Category Archives: The Descendants Corner

An African American cemetery in Virginia

Black cemetery copyright 2017 Nadia Orton

An African American cemetery in Virginia


On the road, and visiting an African American cemetery in Virginia. We’ve seen so many of these before; some in which our ancestors are interred. Acknowledged and preserved over generations, extant through the efforts of families and communities, despite all hardships and historical and current discrimination. Sacred ground; graves identified by modern stone, some handmade, or marked through memory and heritage.

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Warren County, North Carolina – Earth Day, 2017: Trees, branches, and documenting family roots

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Warren County, North Carolina


April 22, 2017 · 9:45 pm

Surry County, Virginia: The slave and tenant house at Bacon’s Castle

Slave/tenant house at Bacons Castle, Surry County, October 6, 2012

Slave/tenant house at Bacon’s Castle, Surry County, October 6, 2012


Photos of the slave and tenant house at Bacon’s Castle (ca. 1665). We had the opportunity to visit during an event a few years ago. I’d suffered a bilateral lower leg fracture some months prior, so those present would remember my fashionable orthopedic boot. Physical discomfort aside, it was an amazing experience. There were a few descendants of slaves and former tenant workers present. One descendant, Lucy, recounted memories of growing up at Bacon’s Castle. Her family had once lived in a similar structure, and she could vividly remember the sound of the rain on the building’s tin roof. It’s in these stories that history becomes a tangible thing, and connects with our present day.

A historical wayside marker in front of the house reads:

This building was first constructed in 1829 by the Cocke family, descendants of Arthur Allen. There was a single entry door and a porch. In 1834 there were eighty slaves working on the property, some of whom were probably housed in this building. The Hankins family, who owned the property during the Civil War, added an addition and possibly removed the porch in 1849. The floor plan today matches what would have been present in the late 1800s.

In the 1940s, several families were still living on the Bacon’s Castle property. The slave house was wired for electricity and a small kitchen added to the back of the building. Although three or four enslaved families would have lived here prior to the Civil War, the interior was modified to accommodate only one or two tenants after the war. The kitchen addition was removed in the 1990s, returning the building to its antebellum appearance.



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Bacons castle slave/tenant dwelling, 2012 Orton


Bacon's Castle Historical Marker, Colonial Trial, Surry. June 9, 2012

Bacon’s Castle historical marker, Colonial Trial, Surry County, Virginia. June 9, 2012





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Filed under Chesapeake, Civil War, Slavery, Surry County, The Descendants Corner, U. S. Colored Troops, Virginia

The Descendants Corner: The Walker Family, Lincoln Memorial Cemetery

Lincoln Memorial Cemetery - Portsmouth, Virginia

Lincoln Memorial Cemetery – Portsmouth, Virginia


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.”

My father’s mother, Annie Newton, and her husband, Linwood Newton, are also buried at Lincoln. Mommie Annie served for many years as Secretary for her Eastern Star Lodge. Back in the day, Daddy Lin served as a Pianist who travelled to many Churches in Portsmouth and Suffolk. My mother’s parents are also buried at Lincoln – Ella Patterson and her husband, William Patterson. Pop served and was a Veteran in World War I. Before “Toot” passed away, we promised her that we would never sell her home. You see, when Pop passed away in ’59, it was difficult for our grandmother to maintain her house, but by God’s Grace, she was able to keep it.

When Pop was alive, he was called “The Mayor of Brighton.” He was a man literally “larger than life.” Upon his funeral, my grandmother, because of his size, had to have a custom made coffin shipped to Rogers Funeral Home for his burial. On the other side of the spectrum, during the Depression, Pop was able to make “loans” to many of his neighbors in Brighton. He and my grandmother hardly ever recovered any of those debts. Nevertheless, their efforts were not in vain. Don’t believe in Karma – just the goodness of the Lord.

When we read of the Orton family’s commitment from their loved one’s last wish (before she passed), we recognized that desire – to do good. (I) never expected this reverence – guess I was just used to the way families maintained their own families’ sites. The way Daddy would go on Memorial Day (until his health failed) and look after my grandmother’s site as well as others. There are many of our relatives, including our great-grandparents buried at Lincoln. They paved the way for their descendants – we honor them by taking care of their sites. We’re mindful that Daddy as well as our grandparents left the family a legacy of service. Our parents and grandparents have left us valuable treasures; perhaps not necessarily financially, but a lasting legacy of faith and endurance to sustain the generations. Lincoln Cemetery services as a reminder of their sacrifices. The name Lincoln itself is a reminder of how our ancestors remembered and honored their past. Once again, we want to celebrate and thank God for the Orton family’s service and dedication in showing that “Black Lives” really do matter.   ~ Respectfully submitted, Freda.

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The Descendants Corner: Update – John Hodges, Civil War Sailor, Mt. Olive Cemetery

John Hodges, USN

John Hodges, USN

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.


A picture of the old gravestone.

A picture of the old gravestone.


Landsman John Hodges (1819-1885), Mt. Olive Cemetery

Landsman John Hodges (1819-1885), Mt. Olive Cemetery


Filed under Civil War, North Carolina, Portsmouth, The Descendants Corner, Tombstone Tales, U. S. Colored Troops, USCT Diaries, Virginia

The Descendants Corner: William H. Nicholson, First African-American Fireman of the FDNY

Guest post by Vivian Nicholson-Mueller


My parents divorced when I was 5 years old, and when my father left the family he took all his family history with him. I knew nothing about the Nicholson side of my family — just that we carried his name.  It was not until many decades later that I got an inkling that I might be related to the first black man who joined the New York City Fire Department — and it came about because of the lawsuit brought against the city by the Vulcan Society, the association of black firefighters. 

