Portsmouth, Virginia: Stories in Stone

Finding ancestors, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

July 4, 2007

Orton Mt. Calvary Copyright Nadia Orton
My paternal great-great-great grandfather, Max J. Orton (1850-1902), USN. Mt. Olive Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex
Orton Mt. Calvary Copyright Nadia K. Orton
My paternal great-great-great-grandmother Jerusha Copeland Orton (ca. 1884-1928), Mount Olive Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

Pvt. Zachariah Taylor, Co. H, 5th U. S. Colored Infantry

October 11, 2010

Taylor USCT Portsmouth Copyright Nadia Orton
Zachariah Taylor, 5th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. Mt. Olive Cemetery, Mt Calvary Cemetery Complex

Cemetery Complex Gains Advocates. Lia Russell, The Virginian Pilot

November 3, 2010

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…Continue reading

Lia Russell, The Virginian Pilot. November 3, 2010

Feral dogs, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

December 15, 2011

On a visit to our family’s ancestral gravesites, these three unwelcome visitors honestly scared me to death. Hidden from view, they were resting in one of the broken ledger graves in Mt. Calvary Cemetery. 

Safely back in the car, I contacted Portsmouth civic authorities about the dogs, and later sent a map of their general location by email. The dogs were either trapped, or moved on six weeks later.

Feral Dogs Copyright jNadia Orton

Mount Calvary Cemetery, a battle with time and neglect. Cherise Newsome, African American Today, The Virginian Pilot

February 1, 2012

In a cemetery complex tucked off of Deep Creek Boulevard and Pulaski Street, Nadia Orton tiptoes among the dead. Stepping on the sunken, wet ground, Orton keeps an eye out for feral dogs that have roamed the field for the last few months. “I think they were marking their territory,” she said…Continue reading


Stories in Stone: Thomas Craig and the Ortons of Tidewater, Virginia: My Mission as a Freedom Storyteller

January 28, 2014

Thomas Craig – USN, USS Franklin. Mt. Olive Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2011.

Thomas Craig. So reads the name on the faded and sunken headstone of military issue in Mount Olive Cemetery, one of the oldest African-American cemeteries in Portsmouth, Virginia. Part of the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (Fisher’s Hill) (est. 1879), I first noticed Thomas Craig’s gravestone in Mt. Olive on a humid July 4th holiday weekend in 2007, searching for ancestral grave sites with my family. Not being aware of any known map, we walked the entire cemetery, and in doing so, passed the Craig gravestone several times.

At the time, my focus was on finding any and all headstones with the name “Orton.” My paternal ancestry stretches back to 1690 in the Tidewater area of Virginia. My grand-aunt, Philgrador Rachel Orton Duke, was concerned about the lasting legacy of our family line. Born in 1923 in a home on Griffin Street, she was a life-time Portsmouth resident. Before her passing in March of 2007, she called my father and other relatives to her bedside in Maryview Hospital, with the admonition “do not let our history die.” Hearing that call, I concentrated fully on researching the paternal side of my family tree. I’d dabbled in genealogy since 2001, but now I had a mission. This was my grand-aunt’s last wish. Honoring this wish led us to the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex.

With further research, I discovered that our ancestors had visited and tended to family plots from some of the first burials performed in the early 1880s through to the early 1940s. However, elders that live in and around Portsmouth informed me that by the late 1940s, the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex was about full, and the then existing owner allowed it to become overgrown in the decades that followed. By 1960, the cemetery complex was nearly impassable, and was closed by the city soon thereafter. Trees, vines, poison ivy, and trash came to dominate what was once the premier burial ground and one of the earliest institutions of Portsmouth’s African American community (Portsmouth cemeteries were segregated until 1975). Visitation had largely ceased, and calls for its care and restoration by the Portsmouth branch of the NAACP, pastors, lodges, and various civic groups went unheeded. With Lincoln Memorial cemetery (1912), and the graveyards of Grove Baptist and Olive Branch Church (and eventually, Greenlawn Memorial Gardens in Chesapeake) becoming the primary cemeteries of Portsmouth’s black community, the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex fell into shadow, a forgotten area of the old city. Continue reading


