In Their Own Words: Voices of African American WWI Veterans

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

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

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

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

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Norfolk, Virginia: New U. S. Colored Troop Discovery, Calvary Cemetery

Military service record for Pvt. Edward Bray (ca. 1844-1926)

 

New U. S. Colored Troop discovery in Calvary Cemetery. Meet Private Edward (Edmond) Bray. He was a member of Company B, 2nd Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry. Born enslaved in North Carolina, he escaped to Union lines and enlisted at Fort Monroe, Virginia, on December 22, 1863. As per his military record, he was involved in the battles of Suffolk, Drewry’s Bluff, and New Market Heights, Virginia, in 1864. He mustered out on February 12, 1866, at Brazos Santiago, Texas, with the surviving members of his regiment. Later in life, he married, and settled in the Tanners Creek District of Norfolk County, the same area where one of our forebears landed in 1763, which was annexed by the City of Norfolk in 1955. Pvt. Bray passed away on January 5, 1926. Soon after, his wife, Mary, passed on August 7th. She is also interred in Calvary Cemetery. ♣

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

Zinc Marker Norfolk Copyright Nadia K. Orton
White Bronze Marker, Calvary Cemetery

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

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