My brother Keith had read an August 28, 2009 New York Times article about the suit, and in it there was a mention of a black fireman named William E. (sic) Nicholson.

“After Bias Ruling, Firefighter Applicants Look Back – Black firefighters remain scarce more than a hundred years after the department hired its first African-American employee: William E. Nicholson, a 27-year-old former cement tester, joined the Fire Department in 1898 and took care of the horses, said John L. Ruffins, a former Fire Department captain who has researched the history of the department.” – New York Times, August 28, 2009
Keith asked if we could be related to him and I exclaimed, “Related to him?!  He was our great-grandfather!”
A few years prior I had begun to research my paternal family. The reason: I was diagnosed with an unusual medical condition. I was told by the doctor to research my family’s medical history. While awaiting the analysis of a copious amount of blood taken, I got busy.
I knew nothing about my father except he was a “Junior.” Born in 1925, his mother’s name was Ruth (my middle name), and they were both born in Brooklyn, New York, as was my grandfather. My father’s paternal grandmother was known as Grandma Nicky. All of my father’s WWII service records were lost in a fire so I began to research on  After many days of searching I found my grandfather, Frederick Howard, Sr., in the 1900 Brooklyn census. I was ecstatic! And, it listed his mother Irene, and father, William H. Nicholson, who was born in Virginia.  His profession, “fireman.” A black fireman in 1900 NYC?!  I thought perhaps I had misread the somewhat illegible enumeration and dismissed it. But the 1910 census again noted he was a “Fireman” in the “Fire Department.”
William H. Nicholson Family, 1900 Census, Brooklyn, New York

William H. Nicholson Family, 1900 Census, Brooklyn, New York.


William H. Nicholson Family, 1910 Census, Brooklyn, New York.

William H. Nicholson Family, 1910 Census, Brooklyn, New York.

Now knowing the names of my great grandparents I went to the NYC archives and found their death certificates. William’s death certificate listed “fireman” as his profession, but this time he was noted as “Fireman NYFD.”  I was intrigued.  Could it possibly be true?

When my brother read the article to me I had the confirmation I needed.  Mining information from I found: William H. Nicholson, Jr., born in 1869 in Portsmouth, Virginia. His father was William H. Nicholson Sr., born in Enfield, North Carolina.  His mother Katherine, born in Portsmouth, was a Hodges. Her father was John Hodges, who had served in the Navy during the Civil War, and her mother, Martha Jordan, was descended from the Edenton, North Carolina Jordans. They were members of the North Street Emanuel AME Church, and along with other Nicholsons, Hodges, and Jordans, were interred in Mt Olive Cemetery in Portsmouth.

John Hodges USN Portsmouth Orton

Landsman John Hodges, Civil War Navy Veteran, maternal grandfather of William H. Nicholson. Mt. Olive Cemetery, Portsmouth, Va. John Hodges’ headstone will be replaced this year by the US Dept. of Veterans Affairs. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

Emanuel A.M.E. Church Portsmouth Orton

Emanuel A.M.E. Church (1772). Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton


In 1885, William enlisted in the Navy and served on the USS Pensacola. He was only 15 at the time, but lied saying he was 19. According to census information, he moved to Brooklyn in 1887. In January of 1889, William again served in the Navy, again as a “waiter.”  He later worked as a messenger and cement tester. On October 9, 1889, he married Irene Howard (my Great-Grandma Nicky), whose family could trace its lineage back to Colonial Long Island, New York free people of colour and Sellacott and Montaukett Indians. Married into a solid middle class and influential New York family, and being related to the Virginian and New York Hodges, he was politically connected to the Republican party.  On November 9, 1898 with the backing of Republican party bigwigs and a white high ranking Fire Department chief, he began his fireman’s instruction at the Brooklyn Fire Department School. He had previously taken the written fireman’s test and, according to an article in the November 13, 1898 issue of The New York Press, passed with a score which was “one of the highest in percentage on the list.” The article also noted “There is no law to deprive his race from the right of such an appointment, but Nicholson is the first colored man to successfully pass the examinations.” William completed his training on December 9, 1898 and in 1900 and 1910 he could proudly list his profession as “fireman.”

Finding no information about my great-grandfather in NYFD records, I turned to the New York Public Library, and was directed to Harlem’s Schomburg Library. When I realized there was an entire collection dedicated to the Vulcan Society and the city’s earliest black firefighters, my heart skipped with excitement.  Would I find something about my great-grandfather there? Indeed I did!

I found a treasure trove of information about the late 19th Century and early 20th Century fire department. Documents compiled by former Fire Commissioner Robert Lowery, the 1st black fire commissioner,  indicating that my great-grandfather, William H. Nicholson, had become, in 1898, the first “coloured” man hired by the NYC Fire Department! 

11-12-1898 NYT Nicholson Orton

November 12, 1898. New York Times

First Colored Fireman in This City – Fire Commissioner Scannell has appointed twenty-one new fireman on probation, for duty in the Borough of Brooklyn. W. H. Nicholson, one of the men, is colored. He has the distinction of being the first colored fireman in the department. The Commissioner found his name on the eligible list of Brooklyn, and thought he had a right to an appointment. Nicholson, who lives at 200 Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, has been assigned to Engine Company 6.