Matilda Ella Hale Nakano, Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

February 5, 2014

Matilda Ella Hale Nakano - Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Portsmouth, Va.
Grave of Matilda Ella Hale Nakano, Mt. Calvary Cemetery. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, June 21, 2012

One of the most talked about gravestones in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex is for Mrs. Matilda Ella Hale Nakano. The daughter of Granville and Emma, I’ve traced her family roots to the late 18th century, in the counties of Hertford and Bertie, North Carolina. She married Charlie Kosuke Nakano in 1923, a recent immigrant from Kagoshima (prefecture), Japan. After she passed in 1927, Mr. Nakano remarried, but lost his second wife in 1936.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, and the signing of Executive Order 9066, Mr. Nakano was sent to an internment camp near Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’m still piecing together the rest of his story.

Ella rests in Mt. Calvary Cemetery near the grave sites of several members of her extended family, including her grandmother, Christianna, who was born in 1818, Bertie County, North Carolina. Of additional interest are the inscriptions and symbols on her grave stone. Thanks to Mike Tretola and family, we know that the bottom inscription (kanji) indicates that Mr. Nakano made the headstone for Ella. At the top are representations of ivy, denoting eternal life or affection, and a crown and cross, representing redemption through faith, or the Kingdom of Heaven.


At Proctor Grave, October 18, 1958 – Mt. Calvary Cemetery

February 8, 2014

“At Proctor Grave,” in the October 18, 1958 edition of the New Journal and Guide. From the caption: “Three unidentified persons are shown looking at the grave of the late (Nelson) Proctor (1846-1910), one of the five colored citizens who have served on the Portsmouth City Council.” A native of Camden County, North Carolina, and … Continue reading

The Norfolk Journal and Guide

Willis Fleming, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

June 13, 2014

Willis Fleming - Mt. Calvary Cemetery
Willis Fleming (1865-1935) – Mt. Calvary Cemetery. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2010

Willis Fleming, Died 18 1935; Age 70 At Res” reads the worn inscription on a small cement marker in Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Portsmouth, Va. The historic cemetery contains gravestones of various materials, and some, such as the headstone for Mr. Fleming, are handmade…Continue reading


The Caretakers: William H. Elliott, Court Street Baptist Church, Portsmouth

November 22, 2014

William H. Elliott - Mt. Calvary Portsmouth
William Henry Elliott. Mt. Calvary Cemetery. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2010

The grave was flat, unadorned, and partially obscured by leaves and grass. I’d stumbled upon it on a brisk fall day in November 2013, during one of my regular visits to the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, finding myself once again on the hunt for elusive ancestors. Curious as to its owner, I brushed away a few stubborn leaves and read the name attached: “William Elliott.” I have a distant relative by that name, but there were no visible dates of birth, death, nor any other clue to identify this particular William. Lacking a shovel, I snapped a picture and moved on.

I thought no more on the matter until this past week, when a curious thing happened. While conducting general research in a newspaper archive about the cemetery, I noticed a familiar name: “William Elliott,” a celebrated sexton of historic Court Street Baptist Church, established in 1789, Portsmouth. This William Elliott was about the same age as my long-lost William, who worked as a sexton, and was a free person of color born and raised in Hampton Roads. I thought back to the mysterious William Elliott in Mt. Calvary Cemetery, and had a revelation: had I just discovered a long-lost relative? Continue reading


Pvt. Henry Hopper, 4th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry – Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

February 23, 2015

Mt. Calvary Cemetery USCT Portsmouth VA Orton
The grave of Pvt. Henry Hopper, Mt. Calvary Cemetery. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, February 21, 2015.

