics at the University of Chicago, died Saturday in Chicago.

Dr. Harris, a Negro, headed the department of economics at Howard University at Howard University in Washington from 1936 to 1945. He also had been on the faculties of West Virginia State College and the College of the City of New York.

An authority on the problems of the Negro, he came to the University of Chicago in 1946. His books include “The Black Worker,” “The Negro as a Capitalist,: and “Ethics.”

Survivors include his wife, a brother, Jonathan Harris of Richmond, and a sister, Mrs. Madelyn H. Edmunds of Washington.”

The Richmond Times Dispatch, November 17, 1963

Norfolk, Virginia

PFC Floyd Bishop – Company B, 540 Engrs. Svc Bn.

Floyd Bishop was born on July 4, 1892, in Mapleton, Hertford County, North Carolina, to Richard Bishop (1838-1916), a farmer, and Margaret Gatling (ca. 1849-1937). He moved to Suffolk, Virginia by 1910, where he found work as a general laborer and later, as a cook with the Merchants and Miners Steamship Company. He enlisted at Norfolk, Virginia, on August 3, 1918, and departed from Hoboken, New Jersey for England aboard the USS Leviathan on October 27, 1918.

PFC Bishop arrived at Liverpool, England, on November 3, 1918. On his questionnaire, PFC Bishop noted that he wasn’t involved in any engagements, and was moved with other members of his company to various camps in France from November 11, 1918, to May 21, 1919. He departed from Marseille, France, on May 21, 1919 for Brooklyn, New York aboard the USS Brittania, arriving on June 6, 1919.

On the war, and its effects:

Before the war, I was passive as to the treatment of the common people colored, in particular, but since the war I am constantly reminded that my people (colored) are not getting any of the things that I served in the war to help bring about—democracy.

After the war, Floyd returned to his previous occupation, as a cook. He married Miss Estelle Rogers on January 21, 1932, at Norfolk, Virginia. The couple divorced a little over six years later.

PFC Floyd Bishop passed away on December 10, 1952. He rests in Calvary Cemetery in an unmarked grave.

Portsmouth, Virginia

Pvt. Harvey Page (1888-1950) – 15th Company, 4th Bn., 155 Depot Brigade

Gravestone of Pvt. Harvey Page, Mount Olive Cemetery, October 11, 2010

Pvt. Harvey Page was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, on April 9, 1888, to Charlie Page and Georgia Watkins. He was the husband of Emma Wilson, and affiliated with the Baptist church.

Pvt. Page enlisted on October 27, 1917, at Portsmouth, Virginia, and was stationed at Camp Lee, Virginia. Soon after arrival, he was transferred to Company B, 370th Infantry. He left for Europe aboard the USS Finland on April 30, 1918. 

USS Finland, ca. 1918. Source: navsource.org

In his questionnaire, Pvt. Page was somewhat apologetic in tone; he could not remember exact details and dates regarding his combat time. He did note that some of his engagements were centered around “fighting in the Argonne forest,” which most likely refers to the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Pvt. Page left Brest, France on February 2, 1919, and arrived in New York City on February 9, 1919. He returned to his family in Portsmouth, Virginia, and continued his previous occupation as a general laborer. 

In his application, he noted that his combat experience during the war was “impossible to describe.”

Pvt. Harvey Page passed away on November 30, 1950, from complications of acute endocarditis. He was interred in Mount Olive Cemetery on December 10, 1950, by funeral director Edward A. Colden

Pvt. Ollie Lee Snow – Company H, 369th Infantry, 93rd Division

New York’s famous 369th regiment arrives home from France. 
National Archives and Records Administration
Records of the War Department
Record Group 165
National Archives Identifier: 533548

Pvt. Ollie Lee Snow, one of the infamous “Harlem Hellfighters,” was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, on May 26, 1895, to William Snow and Etta Bass. Little is known about his early history in Tidewater, Virginia; he was a Baptist in faith, and worked as a shipfitter helper at the Norfolk Navy Yard. On August 18, 1916, he married Miss Willetta Fuller (1898-1944), daughter of George Washington Fuller, Sr. (1876-1923), and Mary L. Davis (1878-1946). By 1920, he was documented in Portsmouth’s Jefferson Ward, at 1010 Green Street, with wife Willetta, and George and Mary Fuller. Willetta Fuller Snow and her parents are all buried in Portsmouth’s Mount Olive Cemetery.