I also found evidence that although William had one of the highest scores on the city test and had successfully finished his training, he was immediately rejected by his “fellow” firefighters in Brooklyn Engine Co 6.  Upon his assignment, the captain quit and many others threatened to do so.  The solution: send him to the Manhattan Veterinary Unit to care for the horses – since he showed “a natural ability” to handle them.  

To my delight and profound sadness I found an 1898 Brooklyn Engine Co 6 journal that covered the first year of William’s service. It detailed how he reported day after day in full uniform – when he was finally given one – only to be sent “to Manhattan”.  There is no evidence that William ever fought a fire.  He may have done so on the 4th of July when all firefighters were called to duty. But my great-grandfather continued to report for duty for 13 years – until his very early death, on January 21, 1912, at the age of 42. The cause of death was heart trouble and asthma.  And when he died he was not listed in the 1912 memorial brochure issued by the NYFD.  He was simply and purposely ignored and then forgotten.  And he would have remained so if not for the Vulcan Society suit, the Schomburg and Ginger Adams Otis, a New York Daily News reporter who wrote the book Firefight.  Ginger and I are determined to have a plaque put on William’s grave to honour his achievements.

Nicholson Obit 22 Jan 1912 Brooklyn Daily Eagle Orton

January 22, 1912. Brooklyn Daily Eagle

William Henry Nicholson, aged 43 years, the only colored fireman of this borough, died at his residence, 163 Fort Greene place yesterday. Mr. Nicholson was born at Portsmouth, Va., and was one of five sons and daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Nicholson of Portsmouth, Va. He was educated in the schools of Portsmouth and joined the North Street A. M. E. Church of that city in 1885. He had been a resident of Brooklyn for nearly twenty-three years and served as a fireman for fourte(e)n years. On January 1, of this year, he was retired as a fireman on annuity of $700, owing to ill health. While a fireman he was attached to the headquarters department on Jay street. A few years ago he, with many others united with Bridge Street African M. E. Church. The funeral services will be at Bridge Street African M. E. Church tomorrow evening, at 8 o’clock. Mr. Nicholson is survived by his widow, two sons, Clarence and Frederick Howard; his parents, a sister, Mrs. Fannie Ash, and two brothers.”

When I was a little girl, being a great fan of Nancy Drew and Elliott Ness, I wanted to be a “FBI Man.” I was told, on a 6th grade class trip to Washington, on our visit to The FBI Building, that “girls aren’t allowed to be FBI agents.”  I was devastated, to say the least.  I cannot help but wonder if I had known what my Great-Grandfather William H. Nicholson had achieved in his life, against all odds, enduring abject prejudice and rejection, I would have indeed achieved my dream of becoming a member of the FBI. – Vivian Nicholson-Mueller, New York

On January 24, 1912, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that William Henry Nicholson had been laid to rest in Brooklyn’s The Evergreens Cemetery. Members of the Society of the Sons of Virginia, and William’s sister, Fannie Franklin Nicholson Ash, a teacher in Portsmouth, Va., attended the funeral services at Bridge Street African Methodist Episcopal Church, once a station on the Underground Railroad. “First Colored Fireman Dead,” read the headline of William’s obituary in the January 25, 1912 edition of The New York Age. Discriminated against in life, and nearly forgotten for over a century after his death, William’s story is finally being told. The author of our guest post, William’s great-granddaughter Vivian Nicholson-Mueller, was profiled about her discoveries in a recent article for the New York Daily News, and the book by journalist Ginger Adams Otis, Firefight: The Century Long Battle to Integrate NY’s Bravest, was released earlier this year. ♠


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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. ♥

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Filed under Civil War, Portsmouth, Stories in Stone, Suffolk, The Descendants Corner, Tombstone Files, Tombstone Tales, U. S. Colored Troops, USCT Diaries, Virginia

The Descendants Corner: John R. Johnson, Jr. Montford Point Marine

Mr. John R. Johnson, Jr. Montford Pointer

Mr. John Richard Johnson, Jr. Montford Point Marine

“You had to be good….you had to be better.” These words were spoken by Mr. John Richard Johnson, Jr., reflecting on his days as a Montford Point Marine, the first African Americans to serve in the United States Marine Corps. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with Mr. Johnson recently in Chesapeake, Virginia.

An affable host, Mr. Johnson was, at the time of the interview, just shy of his eighty-eighth birthday. He was born in 1926, on the 31st of October, or “Goblin Day,” as he humorously refers to it. A native of Scotland Neck, in Halifax County, North Carolina, he’s the son of John Richard Johnson, Sr., and Sallie Mae Arrington. He was pleasantly surprised that I knew Scotland Neck; I told him I’d studied my family’s genealogy for many years and had ancestors from various counties in North Carolina, including Halifax, Warren, Vance, Hertford, and Franklin. Smiling, he went on, and told me about his mother and father. John Richard Sr., “a deeply religious, praying man” as described by Mr. Johnson, was the son of Burgess and Rosetta Davis Johnson. His mother, Sallie Mae, was one of seven children, with four brothers and two sisters. The family lived next door to Ephraim Mutts, Jr., who was an undertaker for the community. Mr. Mutts had two daughters and two sons that were about Mr. Johnson’s age growing up.