Visiting Mt. Calvary Cemetery on a snowy Saturday. Civil War veteran Pvt. Henry Hopper (1821-1900), of the 4th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, is in the foreground.


A North Carolina Civil War Veteran in Portsmouth: Sgt. Lewis Rodgers 28th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry – Lincoln Memorial Cemetery

Sgt. Lewis Rogers USCT Portsmouth Orton
Sgt. Lewis Rogers (1845-1884) of Gates County, NC. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2015

Last of the fall colors, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

December 8, 2015

Portsmouth Mt. Calvary Cemetery Orton
Last of the fall colors in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

Finding Edwin Mingo — Mt. Olive Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

January 8, 2016

Gravestone of Edwin Mingo, Mt. Olive Cemetery. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

I visited the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex yesterday, and came across this broken stone. Although I could make out the dates of birth and death, the name was missing. After a bit of research, I discovered the fragmented gravestone was placed in honor of Edwin Mingo, who passed away at Central State Hospital, in Petersburg, Virginia.

Central State Hospital was established on March 17, 1885, as a segregated mental health facility for African Americans. Some of its first patients were initially provided care at Howard’s Grove General Hospital, a former Confederate hospital that had been converted into an “asylum for the colored insane” on December 17, 1869, according to an 1897 article in the Richmond Dispatch. Continue reading


The Leon A. Turner Family and interconnections – Mt. Olive Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

March 3, 2016

Gravestone of Leon A. Turner (1890-1916), Mt. Olive Cemetery, Portsmouth, Va. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

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. Continue reading


A Personal Journey Through African-American Cemeteries – National Trust for Historic Preservation

June 21, 2016

Copyright Nadia Orton
At the gravesite of my great-great-great-grandfather Alexander Orton, 10th U. S. Colored Infantry. Grove Baptist Church cemetery, 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. Continue reading


Restoring dignity to a Civil War veteran’s gravesite – Mt. Olive Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

September 16, 2016

Gravestone Brinkley Portsmouth Copyright Nadia Orton
Photos: Nadia K. Orton, 2011-2016

I first documented Pvt. Henry Brinkley’s gravesite in 2010. Born enslaved in Suffolk, he enlisted on January 1, 1864 at Fort Monroe, and engaged in action at various sites in Tidewater including Petersburg, part of the campaign that led directly to the liberation of Richmond on April 3, 1865. He mustered out in 1866. I always felt a connection to Pvt. Brinkley, and wanted to take care of his grave; he’d survived the Siege of Petersburg, while some of our USCT ancestors had not. Sadly, during a 2013 research visit, I noticed his headstone had been hit by a car (the cemetery gates can’t be locked at night.) Horrified, I made an attempt to find a descendant (current rules stipulate that a living descendant’s permission is required), but in this instance, made glacial progress. Over time, I got really tired of seeing Henry’s broken headstone. It looked terrible, and I didn’t want to fail him, so I contacted the Dept. of Veterans Affairs with a humble plea…and the gravestone was replaced! Lookin’ good, Pvt. Brinkley! RIP


Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, Historical Marker dedication

September 19, 2016

Marker Portsmouth Nadia Orton Copyright

Historical marker dedicated September 19, 2016. Sponsoring organization: Virginia Department of Transportation. Co-authors of text: members of the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex Cemetery Preservation Committee (overseen by the City of Portsmouth, 2015-ended 2016), Nadia K. Orton, descendant and independent historian/professional genealogist, and Mr. Charles Johnson, descendant, historian and member, African American Historical Society of Portsmouth, Virginia, Inc.


