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
Guest post by Freda Walker Moore
My family and I would like to have this opportunity to honor our ancestors and to thank the Orton Family for their dedication to preserve the African American gravesites in the City of Portsmouth.
Last year, when my Dad, Frederick Walker, passed away, our family was conscious of previous years of neglect at Lincoln Cemetery. Recently, we learned that the Orton family is advocating for the preservation of the cemetery. They’ve chosen to take this arduous task and we are most grateful. When my Dad passed, the family and I were mindful of the number of Brothers and Sisters that he had eulogized at Lincoln Cemetery as well as many others. As a Mason Worship Leader, he was honored to serve in white apron and gloves and respected the passing of his Mason Brothers and Eastern Star Sisters who were being buried. Daddy solemnly and eloquently spoke the Orations over “many a gravesite.” The families of those Brethren were comforted with his passionate words. I can envision his say “….we are but a vapor.”
The replacement gravestone for Landsman John Hodges was installed in Mt. Olive Cemetery, Portsmouth, Virginia, on December 30, 2015. We received the news from his descendant, Vivian Nicholson. John Hodges (1819-1885) served aboard the USS Lenapee during the Civil War, enlisting on April 22, 1864, and was the grandfather of Portsmouth native William Henry Nicholson, the first African American hired by the New York City Fire Department (FDNY). Vivian shared William’s story with us in a guest blog, which can be read here.