1930 Census Scotland Neck NC

1930 Federal Census. Scotland Neck, Halifax, North Carolina

While he was still young, “about eight or nine” Mr. Johnson recalled, the family relocated north to Ahoskie, in Hertford County, North Carolina. Mr. Johnson was coming of age in the Depression era, when it was very difficult to find work. His father, John Richard Johnson, Sr., provided for his family at various times working at odd jobs and as a custodian. When he was little older, Mr. Johnson went to school to learn the art of brick masonry, and after the United States entered World War II, he decided to enlist.

At first, Mr. Johnson stated, the recruiters tried to persuade him to join the Navy, but he refused; he wanted to be a Marine. So, he was off to Raleigh, North Carolina, and beyond…to the southern edge of Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. His destination was a recently developed area near New River called Camp Montford Point. The year was 1945, and Mr. Johnson had reached the location where the first African Americans allowed to enlist in the United States Marine Corps received their basic training.

Before Mr. Johnson’s enlistment, the Armed Forces were experiencing a momentous change. There had been a long history of African American participation in the United States’ armed conflicts, from the American Revolution, through to World War I. Yet discrimination persisted, and African Americans, once denied the opportunity to fight, often had to serve in segregated units, or given menial duties. Some of this changed with the issuance of Executive Order 8802, by then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on June 25, 1941. This order established the Fair Employment Practices Commission, which read, in part, that “all departments of the government, including the Armed Forces, shall lead the way in erasing discrimination over color or race.” With this order, African Americans were able to enlist in the Marine Corps, which was the last military branch resistant to integration. Complete desegregation of the Armed Forces would not be fully realized until 1948 with President Harry Truman’s issuance of Executive Order 9981. Because of existing segregationist policies in the Armed Forces until 1949, African American men who had enlisted in the Marine Corps were not allowed to train with their white counterparts at Parris Island, South Carolina, or San Diego, California. Instead, Camp Montford Point was developed for their training in 1942. In August of that year, Howard P. Perry, of Charlotte, North Carolina, although not the first to actually enlist, became the first African American private to arrive at Montford Point. Thousands of men, including Mr. Johnson, would soon follow between 1943 and 1946, becoming a total of nearly 20, 000 by 1949, after segregation in the Armed Forces was officially abolished.

John R. Johnson Jr. 21 Montford

John Richard Johnson, Jr., age 21. Courtesy of the family.

It was in the month of March, 1945, that Mr. Johnson began his basic training at the Montford Point Training Camp. He can vividly picture all of the pine trees that were onsite when he arrived with the other recruits. There were 33 other men in his platoon, and he prides himself on being one of the fastest. On the day of our interview, his television was on at a low volume. Glancing at the set, he said, “there was none of that.” But there was the heat, and a lot of local wildlife: mosquitoes, snakes, alligators, muskrats, and, at one point, a particularly tenacious (often excitable) skunk that hung around the barracks, drawn by the food. There was the rigorous training regimen the men endured, and drills in the early morning hours long into night. Duck walking up and down hills.

Dress Parade Montford UNCW

Dress parades were part of the Montford Point routine. Photo: University of North Carolina, Wilmington

The men were housed in corrugated metal huts without running water. Mr. Johnson remembers the large, pot belly stoves the recruits used for heating the barracks at night, and the coal chutes just outside for fuel. At a point, he remarked that one thing that saw him through the hardships of training was his Bible, a habit he picked up from his father. John Richard Sr., had been a deacon in the family’s churches: Shiloh Baptist Church, in Scotland Neck, NC, and later, Calvary Baptist in Ahoskie, NC.

After basic training, Mr. Johnson served in World War II as a Steward’s Assistant, as African Americans were not allowed to serve alongside white soldiers, their counterparts, during this time. Later, he served at Camp Catlin, just outside Honolulu on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. He was a part of a segregated unit that functioned primarily as support staff, separated into sections such as reclamation and salvage and ordnance. He rose to the rank of Corporal after one year and was honorably discharged in November 1951. Mr. Johnson later re-enlisted, and soon after married Miss Eula L. Harrell, of Cofield, Halifax County, North Carolina. Later on, he was promoted to Sergeant, and received another honorable discharge in 1954.

Eventually, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson relocated to Portsmouth, Virginia, and it was here that they raised a family, five daughters and one son. I met two of his daughters the day of the interview, who were just as congenial and gracious as their father. Mr. Johnson noted that his family lived near the main gates of the Norfolk Navy Yard for many years, just about where Effingham St. merges into George Washington Highway. By this time, he worked for the Norshipco-Norfolk Shipbuilding and Drydock Corp. as a heavy equipment operator, a job which he liked very much, and held for twenty-six years until his retirement. He mentioned that even during his work at Norshipco, he always carried his Bible with him, and read it when he had spare time. In 1974, While Mr. Johnson was an employee at Norshipco, the Montford Point Camp in Jacksonville, NC was renamed in honor of Sgt. Major Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson, the Alabama native who was one of the camp’s first five African American drill instructors.

As our conversation continued, Mr. Johnson shifted to talking about additional members of his family. He and his wife, Eula, have seven grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. His son, John Richard Johnson III, served in the Marine Corps Reserves for six years, and a grandson is in the Army, currently serving in Afghanistan. I remarked on his family’s tradition of military service, and Mr. Johnson then gestured towards a box on his coffee table, something admittedly I’d had my eye on for some time. It was at this point he showed me photos of a ceremony whereby he and other local Montford Pointers were awarded with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

Congressional medal and discharge

Mr. Johnson’s Congressional Gold Medal, and discharge, 1954.