Unmarked no more! – Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

January 28, 2017

Pvt. Edmond Riddick 36 USCI Portsmouth Copyright Nadia Orton 2016
Pvt. Edmond Riddick, Co. A, 36th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry – Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

Unmarked no more! We finally received the headstone to mark the gravesite of Cpl Edmond Riddick (ca. 1845-1926), a native of Southampton County, Virginia, and member of the 36th Regiment, U. S. Colored Troops. His grave had been unmarked for over ninety years, but now it is done, thanks to the assistance of the Department of Veterans Affairs. He served his community faithfully and selflessly for decades, as a long-time member of Zion Baptist Church, and commander of the local post of the Grand Army of the Republic. He was the father of educator William E. Riddick, whose well-known philosophy was “If you can make it at Norcom, you can make it anywhere.” We’re not related to him, but paid for the installation anyway, to avoid delays. Happy to have been able to serve this worthy citizen of Portsmouth.


Memorials to United States Colored Troops – Portsmouth, Virginia

May 29, 2017

Memorials to United States Colored Troops

A photo-essay series dedicated to the United States Colored Troops, and how they were remembered in contemporary news media

Pt. 5

Portsmouth, Virginia

Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, Lincoln Memorial Cemetery

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Replacement headstones on the way! – Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

June 28, 2017

Yesterday, I was able to visit ancestral ground, and mark the grave locations of three Civil War veterans, freedom fighters all, who’ll soon get new headstones. Our family was able to set aside the money necessary to install them. A great day!

Copyright Nadia K. Orton 2010
Photo: Nadia K. Orton, December 9, 2010. Mt. Olive Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. 

Pvt. Washington Milbey, Company F, 10th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. Born ca. 1818, Nansemond County (City of Suffolk), Virginia. Enlisted November 25, 1863, Craney Island, Virginia. Mustered December 17, 1863, Fort Monroe, Virginia. Mustered out May 17, 1866, Galveston, Texas. Died January 22, 1894, Portsmouth, Virginia. Continue reading


Three new headstones for local freedom fighters! – Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, Lincoln Memorial Cemetery

July 12, 2017

We just received word that three more local freedom fighters are set to get new headstones. Two have Bertie County, North Carolina roots, and one is from Portsmouth, Virginia. The headstones will be installed over the next few months, weather permitting. They are:

Pvt. Arthur Beasley Mt. Calvary Portsmouth copyright 2013 Nadia Orton
Pvt. Arthur Beasley, Co. I, 1st Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry. Mount Calvary Cemetery. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

Private Arthur Beasley, Company I, 1st Regiment, United States Colored Cavalry. Born about 1840, Bertie County, North Carolina. Enlisted on August 2, 1864, Norfolk, Virginia. Mustered in September 7, 1864, at Newport News, Virginia. Mustered out, February 4, 1866, at Brazos Santiago, Texas. Passed away on May 8, 1896, Portsmouth, Virginia. Interment, Mount Calvary Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex).  Continue reading


Four United States Colored Troops receive new headstones – Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

July 27, 2017

Four more replacement headstones for Portsmouth, Virginia Civil War veterans have been installed in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. These brave men, who fought for freedom and equality, were from Hinds County, Mississippi, Currituck County, North Carolina, and the independent cities of Chesapeake and Suffolk, Virginia. Stay tuned for more updates!  Continue reading


‘Til Death Do Us Part’: The marriage of Pvt. Esau Bowers, 2nd Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry – Mt. Olive Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

August 17, 2017

Pvt. Bowers Portsmouth Orton Copyright 2010
Gravestone of Pvt. Esau Bowers, Co. B, 2nd U. S. Colored Infantry. Mt. Olive Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex). Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 10, 2010

“Til Death Do Us Part” – The marriage certificate of Pvt Esau Bowers, (ca. 1837-1877) Company B, 2nd Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, and Lucy Brownley Williams, Portsmouth, Virginia, April 5, 1876. The minister who performed their marriage, Rev. John H. Offer, was also a Civil War veteran. Born in Maryland, Rev. Offer was a Sergeant with Co. H, 30th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, and served as the pastor of historic Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Portsmouth from 1871 to 1877.  Continue reading


