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!

Colored Soldiers Attention – The Virginia War History Commission has decided to place record of the achievements of the colored soldiers from Virginia in the World War in the volumes with the record of the white soldiers, for this purpose of Board of Negro Collaborators has been appointed to collect this data. Headquarters have been established at the Mechanics Savings Bank building and all persons knowing of persons, who distinguished themselves abroad will send their names and addresses to Prof. T. C. Erwin, Secretary, Mechanics Savings Bank Building, Richmond, Va. As there is but a limited time to secure this information all persons are urged to act at once. It will be very unfortunate if this history should be published and the colored troops not recognized in the compilation due to negligence or failure to send in the information. Questionnaires may be obtained for the asking by sending for the same as indicated. Write at once and help this worthy cause.

The Richmond Planet, Saturday, April 24, 1920

During a two-day visit to the Library of Virginia, I eagerly reviewed reels of microfilm, looking for any applications that our ancestors submitted to the commission. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any at all, and felt the familiar feeling of smacking into another genealogy “brick wall.” However, amidst my disappointment, I noticed something else; some of the veterans had chosen to fill out their applications thoroughly, supplying detailed answers to questions about their views on religion, the war, and (if relevant) their combat experience. I paid close attention to applications submitted by veterans that lived in the same neighborhoods as my ancestors, and have included a small portion of them here.

Richmond, Virginia

Pvt. Otis P. Robinson (1890-1918) – Company B, 545 Engrs

Original gravesite of Pvt. Otis P. Robinson, American Cemetery, St. Nazaire, France, 1918. Library of Virginia

Otis Purcell Robinson was born on March 2, 1890 in Richmond, Virginia. He was the son of William T. Robinson and Victoria Edmonds, who are both interred in Evergreen Cemetery. He was the brother of Carrie Gustava Robinson Harris Gladden (1880-1948), William Bernard Robinson (ca.1884), Oscar C. Robinson, and Julian Merchant Robinson (ca. 1889).

Prior to World War I, Pvt. Robinson worked as a porter, and general laborer with the British American Tobacco Company (est. 1902). He was a member of Sharon Baptist Church. He enlisted on June 5, 1917, and left for Europe on September 23, 1918 aboard the Rijndam, a Dutch-owned vessel built in Ireland in 1901, acquired by the U. S. Navy for troop transport on May 1, 1918. 

Sometime during the voyage to Europe, Otis P. Robinson contracted pneumonia, and died on October 15, 1918. He was originally interred on October 19, 1918, in grave 326, plot K, square #1 of the American Cemetery, located in St. Nazaire, France. He was disinterred on November 7, 1921, and re-interred in Richmond National Cemetery, Virginia, in February, 1922.

Grave of Pvt. Otis Purcell Robinson, Richmond National Cemetery. Source: Ancestry.com

From his last letter to sister Carrie:

“Dear Sister, pray for me, or pray to God in heaven, is better than anything else I know; pray God Bless you and be with you, until we meet again. From your devoted brother Otis P. Robinson – Camp Humphreys Va. 545 Co. Engrs.”

Pvt.Robinson’s 1920 questionnaire was filled out by his sister, Carrie. In it, she included the following words:

“My star of hope — I looked from out my window and in the sky afar a tiny ship a anchor, There shone a golden star. Tis a lamp set in his window, a light unto my feet, Both he, and I are waiting until we two shall meet; It beams before my vision, It sooths my weary brains; It gives me peace in sadness and banishes the pain; My star of hope so precious I call this Golden Star; It shineth in my (unreadable); my loved one lost in War; devoted sister Carrie G. Harris.”

Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr. (1899-1963) – Pvt., Student Army Training Corps, Virginia Union University 

A. Lincoln Harris, Jr., The Crisis (1922)

Dr. Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr., regarded as the first nationally recognized African American economist, was born on January 17, 1899, Richmond, Virginia, to Abram Lincoln Harris, Sr. and Mary E. Lee , who are interred in East End Cemetery. He was the brother of Edna Celeste Harris Johnson, Cyril David Harris (1908-1909), Miriam Harris Fisher, Collins Jonathan Harris, John Malcolm Harris (1907-1937), and Madelyn G. Harris. A Baptist in faith, he was a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity.