In 2011, Rep. Corinne Brown of Florida’s Fifth District (then Third District), and Senator Kay Hagen of North Carolina, introduced legislation to formally honor the legacy of the Montford Point Marines. This legislation was later signed into law by President Barack Obama. One official gold medal was minted, and issued on November 23, 2011. Past recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal include opera singer Marian Anderson, boxer Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King, Jackie Robinson, the Little Rock Nine, and the Tuskegee Airmen.

The Montford Point Marines were initially awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony held in Washington D. C., in June, 2012. To award individual Marines, bronze replicas of the medal were purchased by donations from the Montford Point Marine Association, Inc. For the Marines that could not attend the 2012 ceremony, numerous, smaller ceremonies have been held throughout the country over the years, to honor each veteran for his service, and grant posthumous honors to the families and descendants for those veterans who have passed on.

Mr. Johnson was unable to make the ceremony in Washington D. C., and received his medal in a ceremony held for Tidewater Montford Pointers on August 17, 2013. The event was made possible through the efforts of Master Sgt. Curt Clarke, president of the  Montford Point Marine Association Tidewater Chapter (Chapter 14), one of thirty-six nationwide. During the ceremony, Master Sgt. Curt Clarke noted that the men are “the pioneers of the Marine Corps…they are pioneers for equality, pioneers for service…. They have opened the doors for Marines like myself to join. I’m proud to say I represent the legacy of the Montford Point Marines.”

Mr. Johnson reflected back on that day, and said that although he was happy to have served his country, the medal “was a long time coming,” a situation similar to the Tuskegee Airmen, collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2006, many years after their service. Mr. Johnson remarked how many of his comrades have already passed on, that the survivors are “going fast.” He thought a moment, and commented on how he’s been blessed, to have been able to be present to accept a great honor he’s happy has finally come. We then talked a bit about the memorial that is being built for the Montford Marines, in Jacksonville, North Carolina, which Mr. Johnson hopes to see one day.

As I looked through some of the other memorial items Mr. Johnson had to share, it was a humbling experience to sit and read the biographies of some of Mr. Johnson’s fellow Montford Pointers, such as William R. Davis, and Sergeant Major Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson. All of these men had accomplished so much, and yet my host, Mr. Johnson, was so down to earth.

Michelle Obama message to John R. Johnson, Jr.

Ceremonial materials and a personal message from First Lady Michelle Obama

In one of the ceremonial brochures, I spotted a message from President Obama. Dated August 25, 2011, the 69th anniversary of the Montford Marines, it read:

Almost seven decades ago, as our Nation was at war, more than 20,000 African American men enlisted in the United States Marines Corps. After completing arduous and segregated basic training at Montford Point Camp, many of these Marines served with distinction during a number of World War II’s bloodiest struggles. Some made the ultimate sacrifice in these battles; others continued their service in Korea and Vietnam.

Despite being denied many basic rights, the Montford Point Marines committed to serve our country with selfless patriotism. Choosing to put their lives on the line, these men helped advance civil rights and influenced President Harry Truman’s decision to desegregate the Armed Forces in 1948. Embodying the Marine Corps motto of Semper Fidelis, Always Faithful, these heroes paved the way for future generations of warriors, regardless of background, to serve in the finest military the world has ever known.

On behalf of a grateful Nation, I thank you for your service and for your contributions to the cause of freedom at home and around the world. May God bless our men and women in uniform, and may God bless the United States of America.

As we concluded, I asked Mr. Johnson what he took away from his experience as a Montford Point Marine. He mentioned that he learned the true value of discipline and respect; self-respect, and the respect one should show to others. It disappoints him to see the amount of disrespect that some members of the younger generation have for their elders and each other.

I want to thank Mr. John R. Johnson, Jr., for his service and his role in helping to break down barriers for future generations, and to thank his family for inviting me into their home, allowing me to share part of their story. And what a wonderful story it is. In more ways than one, thank you.

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

Rawls and Savage-Portsmouth, Va.

(l-r) Cousins James M. Rawls and Horace S. Savage, Jr.  Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Portsmouth

Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet cousins Mr. Horace S. Savage Jr., and Mr. James M. Rawls, descendants of Pvt. Alfred Savage, a veteran of the Civil War, member of Company D, 2nd Regiment, United States Colored Cavalry. Mr. Savage is Alfred’s great-grandson, and Mr. Rawls is Alfred’s great-great-grandson.

The road to meeting Mr. Savage and Mr. Rawls took a rather circuitous path. After researching marriage records, newspaper articles, and various other documents, I traced the family from Virginia, to Tennessee, up to Pennsylvania, and down to Georgia. I reached out to one descendant in Georgia who put me in touch with Mr. Savage, who, as it turns out, lives only twenty minutes away from our family in Virginia.

I had the great honor of speaking to Mr. Savage for the first time on his 89th birthday to let him know I’d found his Civil War ancestor. Mr. Savage, a graduate of I. C. Norcom High School, and Hampton University, first began his long career in education as a science teacher, becoming a part of I. C. Norcom’s faculty in 1950. He was appointed head coach of I. C. Norcom’s football team, the Greyhounds, and school track team by 1959, and is the former Assistant Superintendent and Clerk of the School Board of Portsmouth City Public Schools. He retired from the position in 1987, after a thirty-seven year career with the Portsmouth School System, but continues to be actively involved in social and civic affairs. In honor of his extensive service to the community, he was named Portsmouth’s First Citizen of the Year for 1998. I thought it a small world when I found a picture of him with my first cousin Vernon Orton, former principal of S. H. Clarke Junior High School, when Mr. Savage was appointed Vernon’s administrative assistant in 1969.