Gravestone of Willetta Fuller Snow, Mount Olive Cemetery (Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex, est. 1879). Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2011. The visible damage to the right upper portion of her gravestone was caused by lawn maintenance.

According to military records, Ollie Lee Snow enlisted on October 27, 1917, at Camp Lee, Virginia. Stationed there through early December, 1917, he was transferred north to Hoboken, New Jersey, where he left for Europe aboard the USS Pocahontas, arriving in Brest, France on January 1, 1918. 

USS Pocahontas, ca. 1918. Source: navsource.org

In his questionnaire, Pvt. Snow’s responses were pretty straightforward. Despite the racism and discrimination that many African American veterans faced, he had a favorable view of his overall military service, and noted that camp life prior to combat was beneficial “physically and mentally.” He wrote that his overseas experience improved his health, and strengthened his religious beliefs. Regarding combat, he “felt he was doing the right thing in fighting for Uncle Sam.” He also provided relevant details of his combat experience, regarding his participation in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He noted that he was awarded the Croix de Guerre, on September 29, 1918, by Marshall Ferdinand Foch, for his conduct during the Battle of Snake Hill. 

Soon after submitting his questionnaire in the Spring of 1920, Pvt. Ollie and Willetta Snow relocated to New York, where he lived until his death on August 31, 1929. He was interred in Cypress Hills National Cemetery on September 7, 1929.  

Virginia: A new headstone for 1st Sgt. Martin Smith, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry

Martin Smith USCT Portsmouth Copyright 2013 Nadia Orton

Headstone of 1st Sgt. Martin Smith, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, Memorial Day Weekend (May 25), 2013

 

Today we received word that a new headstone for 1st Sgt. Martin Smith, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry, has been approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Born enslaved, ca. 1840 in Nansemond County (City of Suffolk), Virginia, Martin escaped and enlisted on January 5, 1864, at Norfolk, Virginia, and mustered in on January 25th. At the time of his enlistment, he was described as five feet, four inches tall, with a “light complexion, black eyes and hair.” His occupation was noted as “laborer.” During the war, he was present with his regiment at Point Lookout, Maryland, Bermuda Hundred, Petersburg and Richmond through December, 1864, and assigned to an ammunition train of the artillery brigade, January to April, 1865. Martin was appointed Corporal on August 1, 1865, Sergeant on March 23, 1866, and 1st Sergeant on July 28, 1866. He mustered out with the surviving members of his regiment on October 28, 1866, at Brazos Santiago, Texas.

While enslaved, Martin was often “hired out” to various plantation owners. As a teenager, he was sent down to South Carolina to work as a turpentine dipper, hard and dangerous labor that was part of the naval stores industry, which began in North Carolina in the early 1700s.  The industry was active well into the early decades of the twentieth century, supported largely through the use of convict labor and peonage. In Slavery by Another Name, author Douglas A. Blackmon describes the industry and the day to day experience of the men laboring on turpentine farms, providing a picture of what young Martin had to cope with while in the Pee Dee/Lowcountry region.

…men toiled in the turpentine farms under excruciating conditions to supply a booming market for pine tar, pitch, and turpentine used to caulk the seams of wooden sailing ships and waterproof their ropes and riggings.

Workers carved deep V-shaped notches into the trunks of millions of massive slash and longleaf pines towering in the still virgin forests. Small galvanized iron boxes or gutters were attached to the trees to collect the thick, milky pine gum that oozed from the wounds in winter. During spring and summer, as sap began to run, millions of gallons of pine resin oozed into the containers. Working feverishly from before dawn to the end of light, turpentine workers cut fresh notches into every tree once a week, gathered the gum and resin by hand, boiled it into vast quantities of distilled turpentine, and hauled it in hundreds of thousands of barrels out of the deep woods. When trees stopped producing gum and resin, the camp owners harvested them for lumber. As the demand for turpentine products soared, the timber companies relentlessly acquired fresh tracts of forest to drain and armies of men to perform the grueling work. – Slavery by Another Name, 174)

Pulling operation of a four-year face in a turpentine grove near Pembroke, Georgia. Library of Congress

Rosin flowing on a four-year face. The tool is a “puller.” Near Pembroke, Georgia. Library of Congress

Emptying the turpentine dups full of rosin into a bucket near a turpentine still in Pembroke, Georgia. Library of Congress

Turpentine dipper near Waycross, Georgia. Library of Congress

 

Martin Smith was forced to work in this industry for four long years.