His attitude towards military service:

“Prior to being inducted into the army I felt that any war fought to preserve the autonomy of weaker people should be supported by all liberty loving persons.”

On the effects of camp experience in the United States:

“Camp life such as I experienced was physically wholesome. I was more fit physically after discharge mentally, conditions were less favorable.”

Overall effect of war experience with his state of mind before the war:

“My actual experience had no effect upon my religious beliefs because I had no oversea experience. But the basic causes underlying the World War with its subsequent horrors and brutalities which are constantly referred to by eminent scholars some of whom had actual experience in the conflict force me to conclude that religion is inefficacious as a panacea for human social ills. Religionists have used the channels of public expression for the purpose of sowing the seeds of discord, racial and international hatred.

Still as a believer in the potency and effectiveness of the doctrines of Jesus Christ, my faith is unshaken. The solution of international problems is to be had only by the application of these teachings in social as well as individual life. Until now, hardly can any nation boast of having lived in accordance with the ideas of Christ. One nation is no more reprehensible than another.

In short, my knowledge of the recent war forces me to draw a hard line of demarcation between religion and Christianity, for surely ardent religious fervor was amply demonstrated on all sides during the recent crisis but the love of Jesus Christ was woefully lacking.”

Dr. Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr. Photo: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Dr. Abram Lincoln Harris passed away on November 15, 1963, and was interred in Montrose Cemetery, Chicago. His obituary in the November 18, 1963 edition of the Chicago Tribune described Dr. Harris as a “distinguished economist, social theorist, teacher, and writer.” On Dr. Harris’ legacy, the Richmond Times Dispatch wrote:

“Abram L. Harris, 64, formerly of Richmond,professor of economics at the University of Chicago, died Saturday in Chicago.

Dr. Harris, a Negro, headed the department of economics at Howard University at Howard University in Washington from 1936 to 1945. He also had been on the faculties of West Virginia State College and the College of the City of New York.

An authority on the problems of the Negro, he came to the University of Chicago in 1946. His books include “The Black Worker,” “The Negro as a Capitalist,: and “Ethics.”

Survivors include his wife, a brother, Jonathan Harris of Richmond, and a sister, Mrs. Madelyn H. Edmunds of Washington.”

The Richmond Times Dispatch, November 17, 1963

Norfolk, Virginia

PFC Floyd Bishop – Company B, 540 Engrs. Svc Bn.

Floyd Bishop was born on July 4, 1892, in Mapleton, Hertford County, North Carolina, to Richard Bishop (1838-1916), a farmer, and Margaret Gatling (ca. 1849-1937). He moved to Suffolk, Virginia by 1910, where he found work as a general laborer and later, as a cook with the Merchants and Miners Steamship Company. He enlisted at Norfolk, Virginia, on August 3, 1918, and departed from Hoboken, New Jersey for England aboard the USS Leviathan on October 27, 1918.

PFC Bishop arrived at Liverpool, England, on November 3, 1918. On his questionnaire, PFC Bishop noted that he wasn’t involved in any engagements, and was moved with other members of his company to various camps in France from November 11, 1918, to May 21, 1919. He departed from Marseille, France, on May 21, 1919 for Brooklyn, New York aboard the USS Brittania, arriving on June 6, 1919.

On the war, and its effects:

Before the war, I was passive as to the treatment of the common people colored, in particular, but since the war I am constantly reminded that my people (colored) are not getting any of the things that I served in the war to help bring about—democracy.

After the war, Floyd returned to his previous occupation, as a cook. He married Miss Estelle Rogers on January 21, 1932, at Norfolk, Virginia. The couple divorced a little over six years later.

PFC Floyd Bishop passed away on December 10, 1952. He rests in Calvary Cemetery in an unmarked grave.

Portsmouth, Virginia

Pvt. Harvey Page (1888-1950) – 15th Company, 4th Bn., 155 Depot Brigade

Gravestone of Pvt. Harvey Page, Mount Olive Cemetery, October 11, 2010

Pvt. Harvey Page was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, on April 9, 1888, to Charlie Page and Georgia Watkins. He was the husband of Emma Wilson, and affiliated with the Baptist church.

Pvt. Page enlisted on October 27, 1917, at Portsmouth, Virginia, and was stationed at Camp Lee, Virginia. Soon after arrival, he was transferred to Company B, 370th Infantry. He left for Europe aboard the USS Finland on April 30, 1918. 