After a brief introduction, we talked for a while, about Alfred, and how I’d come to find his descendants. Mr. Savage is the keeper of his family’s history, and knew all about Alfred, but did not know the exact location of his burial site. I told him I’d first discovered Pvt. Savage’s gravestone in Mt. Calvary Cemetery a few years ago, but, due to the weathered inscription on the stone, could only make out the surname “Savage.” I was in the middle of a three-year research study of the over seventy-seven United States Colored Troops interred in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, and determined to learn this unknown veteran’s first name. I photographed Pvt. Savage’s gravestone several different times, knowing that different light conditions can sometimes make inscriptions on headstones easier to read. However, none of these attempts worked. Wetting the stone also did not make his name any clearer. So, I resorted to an old-fashioned method. Using my index finger, I traced the letters of his first name, and the letters seemed to spell “A-L-F ‘ D.” Subsequent research verified that the headstone did belong to Alfred Savage of Co. D, 2nd U. S. Colored Cavalry. Mr. Savage was very happy to hear of the discovery, and after a nice conversation, we agreed to meet at the cemetery in two days’ time to find Alfred.

Alfred Savage (abt. 1837-1899/1900). Mr. Horace S. Savage, Jr., remembers growing up seeing this photo in his grandparents’ sitting room, an area entered only on formal occasions. Courtesy the Savage Family.

Pvt. Alfred Savage enlisted on December 24th, 1863 at Fort Monroe, Virginia, just two days after the 2nd Regiment was organized. In his service record, he is described as born in Nansemond County, Virginia (subsequent census records note his place of birth in North Carolina), aged twenty-six years old, five feet, nine inches tall, of a light complexion, with dark hair and dark eyes. He listed his occupation as a general laborer.

The unit was under the command of Col. George Washington Cole (1827-1875), who was promoted to the post on December 10, 1863. A native of New York, Col. Cole first entered the service in Elmira, enlisting in 1861 as a member of the 12th New York Infantry. He later attained the rank of Brevet Brigadier General in March, 1865.

Brevet Brigadier General George Washington Cole (1827-1875). He is buried in Saint Vrain Cemetery, Mora County, AZ. Source: Marsha ?

Brevet Brigadier General George Washington Cole (1827-1875). He is buried in Saint Vrain Cemetery, Mora County, AZ. Source: Marsha Smith, Backbone Ridge History Group, 2013.

African American enlistees often faced discrimination from white Union troops and their officers, but Col. Cole appears to have been on good terms with the men of the 2nd Regiment. African American Civil War correspondent, Thomas Morris Chester, in a dispatch dated September 24, 1864 from Deep Bottom, Virginia to the Philadelphia Press, reported that “there is no braver soldier in the service, and no one enjoys to a greater degree the respect of his officers or the affection of his men” (Chester, 1864).

Alfred Savage was one of the thousands of African Americans eager to fight to secure freedom for themselves, their families, and their people. In his book, After the Glory: The Struggle of Black Civil War Veterans, historian Donald R. Shaffer writes:

Whereas black recruitment was largely a matter of military necessity from the perspective of the Lincoln Administration, African Americans had their own reasons for wanting to fight for the Union. Many black men, free men of color as well as slaves, were eager to strike a blow against slavery. Indeed, freedom was the foremost motivation behind their enlistment. White Northerners battled to save the Union, and white Southerners fought for Southern independence, but African-American troops joined up not just to gain freedom for themselves but also to release their people from bondage. Thomas J. Morgan, a white Union officer questioning black recruits in Tennessee, discovered this fact for himself. When one man told Morgan that his motive for joining the army was to “fight for freedom,” the officer reminded him that as a soldier he might be killed. The recruit replied simply, “But my people will be free.” (Shaffer, 2004)

Pvt. Savage was involved in several skirmishes during his three-year term of enlistment with the Union Army. He avoided the terrible fate of several of his fellow regiment members at Suffolk, Virginia, on March 9, 1864, but saw action at Jones Ford (Jones Bridge) on the Chickahominy River. He participated in several engagements in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, and the assault on Petersburg, part of the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, on June 18, 1864.

Ambulance drill at Headquarters Army of Potomac, near Brandy Station, Va., March, 1864. LOC 3g07974v

Ambulance drill at Headquarters Army of Potomac, near Brandy Station, Va., March, 1864. LOC 3g07974v

Many of Pvt. Alfred Savage’s military duties during his service involved detachments to the Ambulance Corps. The corps was organized in 1862 by Dr. Jonathan Letterman, medical director of the Army of the Potomac, and formally established on March 16, 1864. Pvt. Savage functioned as a driver in the corps in Virginia and North Carolina at various points between June 1, 1864 and early 1865. By June of 1865, his regiment was sent to Texas for duty on the Rio Grande, and by October of that year, Alfred was noted as the company cook. Pvt. Savage was discharged with the remaining members of his regiment on February 12, 1866, at Brazos Santiago, Texas.

Upon his return to the Tidewater area, he married Margaret Mosby Powell, of Columbus County, North Carolina, in 1867. The family, Alfred, Margaret, son Christoper Columbus, and daughters Esther and Margaret, lived on Queen Street between 1870 and 1900, which was then a part of Portmouth’s Jefferson Ward.