Soon after his return to Virginia, Martin met and married Nansemond County native Jeannette “Jennie” Gordon, daughter of Isaac and Huldah Gordon, according to “slave custom’ in late 1862. The couple never had an official ceremony, according to Jeannette. “He asked my master and mistress for me, and they gave their consent,” she would later state in her pension application.

Martin and Jeannette were the proud parents of nine children, including daughters Emeline and Margaret, and sons John Martin, Charles, Pompey, and George. The family resided in the Western Branch District of Norfolk County, Virginia, in an area annexed by the City of Portsmouth in 1919. Martin generally worked as a laborer on truck farms, and managed to acquire an 1/8-acre of land on which he built a small home. His sons gained employment at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

1st Sgt. Martin Smith passed away on January 4, 1897, from complications of chronic rheumatism.  He was interred in Mount Olive Cemetery, part of the historic Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex, Portsmouth, Virginia. His wife, Jeannette “Jennie” Gordon Smith, died on August 2, 1930, from complications of chronic nephritis. She was also buried in Mount Olive Cemetery by undertaker Richard Rodgers. To date, her gravesite has not been located.

1st Sgt. Martin Smith will be the twentieth African American Civil War veteran to receive a new headstone.  See this post for more information on the other nineteen freedom fighters. ♥

Martin Smith Portsmouth USCT Copyright 2016 Nadia Orton

Headstone of 1st Sgt. Martin Smith, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry, May 29, 2016. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

Delaware: Tracing family roots, past and present

African American Cemetery Delaware - Copyright 2017 Nadia K. Orton

African-American cemetery, Kent County, Delaware, August 19, 2017. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

 

In mid-August, we attended a family reunion in Wilmington, Delaware, for two of the paternal branches of our collective family tree, lines that extend to the 18th-century in Virginia’s Mecklenburg County (est. 1765), and City of Portsmouth (est. 1752), and to Warren County (est. 1779), in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.

On the way to the reunion, and in keeping with the theme of “family,” we stopped at this peaceful spot, a well maintained cemetery in Kent County, Delaware. It’s located near the birthplace of Thomas Craig (ca. 1831-1896), a free person of color and Civil War Navy veteran who was included in my first blog a few years ago. (Thomas is buried near my paternal great-great-great grandfather, Max Jolly Orton, also a Navy veteran, and other ancestors in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, Portsmouth, Virginia.)

Walking through the sacred ground, I reflected on Thomas Craig’s family history, and wondered if any of his relatives were laid to rest in the cemetery. In all probability, they’re not, as the family moved to several areas throughout Kent and New Castle counties after 1855, when Thomas left Delaware and moved to New York City to enlist in the Union Navy. Still, it was nice to be able to visit the region, and forge another tangible connection to history, a moment only made possible through the protection and preservation of the cemetery. ♥

 

Accomack County, Virginia: Documenting a historically African-American cemetery, Father’s Day, 2017

Documenting a historically African American cemetery on Father’s Day (June 18th), 2017, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. One of the oldest, inhabited areas of the state,  it’s become one of our favorite family destinations. The cemetery is just north of the birthplace of a family elder, who was a much beloved and respected teacher and educator of historic I. C. Norcom High School, in Portsmouth, Virginia. Unfortunately, most of the oldest sections of the cemetery were too overgrown for closer investigation, and my father warned of snakes and other dangers that may have been hidden by the overgrowth. We observed some areas that had been cleared by family members in order to reach their ancestors’ gravesites, perhaps in observance of Decoration Day, or Father’s Day. It was an encouraging thought; we’ll return soon in the hope of further exploration.  ♥

Accomack County African American cemetery copyright 2017 Nadia Orton

Historical African American cemetery in Accomack County, Virginia

 

African American cemetery Accomack Virginia copyright 2017 Nadia Orton

Historical African American cemetery in Accomack County, Virginia

Norfolk, VA: Profiles in Zinc – White Bronze Markers of Norfolk’s African American Cemeteries, Norfolk Society for Cemetery Conservation

 

Zinc Marker Norfolk Copyright Nadia K. Orton

White Bronze Marker, Calvary Cemetery

 

A tour of Norfolk’s historical African American cemeteries is a veritable walk through history. Cemeteries offer an important, tangible connection to history allowing closer interpretation of days past than most other sources can. Many historic cemeteries are notable for their funerary art, but a great majority of African American cemeteries do not contain such features. Families simply couldn’t afford them, due to the economic deprivations of generations of enslavement, and subsequent systemic segregation of the Jim Crow era. To maintain cultural traditions, African American families marked their ancestors’ graves as best they could, with comparatively modest headstones of granite, marble, or brick, or handmade markers of stone, wood, flowers, or concrete.