Eight local heroes to receive new headstones

October 16, 2017

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

Pvt. Austin Smallwood (ca. 1845-1894), of Bertie County, North Carolina

Company I, 14th Regiment, United States Heavy Artillery

Mount Calvary Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex)

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

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New United States Colored Troop discovery – Mt. Olive Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

January 11, 2018

Ephraim Rees 14 USCHA
Enlistment record for Pvt. Ephraim Rees, 14th United States Colored Heavy Artillery

Another freedomfighter discovered in Mt. Olive Cemetery! Meet Pvt. Ephraim Rees (ca. 1844-1928), of Company A, 14th Regiment, United States Colored Heavy Artillery. He was born enslaved in Pitt County, North Carolina, and enlisted on March 9, 1864, at New Bern (Craven County), North Carolina. He mustered out on December 11, 1865, at Fort Macon (near Beaufort, NC).

After the war, he returned to Greenville, Pitt County, North Carolina, and remained there most of his life with his first wife, Mary. After her death, he relocated to Portsmouth, and met and married Lizzie Parker (ca. 1888-1939), daughter of Robert Parker and Jane Riddick. Ephraim passed away on November 28, 1928, and was interred in Mt. Olive Cemetery by funeral director William Grogan.

Interestingly enough, I discovered Pvt. Ephraim Rees by accident; I came across him while researching his brother, who also served in the 14th Regiment, U. S. Colored Heavy Artillery. He’s buried in a historic African American cemetery in Greenville, North Carolina (more on him in a bit). Glad to have found you, Pvt. Rees! ♥


Finding Pvt. Cornelius Riddick, 2nd Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry – Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

January 23, 2018

Pvt. Riddick Mt. Calvary Portsmouth Copyright 2011 Nadia Orton
Gravestone of Pvt. Cornelius Riddick, Company B, 2nd U. S. Colored Cavalry. Mt. Calvary Cemetery; Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 30, 2011

How many times have volunteers walked past this headstone, without knowing the full story? Meet Cornelius Riddick, born enslaved in 1845, Norfolk County, Virginia, husband of Mary J. Harrell of Elizabeth City, North Carolina….and member of Company B, 2nd Regiment, United States Colored Cavalry!

Cornelius enlisted on December 22, 1863, at Fort Monroe, Virginia. He fought in several battles, including Suffolk, Virginia, on March 9, 1864, and Drewry’s Bluff, on May 16, 1864. He mustered out on February 12, 1866, at Brazos Santiago, Texas.

After the war, he returned to Virginia and married Mary Jurissa Harrell, daughter of Ennis and Joyette Harrell, on January 22, 1868, in Portsmouth. The ceremony was performed by Rev. John H. Wingfield, of Trinity Episcopal Church. By occupation, Cornelius “worked on the railroad,” likely the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, whose office headquarters were once located in a historic building at the intersection of Water and High Street, before the company relocated to Richmond in the late 1950s. Cornelius passed away on June 22, 1897, from complications of the flu and bronchitis. He was buried in the family plot in Mt. Calvary Cemetery on June 24, 1897. His wife, Mary, passed in 1914, and is buried next to her husband.

As the inscription on Cornelius’ headstone is fading, we’ll see if we can acquire a new one that includes a description of his military service in the Civil War. Fingers crossed! Hopefully we’ll be able to honor this freedom fighter in an appropriate way. ♥ 


New Civil War headstones approved

January 26, 2018

Two more replacement headstones for Civil War veterans have been approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs. They will be installed as time and weather permits. They are: Cpl. John Cross, 10th United States Colored Infantry     Cpl. John Cross, of the 10th United States Colored Infantry, was born enslaved about 1833 in Gates … Continue reading


Lillian R. Baines, Registered Nurse – Lincoln Memorial Cemetery

February 2, 2018

Baines RN Portsmouth Copyright Nadia Orton 2014
Gravestone for Lillian R. Baines (1904-1933), RN. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 29, 2014.