Savage Family 1870 Portsmouth

The Alfred Savage Family. Portsmouth Jefferson Ward, 1870.

Savage 1877 Portsmouth City Directory

Alfred and son Christopher Columbus Savage, 1877 Portsmouth City Directory. The asterisk denotes “colored.”

Pvt. Alfred Savage passed on February 2, 1899, and is buried in Mt. Calvary Cemetery.

A humid Thursday morning found the four of us, me, my mother, Brenda, Mr. Savage, and Mr. Rawls, at Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex in our journey to find Pvt. Alfred Savage’s last resting place. There’s currently no working map for the cemetery (which may soon be remedied), and I remembered Alfred’s burial as being in Mt. Olive Cemetery, the oldest in the cemetery complex. We carefully made our way past various gravestones and sunken grave sites in our effort to find Alfred. At some point, I realized I’d made a mistake with the location of Pvt. Savage’s burial site, and with great humility, admitted as much. “It’s alright,” Mr. Savage said. “We’re on a mission. We’re going to find him.” I agreed, and promised I wasn’t leaving until Alfred was found. I greatly appreciated Mr. Savage’s and Mr. Rawl’s understanding and support. Mr. Rawls, whom we’d just met that morning, joked about the walk being “great exercise.”

A short time later, and with some relief, I spotted Pvt. Savage in Mt. Calvary Cemetery, and called Mr. Rawls and Mr. Savage over to the spot. After explaining how I figured out the gravestone belonged to Alfred, the men graciously agreed to a photo, and then began discussing their family history. I moved away just a bit, out of respect, and also for a few photographs. It was an amazing sight, to see the two of them standing by their ancestor’s grave site, talking about their mutual ancestry.

Mr. Savage’s paternal grandfather, Christopher Columbus Savage, is also interred in the cemetery complex, and after visiting Alfred, we went to look for his grave site. Mr. Savage recalled visiting the cemetery annually with his father, Horace S. Savage, Sr., to tend to Christopher’s grave, not realizing that Alfred’s grave site was nearby. Horace Savage, Sr. (1897-1975), was an influential force in Portsmouth’s African American community. A forty-four year employee of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, he was one of the original founders of the Eureka Club, and a member of Truxtun Lodge No. 199. Horace Sr. and Horace Jr., father and son, always managed to find Christopher Columbus’ grave by using a particular tree as a landmark. However, once the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex became overgrown between 1945 and 1980, and was virtually impassable, Mr. Savage could no longer visit his grandfather’s grave site. “The grass was so high, you couldn’t get in here!” Mr. Savage remarked, gesturing towards the front of the cemetery complex.

Mr. Savage shared additional memories of his early visits to the cemetery while we continued to look for signs of Christopher’s grave. He mentioned that every May 30th, the community participated in Memorial Day parades to the cemetery. This tradition is an outgrowth of the first Decoration Day, when thousands of former slaves in Charleston, South Carolina honored Union soldiers that had perished in the local Confederate prison and were buried in a mass grave. On May 1, 1865, the former slaves re-buried the Union soldiers and dedicated the new cemetery with a parade and ceremony.

Historian David W. Blight writes:

After a long siege, a prolonged bombardment for months from all around the harbor, and numerous fires, the beautiful port city of Charleston, South Carolina, where the war had begun in April, 1861, lay in ruin by the spring of 1865. The city was largely abandoned by white residents by late February. Among the first troops to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the Twenty First U. S. Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the formal surrender of the city.

Thousands of black Charlestonians, most former slaves, remained in the city and conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war. The largest of these events, and unknown until some extraordinary luck in my recent research, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the planters’ horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into an outdoor prison. Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. Some twenty-eight black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders’ race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy’s horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freedpeople. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.” (Blight, for the Newark Star Ledger)

In Portsmouth, the destinations of the parades of which Mr. Savage remembers would alternate between the city’s historic black cemeteries, ending at Mt. Calvary Cemetery one year, and in the subsequent year, at Lincoln Memorial. When the parades came to Mt. Calvary Cemetery, the programs would be held at the grave site of fraternalist John W. Brown (1864-1945), a North Carolina native that was once known as the “Father of Fraternal Organizations” in the Tidewater region. Mr. Brown was the former Grand Master of the Masonic Grand Lodge of Virginia, the past Grand Eminent Commander of the Knights Templar of Virginia, and the past Grand Master in the Grand Lodge of Odd Fellows.

Barnes Family Monument. It includes fraternal symbols of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Order of the Eastern Star, and the Square and Compass of the Masons. Mt. Calvary Cemetery.

Barnes Family Monument. Annual Memorial Day ceremonies were held in this area. The monument includes fraternal symbols of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Order of the Eastern Star, and the Square and Compass of the Masons. Mt. Calvary Cemetery.

Although the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (also referred to as Fisher’s Hill), was overgrown in later years, and visitation had ceased, its importance to history was never forgotten by elder members of Portmouth’s African American community. Mr. Savage shared that he, and fellow members of the Truxtun Masonic Lodge No. 199, hosted regular clean-up days at the cemetery in the early 1980s. The historic lodge was founded by Mr. Savage’s maternal grandfather, Thomas Tucker (1867-1954) in Portsmouth’s Truxtun community in 1919. Other volunteer groups helped as well, and the city soon lent some support, although Mr. Savage said that it was “fleeting” during this period. Mr. Savage and Mr. Rawls are encouraged by the city’s recent work in the cemetery complex, and that the city appears more committed to restoring the cemetery complex, a “call to conscience” Mr. Savage noted, to help bring the condition of the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex up to par with other city cemeteries like Cedar Grove and Olive Branch.