Of particular interest in Norfolk’s black cemeteries are the monuments made of a material known as “white bronze.” Composed almost entirely of pure zinc, these rare markers were popular between the late 19th and early 20th century, produced by the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut.  READ MORE

Norfolk, VA: Soldier for Christ and Community, Rev. Israel LaFayette Butt, Norfolk Society for Cemetery Conservation

Tucked away in the oldest section of Calvary Cemetery is the family plot of Rev. Israel Lafayette Butt. He was born on May 3, 1848, at the Northwest Bridge, in Norfolk County, Virginia, just north of the intersection of Ballahack Rd. and the Chesapeake Expressway, near the North Carolina border. Born enslaved, he was the chattel property of John Fisk (ca. 1810-1870), and was known by the name of “Israel Fisk” prior to emancipation. Read more

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

Portsmouth, Virginia: The Leon A. Turner Family and interconnections, Mt. Olive Cemetery

 

Gravestone of Leon A. Turner (1890-1916), Mt. Olive Cemetery, Portsmouth, Va.

Gravestone of Leon A. Turner (1890-1916), Mt. Olive Cemetery, Portsmouth, Va.

In Mt. Olive Cemetery, established in 1879, there’s a gravestone standing within the broken remnants of a family plot, shaded by a large tree. Both the gravestone and tree bear visible evidence of their respective ages: the stone is covered in biological growth, and the tree by a dense grouping of liana. However, if you lean in closely, the faint inscription can still be read.

In memory of
Leon A. Turner
Beloved Son of
Weadie S. Turner
Born
July 24, 1890
Departed this life
March 30, 1916
Aged 26 yrs 8 mos &
6 days

Beneath the primary inscription are the first two lines from a hymn, “O what is life? – ‘tis like a flower,” written by English poet Jane Taylor (1783-1824).

“Oh, what is life ‘tis like
a flower
That blossoms and is gone.”

I’d rediscovered Leon’s gravestone recently while skimming through six years of photos for Mt. Olive cemetery. I’d seen it so often before, but on that day I’d paused, and let my eyes linger over the details of the stone. Just what was it that caught my attention? Then I realized why. It was his date of death, the 30th of March, 1916. Leon had passed away exactly 100 years ago this month. And he was only twenty-six years old.

Leon A Turner grave Mt. Olive Cemetery Portsmouth Va.

Gravestone of Leon A. Turner, Mt. Olive Cemetery

He was born Leon Alexander Turner, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Charles Turner, also of Pennsylvania, and Weadie (Weedie) Jones, of Portsmouth, Virginia, daughter of Allen Jones and Mary Craig. The family was never rich or famous, and they don’t turn up very often in genealogical documentation. They are like the majority of people buried in African-American cemeteries, those that history often forgets, whose voices and contributions to their communities may be lost when the cemeteries in which they rest aren’t preserved, or are destroyed through neglect and development. Leon’s father, Charles Turner, has proven most elusive, and while Leon’s place of birth is recorded as Philadelphia, neither he nor Weadie are documented in Pennsylvania records. As an adult, Weadie Turner only surfaces by the early 1900s back in Tidewater, Virginia, employed as a domestic. Leon turns up twice, through announcements of his marriage in 1909 to Zelia Bishop Murray, a native of Anne Arundel County, Maryland, daughter of William Henry Murray, of Prince George County, Virginia, and Rosa Lee Murray, of Washington, D.C. The Portsmouth City Circuit Court has a record of the marriage, and the April 1st, 1909 edition of the New York Age carried an announcement of the nuptials.

The New York Age, April 1, 1909

The New York Age, April 1, 1909

Zelia’s mother Rosa Lee, like Leon’s mother Weadie, worked as a domestic, while her father William Henry was a private coachman to a banker, and later served in the Navy as a cabin steward aboard the USS Tennessee and U. S. Flagship Chicago.