Born in the Yadkin area of (what is now) Chesapeake, Virginia, Lillian was the daughter of Esau Baines (1878-1967), and Nancy E. Williams (1886-1981). Lillian graduated from I. C. Norcom High School in 1924, and in 1925, enrolled in the Dixie Hospital Training School for Nurses (est. 1891), on the campus of Hampton University. The treasurer of her senior class, Lillian was a proud representative of Portsmouth’s Truxtun community when she graduated from the Dixie School for Nurses in 1928. As the Daily Press reported, the senior class motto was “Not for ourselves, but for the whole world.”

After graduation, Lillian served as a maternity nurse in Norfolk, Virginia. In 1932, she was appointed the official tuberculosis nurse for Portsmouth’s African American community by the City of Portsmouth. Lillian’s daily responsibilities included door-to-door home health visits, where she supplied information and care to those who were sick, and provided comfort for families. Unfortunately, it was a short post, as she succumbed to complications from surgery for a serious ear infection, and died at Kings Daughters Hospital in Portsmouth on January 11, 1933. She was twenty-eight years old.

As the New Journal and Guide reported, her death came as a shock to Portsmouth’s African American community. Members of the Tidewater Nurses Association attended her funeral, which was held at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and presided over by Rev. Harvey N. Johnson. Portsmouth’s first African American female funeral director, Nancy Thomas Wheeler, performed the hymn “The Vacant Chair.”

Ms. Baines rests in the Baines Family plot in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, less than fifteen feet from busy Deep Creek Boulevard. ♠


Albert Jones, United States Colored Troop – Lincoln Memorial Cemetery

February 7, 2018

Pvt. Jones Portsmouth Enlistment Card
Pvt. Albert Jones, Enlistment Card

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


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

The aged man cleared his throat and chuckled. Then he said, “But you better never let mastah catch yer wif a book or paper, and yer couldn’t praise God so he could hear yer. If yer done dem things, he sho’ would beat yer. ‘Course he wuz good to me, ‘cause I never done none of ‘em. My work won’t hard neiver. I had to wait on my mastah, open de gates for him, drive de wagon and tend de horses. I was sort of a house boy.”
“Fer twenty years I stayed wif mastah, and I didn’t try to run away. When I wuz twenty one, me and one of my brothers run away to fight wif the Yankees. Us left Souf Hampton county and went to Petersburg. Dere we got some food. Den us went to Fort Hatton where we met some more slaves who had done run away. When we got in Fort Hatton, us had to cross a bridge to git to de Yankees. De rebels had torn de bridge down. We all got together and builded back de bridge, and we went on to de Yankees. Dey give us food and clothes.


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


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


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


“One day when I wuz fighting, de rebels shot at me, and dey sent a bullet through my hand. I wuz lucky not to be kilt. Look! See how my hand is?”
The old man held up his right hand, and it was half closed. Due to the wound he received in the war, that was as far as he could open his hand.
Still looking at his hand Mr. Jones said, “But dat didn’t stop me, I had it bandaged and kept on fighting.”


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


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

WPA Slave Narratives, January 8, 1937
Lincoln Cemetery Portsmouth Copyright Nadia Orton 2011
Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, August 23, 2011.

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


An enduring mystery – Mt. Olive Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

March 8, 2018

USCT Portsmouth Copyright 2018 Nadia Orton
The unknown member of the 1st Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry

I first noticed this Civil War veteran’s grave in 2010. Eight years later, I still cannot confirm his identity beyond his affiliation with the 1st Regiment, United States Colored Cavalry. The gravestone is one of the older styles of government-issue, so I suspect that he died prior to 1905. It appears that, at some point in the past, the gravestone was damaged by mowers or other lawn equipment, obliterating most of the soldier’s name and company information. I’ll return soon for a careful cleaning to remove another layer of dirt. Fingers crossed! Even a few letters will help determine his identity. ♣