After a while longer, Mr. Savage came to the conclusion that Christopher may not have had a grave stone. I pointed out that it may simply be buried out of sight, as the cemeteries have had repeated bouts of flooding and soil disturbance over the years. In addition to the whereabouts of Christopher’s grave lies another mystery. My research has uncovered that Pvt. Alfred Savage had a brother, John Kilby Savage, who was a Civil War Union veteran. Pvt. John Kilby Savage was also a member of the 2nd Regiment, enlisting one day after Alfred on December 25, 1863. He mustered into service on January 8, 1864, at Fort Monroe, and mustered out at Brazos Santiago, Texas, February 12, 1866. John Kilby Savage may also be buried in the cemetery complex. His and Christopher Columbus’ headstones may yet be future finds in the cemetery.

Rawls and Savage discuss history

Mr. Rawls and Mr. Savage discuss their family history. In the foreground, the gravestone of Civil War Navy Veteran Reginius Watkins. Mt. Calvary Cemetery

On that day, I was honored to be of some help to members of the Savage Family line in locating their ancestor, and I was again reminded of the importance of these sacred sites. Place and memory are two concepts that are important in how we remember our ancestors and where we come from. I witnessed it when Mr. Savage and Mr. Rawls were prompted to discuss family history while standing in the cemetery near the grave site of their common ancestor. The gravestone is faded, but the person for whom it was placed left an enduring legacy. Alfred Savage, and his brother John Kilby Savage, fought for freedom, serving their families and communities. They faced mortal dangers to help achieve better lives for their people. That tradition of service carried itself forward in the family line, through the hard work and social activism of the Savage Family descendants in Portsmouth through to the 20th century.

Sometimes cemeteries are seen as haunted and forbidding; eerie places one visits only for a funeral service. African American cemeteries increasingly suffer an additional fate: destruction or demolition from gentrification, neglect, condemnation, or commercial development. Many cemeteries have been desecrated, or paved over, like the African Burial Ground in Richmond, Virginia, a site whose sanctity is still not secure, and is of strategic importance to a true understanding of the history of slavery in the United States and African Diaspora. Other burial grounds have been virtually destroyed, such as Laurel Cemetery, founded in 1852, in Baltimore, Maryland. The cemetery was originally studied by historian Agnes Kane Callum in her genealogical journal “Flower of the Forest.” Reporter Carl Schoettler defined it as “the first non-sectarian burial ground” for African Americans in Baltimore. The interments were supposedly moved in 1958, before the construction of the shopping center that now sits atop the site, but researchers estimate there are thousands of individuals that were never relocated, and remain beneath the buildings. There are similar stories from New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Georgia, and Alabama. In other locations, family members are barred access from their ancestors’ resting places. A recent story out of Seminole County, Florida details an eighty-seven year old woman whose grandparents are interred in what is now private property, who has not been allowed to visit their burial sites, a violation of state law.

I reflected on incidents such as these while I watched Mr. Rawls and Mr. Savage discussing history. They illustrate the systemic manner in which the history that may be learned from African burial grounds can be lost. Mr. Rawls and Mr. Savage were able to stand on the very ground where their ancestor is interred. In moments like these, tangible links to history are forged. Cemeteries are not grounds that do not warrant protection or respect. They are hallowed spaces where precious memories are preserved, that may be the last link to a community’s existence. How many more moments like these may be lost to time? How much history still remains to be reclaimed?

We learn from our elders, past and present, as I did in my conversations with Mr. Savage and Mr. Rawls. I was fortunate to learn specifics of parades that I’ve only read about in newspaper archives. What a treat to be able to fill in the gaps of documentary history with oral testimonies! I thank Mr. Savage and Mr. Rawls for venturing out with us that morning. Thank you, and I hope to continue to do my part in carrying forward the tradition of holding the legacies of our forebears sacred, and preserving their history for future generations.


Filed under Civil War, Portsmouth, Stories in Stone, The Descendants Corner, Virginia

Portsmouth, VA: Cemetery Complex Gains Advocates, Lia Russell, The Virginian-Pilot

Four historic adjoining cemeteries – Mount Calvary, Fisher’s Hill, Mount Olive and a potter’s field – are in need of restoration and preservation. The African American Cemeteries of Portsmouth Foundation, a newly founded “friends” group, is hoping to spearhead the effort. (Photo: The Virginian-Pilot)

By Lia Russell

The long-neglected historic African American cemetery complex off Deep Creek Boulevard and Pulaski Street now has a dedicated advocacy group.

Brenda and Nadia Orton, a mother and daughter from Richmond who have at least 15 relatives buried in the cemeteries, have formed the African American Historic Cemeteries of Portsmouth Foundation, a “friends” group of volunteers.

The idea manifested as a result of a meeting earlier this month with representatives of the Chicora Foundation, which was hired to complete a restoration and preservation plan for the four conjoined cemeteries.  READ MORE

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Filed under Civil War, Norfolk County, Portsmouth, Richmond, Stories in Stone, Suffolk, The Descendants Corner, U. S. Colored Troops, Virginia