By 1910, Leon’s wife Zelia is recorded living with her mother Rosa Lee and other siblings in Washington, D. C., listed as an “attendant” in the household of Vivian H. Tibbs (ca. 1848-1923), a chauffeur and Virginia-native who, years later, died tragically in a flash flood that swept through the Anacostia District of Washington, D. C. on the evening of March 17, 1923. Between 1910 and 1916, Zelia’s father William Murray’s absence in the household can be explained by his Naval service, but I’ve not found any information on Leon’s whereabouts during this period.

Within six years of his marriage to Zelia, Leon had passed, and was buried in Mt. Olive Cemetery. According to his death certificate, he was described as a general laborer, and had succumbed to complications of pulmonary tuberculosis. William Grogan, a local established undertaker, and a former owner of Portsmouth’s Fishers Hill Cemetery, handled the funeral arrangements. Sadly, Leon’s mother Weadie Jones Turner died only three years later, also from pulmonary tuberculosis. She is interred in Mt. Calvary Cemetery, immediately adjacent to Mt. Olive Cemetery. Unlike her son’s gravesite, Weadie’s has not been found.

I was a bit frustrated over being unable to find more information on the family. Sure, Leon and his relatives aren’t a part of my own lineage, but as I continued to dig for information, they began to feel like family. Stubbornly, I reviewed the records I’d already found, hoping for new insight. While studying Weadie’s death certificate, a small detail caught my eye. It was the surname of her mother Mary, given as “Craig.” On Weadie’s death certificate, it’s misspelled, and reads “Kreg.” Craig. I’d seen the surname before, a Portsmouth family I’d studied several years ago. Was Weadie possibly related to them? Genealogy research doesn’t often resolve itself in such a tidy fashion. But most of my initial research efforts into Leon and Weadie had proven fruitless. Could it be that the genealogy Gods were going to be kind after all? Maybe?

The Craig Family in question concerns Civil War Navy veteran Thomas Craig (1831-1896), born free in Delaware, the subject of my inaugural blog post. Thomas is also buried in Mt. Olive Cemetery. I remembered that he’d had a wife named “Mary.” With fingers crossed, and using the 1870 estimation of Weadie’s birthdate, I looked to the 1880 Federal Census record I’d saved in my Craig Family file.

And there she was! Ten year old Weadie, spelled “Weeddie” in the census record, living in the household of Thomas and wife Mary, listed as his adopted daughter.

Weadie Jones, age 10. 1880 Federal Census, Portsmouth, Va. Ancestry.com

Weadie Jones, age 10. 1880 Federal Census, Portsmouth, Va. Ancestry.com

This discovery provided another window into Leon’s ancestry, through his mother Weadie’s lineage. With previous research conducted into Thomas Craig’s life, I’d discovered his wife Mary Craig was born Mary Manger, about 1845, to parents James Manger and Violet Rivers, in Brunswick County, Virginia. She remained in Portsmouth most of her life, and passed away in 1910. Through his mom Weadie, it’s very likely that Leon A. Turner has maternal ties to Brunswick County as well, although it may also mean that, sadly, he’d lost his maternal grandmother Mary Craig only one year after his marriage to Zelia.

Several questions about Leon A. Turner remain. I still don’t anything about his father, Charles, or his exact whereabouts for most of his adult life. I’m also not sure how Weadie’s father, Allen Jones, maternal grandfather to Leon, fits into Mary Craig’s timeline, and Leon’s connection to Weadie and her parents needs to be verified. However, I’m happy to know a little more about Leon beyond the etchings on his faded gravestone. As part of the long-standing preservation process for the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, I have studied hundreds of family genealogies for the people buried in the historic site, and can now add Leon’s narrative to the fascinating tale of one of Portsmouth’s first African American institutions, a site still in dire need of preservation, yet has so much to offer to regional and national history.

