Assisting grassroots efforts to preserve a historical, African American institution of Suffolk, Virginia
I’ve written the text for two highway historical markers for African American cemeteries in Virginia: the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (est. 1879), Portsmouth, in 2016, and Oak Lawn Cemetery (est. 1885), Suffolk, in 2019. However, I never knew how they were made. Thanks to a wonderful story about the manufacturer, Sewah Studios (Marietta, Ohio), I know the answer. The historical marker for Oak Lawn Cemetery is shown briefly in this great video courtesy of WTAP News, Parkersburg, West Virginia.
Pvt. Harrison Spratley was a member of Company E, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry. According to his military pension file, Harrison was born on August 6, 1847, in Surry County, Virginia. His parents, Dawson Spratley (b. ca. 1810), and Nancy Spratley (b. ca. 1805), were free persons of color. In the 1830s, Dawson Spratley is documented on several “free negro” lists in Surry County, Virginia, working on the farm of Angelina “Angie” Edwards (b. ca. 1770).
“1st SC Infantry of African Descent – The 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment was raised from sea island slaves living around Port Royal. Elements of the regiment were formed on Hilton Head in May 1862. In August 1862, the regiment was reorganized near Beaufort at the Smith plantation. It was commanded by the noted abolitionist Thomas W. Higginson who led the Regiment on raids along the Georgia coast. On Jan. 1, 1863, the regiment was formerly mustered into the United States Army. The regiment saw extensive service on the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida Coasts. On Feb. 8, 1864, the regiment was redesignated as the 33rd Infantry Regiment of the United States Colored Troops. The regiment assisted in the occupation of Charleston, Savannah, Augusta and other points until it was mustered out on Jan. 31, 1866.”
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