USS Finland, ca. 1918. Source: navsource.org

In his questionnaire, Pvt. Page was somewhat apologetic in tone; he could not remember exact details and dates regarding his combat time. He did note that some of his engagements were centered around “fighting in the Argonne forest,” which most likely refers to the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Pvt. Page left Brest, France on February 2, 1919, and arrived in New York City on February 9, 1919. He returned to his family in Portsmouth, Virginia, and continued his previous occupation as a general laborer. 

In his application, he noted that his combat experience during the war was “impossible to describe.”

Pvt. Harvey Page passed away on November 30, 1950, from complications of acute endocarditis. He was interred in Mount Olive Cemetery on December 10, 1950, by funeral director Edward A. Colden

Pvt. Ollie Lee Snow – Company H, 369th Infantry, 93rd Division

New York’s famous 369th regiment arrives home from France. 
National Archives and Records Administration
Records of the War Department
Record Group 165
National Archives Identifier: 533548

Pvt. Ollie Lee Snow, one of the infamous “Harlem Hellfighters,” was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, on May 26, 1895, to William Snow and Etta Bass. Little is known about his early history in Tidewater, Virginia; he was a Baptist in faith, and worked as a shipfitter helper at the Norfolk Navy Yard. On August 18, 1916, he married Miss Willetta Fuller (1898-1944), daughter of George Washington Fuller, Sr. (1876-1923), and Mary L. Davis (1878-1946). By 1920, he was documented in Portsmouth’s Jefferson Ward, at 1010 Green Street, with wife Willetta, and George and Mary Fuller. Willetta Fuller Snow and her parents are all buried in Portsmouth’s Mount Olive Cemetery.

Gravestone of Willetta Fuller Snow, Mount Olive Cemetery (Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex, est. 1879). Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2011. The visible damage to the right upper portion of her gravestone was caused by lawn maintenance.

According to military records, Ollie Lee Snow enlisted on October 27, 1917, at Camp Lee, Virginia. Stationed there through early December, 1917, he was transferred north to Hoboken, New Jersey, where he left for Europe aboard the USS Pocahontas, arriving in Brest, France on January 1, 1918. 

USS Pocahontas, ca. 1918. Source: navsource.org

In his questionnaire, Pvt. Snow’s responses were pretty straightforward. Despite the racism and discrimination that many African American veterans faced, he had a favorable view of his overall military service, and noted that camp life prior to combat was beneficial “physically and mentally.” He wrote that his overseas experience improved his health, and strengthened his religious beliefs. Regarding combat, he “felt he was doing the right thing in fighting for Uncle Sam.” He also provided relevant details of his combat experience, regarding his participation in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He noted that he was awarded the Croix de Guerre, on September 29, 1918, by Marshall Ferdinand Foch, for his conduct during the Battle of Snake Hill. 

Soon after submitting his questionnaire in the Spring of 1920, Pvt. Ollie and Willetta Snow relocated to New York, where he lived until his death on August 31, 1929. He was interred in Cypress Hills National Cemetery on September 7, 1929.  

Voices of Liberation and Freedom: The Fall of Richmond, April 3rd, 1865

Richmond, the Confederate capital, entered by the Union army. nypl.org https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-ff22-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

 

Today is the 153rd anniversary of the liberation of Richmond, Virginia, by Union forces during America’s Civil War, 1861-1865. The first soldiers to enter Richmond were the “colored” regiments of the Union Army, ranks formed of free and formerly enslaved African-Americans.

Our own ancestors were a part of this collective sacrifice and struggle for freedom, escaping slavery where they were held in bondage, and serving with the 1st, 2nd, 10th, 36th, and 37th Regiments of the United States Colored Infantry, the 1st and 2nd Regiments of the United States Colored Cavalry, and as domestics, laundresses, and messengers in and around Union camps and hospitals. This post reflects just a few of the sites I’ve visited over the years that chronicle the long road to freedom.