Fort Fisher Trees NC Orton

Windswept trees at Fort Fisher, New Hanover County, North Carolina

Thinking on the interconnected nature of Leon’s ancestry, I reflected back on a recent family visit to Fort Fisher, in New Hanover County, North Carolina, following up on local Civil War history. There, I was taken by the sight of the windswept trees along the shoreline, and the nature in which the tree limbs interlaced. As I took pictures, the various branches appeared to meld into one large tree, and my mind flashed to family history. All of the successes, tragedies, and surprises you may learn; the discoveries that can make you cry both in sadness and joy. Perhaps it wasn’t so crazy, after all, to look at the trees and think about family. I felt sadness rediscovering Leon’s gravestone, silently resting in Mt. Olive, and realizing it was the 100-year anniversary of his death, and at such a young age. However, there was also joy, I’d found his mother Weadie, and her parents, which ultimately became a trail that led me back to Thomas Craig, and my own family history. To my first blog! There really is something to the idea of six degrees of separation. But that’s genealogy, and it’s a wonderful thing. ♥

 

Charlotte, NC: Veterans Day at Pinewood Cemetery (1853)

Pinewood Cemetery Charlotte Orton

Pinewood Cemetery, established 1853 for African-Americans by the City of Charlotte, North Carolina

William Moore Pinewood Orton

Gravestone of William C. Moore

The inscription: “William C. Moore, U. S. Navy. Died Nov. 30, 1909, Age 35 Years. Gone Home.”


Lt. Col. C. S. L. A. Taylor Pinewood Orton

Gravestone of Lt. Col. Charles S. L. A. Taylor

Lt. Col. C. S. L. A. Taylor, 3rd North Carolina Volunteers

Lt. Col. C. S. L. A. Taylor, 3rd North Carolina Volunteers

Lt. Col. Charles S. L. A. Taylor. From the book, Black America: Charlotte, North Carolina: “The finely attired gentleman seen in this studio portrait is Col. C. S. L. A. Taylor. He was one of the first black colonels in the U. S. Army, and served in the Spanish-American War. Colonel Taylor operated the National Barber Shop at 19 North College Street, and represented Third Ward as an alderman, elected in 1885.” (Photo and text, Vermelle Diamond Ely, Grace Hoey Drain, and Amy Rogers. Black America Series: Charlotte, North Carolina. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2001, p. 11).

Lt. Col. Charles S. L. A. Taylor died on November 17, 1934, and is buried next to his wife Ella, and daughter Louisa T. Johnson.


Former segregation fence Pinewood-Elmwood Cemetery Charlotte Orton

The former barrier between Pinewood and Elmwood Cemeteries, Charlotte

Instead of the infamous fence, erected in the 1930s, trees now line the center aisle between the the drives of Pinewood Cemetery, on the left, and Elmwood Cemetery, to the right. Elmwood Cemetery was established in 1853 by the City of Charlotte, North Carolina, with Pinewood Cemetery as a subsection, set aside exclusively for African-American burials. Visiting the cemetery today, it was sobering to remember that all of the veterans and their family members were once on the “other side of the fence.” It was finally removed in the late 1960s, due to the influence of the national Civil Rights Movement, and local efforts of City Councilman Fred Alexander and the larger African-American community of Charlotte, North Carolina.


Emanuel Snowden Pinewood Orton

Pvt. Emanuel Snowden, Co A, 3rd NC Volunteers

Pvt. Emanuel Snowden was the son of Alfred and Eliza Snowden. He was born sometime during the 1860s, the exact date difficult to pinpoint due to varying discrepancies in census, marriage, and death records. Throughout most of his life, he was identified as a painter by occupation, and lived in Charlotte’s Second Ward. He passed on October 11, 1936, and the informant was Bessie Wilson, Emanuel’s sister.


Pinewood Cemetery Charlotte Nadia Orton

Pinewood Cemetery, Charlotte NC

The Descendants Corner: Update re: The Savage Family, Mt. Calvary Cemetery

Pvt. Alfred Savage replacement gravestone Portsmouth Va. Orton

Pvt. Alfred Savage (1837-1899), Company D, 2nd Regiment, United States Colored Cavalry.               Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Portsmouth, Va.

The replacement gravestone for Pvt. Alfred Savage, of Co. D, 2nd Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry, recently installed in Mt. Calvary Cemetery. His descendants, whom we met last year, visited his gravesite over the weekend. I wrote a short article about finding Pvt. Savage in the cemetery, and his descendants, who have made significant contributions to the City of Portsmouth. We still have a long way to go…necessary mapping of gravesites (through ground-penetrating radar), drainage studies, and other issues are vital to the long-term preservation plan for the cemetery complex, where thousands of individuals, including our ancestors, lie. However, accomplishments such as these are always a great reminder of why “we do what we do.” For family, for preservation, and for history. Again, thanks so much to the Savage Family for allowing us to take part in this journey. ♥