Disappointments and discoveries – Lincoln Memorial Cemetery

April 3, 2018

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

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

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

Lincoln Memorial Flooding 2018 Copyright 2018 Nadia Orton
Waterlogged graves of Dr. William E. Reid and wife Cornelia, and Dr. F. G. Elliott and wife

the center of the cemetery…

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

and the rear…

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

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A new headstone for 1st Sgt. Martin Smith, 36th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry – Mt. Olive Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

April 10, 2018

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.  Continue reading


Decoration Day Memories: Honoring Civil War Navy Veteran Thomas Craig (ca. 1831-1896) – Mt. Olive Cemetery, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

June 5, 2018

Thomas Craig 2018 Portsmouth Copyright 2018 Nadia Orton
Grave of Landsman Thomas Craig (1831-1899), Civil War Navy Veteran. Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

Honoring the subject of my first blog years ago, Landsman Thomas Craig, a free-born African American Civil War Navy veteran from Delaware. After the war, Thomas served aboard the receiving ship Franklin with two of my paternal ancestors, great-great-great-grandfather Max, and great-great-grandfather Arthur, during the 1880s in Portsmouth and Norfolk, Virginia. Thomas Craig and my great-great-great-grandfather Max Orton are buried about twenty feet apart in the rear of Mt. Olive Cemetery, one of the oldest cemeteries of the historic Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. Great-great-grandfather Arthur Orton is buried near the front of the cemetery complex, in the section known as Fishers Cemetery.

Over Decoration Day (Memorial Day) weekend, I visited the cemetery complex with my father to plant flags at the graves of the some of the several hundred veterans we’ve documented there. After planting a flag at Max’s gravesite, we walked over and stood before Thomas’ grave, and reflected on the historical connections between him and our family. Another detail popped into view, the fire ants at the base of his gravestone. They will have to be removed before his headstone can be cleaned and reset. His sacrifice for freedom and equality is not forgotten. The struggle continues…


In Remembrance of Juneteenth

June 19, 2018

Emancipation Day Celebration Band, June 19, 1900. Austin Public Library

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Brothers in the fight for freedom, rediscovered 

June 22, 2018

Calvin White 1st USCC MCCC Portsmouth VA
Enlistment record of Pvt. Calvin White, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry

Another long lost veteran has been rediscovered in Mount Olive Cemetery, part of the historic Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex, in Portsmouth, Virginia. His name was Calvin White, and he was a member of Company H, 1st Regiment, United States Colored Cavalry.

Calvin was born enslaved about 1833, in Gates County, North Carolina. His owner was Sarah F. Hinton (1832-1854), but Calvin’s surname came from his second owner, Watson Timothy White (1824-1919), whom Sarah F. Hinton married on May 28, 1850, Perquimans County, North Carolina. Both of Calvin’s parents were also born into slavery, his mother, Aggy, owned by the Hinton Family, and his father, Isaac Parker, “owned by a man named Parker,” according to Calvin’s later recollection. Both Calvin and his mother Aggy were moved to an area near Edenton, North Carolina, after Sarah F. Hinton’s marriage to Watson Timothy White in 1850.

At the age of thirty, Calvin “left his master,” and traveled up to Norfolk, Virginia.  Continue reading


Preserving African American Civil War History in Tidewater, Virginia

September 11, 2018

Due to the impending landfall of Hurricane Florence, we’re not sure how long we’ll have access to the internet (or power for that matter), and when those services will be restored. However, we’re happy to report that two of the thirteen remaining replacement headstones for local African American Civil War veterans have finally been installed. Most of the headstones were delivered between July and September of 2017, with the installations delayed due to extended periods of rain in the Mid-Atlantic region, and other factors.  Continue reading


In Their Own Words: Voices of African American WWI Veterans

November 12, 2018

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! Continue reading