 

Richmond, Virginia

The Lumpkin’s Jail Site and the African Burial Ground (ca. 1750-1816)

 

Copyright 2013 Nadia K. Orton

Lumpkin’s Jail Site, Civil War and Emancipation Day Weekend. Richmond, Virginia, April 6, 2013. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

 

“Lumpkin’s Jail was owned by Robert Lumpkin, who maximized profits in his compound by including lodging for slave traders, a slave holding facility, an auction house, and a residence for his family. A port city with water, ground and rail connections, Richmond was linked to slave buying markets such as Charleston and New Orleans. Enslaved Africans referred to Lumpkin’s Jail as ‘the Devil’s Half Acre,’ reflecting the despair and anger of people separated forever from their families. However, Mary Lumpkin, a black woman who was Robert’s widow, boosted post-Civil War black education when, in 1867, she rented the complex to a Christian school, which evolved into Virginia Union University.” — Richmond Slave Trail historical wayside marker

 

Touring the African Burial Ground, April 6, 2013, Civil War and Emancipation Day Weekend, Richmond, Virginia. There were about 30 people in the group on that particular day, despite the cold. Tour led by Ana Edwards, Chair, Sacred Ground Reclamation Project.

 

“This Burial Ground for Negroes (ca. 1750-1816), reclaimed as Richmond’s African Burial Ground, is the oldest municipal cemetery for enslaved and free Blacks known to have existed in the Richmond area, and may be among the oldest in the entire country.

This is the final resting place for many of the Africans who arrived on Virginia’s shores in chains from West and Central Africa, as well as for people of African descent born in Virginia. While disrespected, exploited and terribly abused in their lifetimes, their forced, unpaid labor established an economic basis for the development not only of Richmond, Virginia, and the South, but also contributed to the United States as a whole. Because of Richmond’s central role in this country’s internal slave trade, descendants of those buried here can likely be found throughout North America…

This Burial Ground also was the site of the Town Gallows, where Virginia’s young freedom-fighting hero Gabriel of the nearby Prosser plantation was executed on Oct. 10, 1800, for his role in attempting to lead a mass rebellion against slavery. Courageously, Gabriel planned a coup against Virginia’s government. He established methodology from observing the American Revolution and the triumphs of enslaved Africans in Haiti. Gabriel and 25 other enslaved Africans were executed here or in three other locations after courts convicted them for their roles in the conspiracy. In 2007, Governor Timothy M. Kaine pardoned Gabriel, saying, ‘Gabriel’s cause – the end of slavery and furtherance of equality of all people – has prevailed in the light of history.’” – African Burial Ground historical wayside marker


 

Charleston, South Carolina

Denmark Vesey, Slave Rebellion Organizer 

Born ca. 1767-July 2, 1822

 

 

Denmark Vesey Statue Charleston SC Copyright 2015 Nadia Orton

Statue in honor of Denmark Vesey (ca. 1767-1822). Hampton Park, Charleston, South Carolina. “Days of Grace” weekend, September 6, 2015. Photo: Nadia K. Orton.

 

“Denmark Vesey, previously named Telemaque was born either in Africa or on the Caribbean Island of St. Thomas. At the age of 14, he was purchased by the slave trader Captain Joseph Vesey and transported to the French Colony of St. Domingue, where the young African was sold along with 389 other slaves. Claimed to be suffering from epilepsy by his new owner, Denmark was returned to Captain Vesey.

The young man accompanied Captain Vesey on many trading voyages as part of the crew. In 1783, immediately after the American Revolution, Captain Vesey relocated to Charleston, South Carolina, where Denmark continued to serve him for approximately another 17 years. In 1799, however, Denmark won $1,500 in the East Bay Street Lottery of Charleston and purchased his freedom for $600.

Denmark Vesey was a highly skilled carpenter and well known within free black and slave society. According to his contemporaries, he harbored frustration at his inability to legally free his wife and children. His antislavery sentiments may have received a wider audience when in 1818 enslaved and free black Charlestonians established a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church where he served as a class leader.

Vesey envisioned a community where all would be free, but recently passed state legislation of 1820 made legal emancipation of slaves nearly impossible. Furthermore, municipal authorities repeated attacks on the AME Church convinced Vesey slavery was such a violation of God’s law that rebellion was necessary to obtain liberty. He placed his own life at risk as he dared to plan to recruit others to achieve the goal of freedom.”

(Second panel)

Denmark Vesey

Vesey and his lieutenants “Gullah” Jack Pritchard, Peter Poyas, and Monday Gell developed a plan for a revolt which may have involved thousands of followers. Their war of liberation was originally planned for July 14, 1822, and called for conspirators to seize weapons and set fires around the city. Once reinforced by rural slaves, as many as possible were to escape by ship to Haiti where African people had already abolished slavery and formed an independent nation. According to Congregational minister and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the plan was the “most elaborate insurrectionary project ever formed by American slaves.”

When two slaves informed the authorities of the plot, the conspirators tried to move the date to June 16, but their plan failed. Arrests and trials followed and beginning on July 2, 1822, two days before Independence Day, Vesey and 34 of his compatriots were hanged. This figure represents the greatest number of slave conspiracy related executions in American history. 37 were banished, most outside the United States, and four whites were briefly fined and incarcerated for sympathizing with the conspirators. To strengthen security the authorities demolished the AME Church, and the state legislature imposed rigorous new laws, including the Negro Seaman Acts subjecting free black sailors from outside the state to arrest when their ships docked in Carolina ports. Free black men were required to have white guardians, and those that left the state were barred from returning. By the mid-1820s, the city fortified itself with an arsenal and barracks. In 1842, the Military College of South Carolina, now known as The Citadel, was established on that same site.

Despite daunting opposition, Vesey’s Sprit and liberating vision did not die. He became an inspiring symbol of freedom for later abolitionists including David Walker, John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. His resolve demonstrates the timeless universality of men and women’s desire for freedom and justice, irrespective of race, creed, condition, or color.”


 

Beaufort County, South Carolina

Grave of Robert Smalls, Tabernacle Baptist Church Cemetery

 

Robert Smalls memorial Beaufort SC Copyright 2014 Nadia Orton

Memorial to Robert Smalls, Beaufort, South Carolina. Photo: Nadia K Orton, December 13, 2014.

 

“Born a slave in Beaufort in 1839, Robert Smalls lived to serve as a Congressman of the United States. In 1862, he commandeered and delivered to Union forces the Confederate gunboat ‘Planter,’ on which he was a crewman. His career as a freeman included service as a delegate to the 1868 and 1895 State Constitutional Conventions, election to the S. C. House and Senate, and 9 years in Congress.” – Historical marker, Tabernacle Baptist Church, Beaufort, South Carolina.

 


 

Harriet Ann Jacobs and the Maritime Underground Railroad

Edenton, Chowan County, North Carolina

 

Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897)

Maritime Underground Railroad wayside marker, Edenton, North Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 19, 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Runaways depended on maritime blacks (African-Americans). During the antebellum period coastal ports like Edenton were crowded with black seaman. They worked as stewards and cooks on most ships and held skilled crew positions on many vessels. Ferryman, nearly always slaves, departed from local docks to convey passengers and goods. At the wharves, slave women peddled fish, oysters, stew and cornbread to hungry sailors and found a ready market for laundry services. Slave artisans caulked, refitted, rigged and rebuilt as necessary to keep wooden vessels at sea. Their maritime culture provided runaways with a complex web of informants, messengers, go-betweens, and other potential collaborators.

It was this maritime culture that assisted Harriet Jacobs in her escape from Edenton by sea in 1842. In her narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861), Jacobs describes how the Edenton African American community, including black seaman, arranged for her escape on a schooner bound for Philadelphia.”  — Martime Underground Railroad historical wayside marker


 

Ohio

The Tiffin Tribune (Ohio), April 6, 1865

Petersburg National Battlefield, Petersburg, Virginia

 

“Remarkable and Gratifying – The announcement that General Weitzel had captured Richmond has a peculiar interest for Cincinnatians, be-cause this gallant officer is a native of that city; but another feature of the event has a more general interest. His corps is composed of colored troops, and a large proportion of these were slaves, men who had es-caped from the lash and exchanged their shackles for muskets. The Confederacy proposed to found itself upon slavery. This institution was its chief cornerstone. Richmond was the center of the slave aristocracy, the heart of the rebellion. Now imagine the slave-drivers, with their garments gathered up about them, moving double-quick out at one side of the city, as their former slaves, with heads erect, guns in hand, and powder dry, marched in at the other, under the national emblem, to the music of the Union, and a picture is presented of humiliation and retribution on one hand, and triumph on the other, that is worthy of being transferred to canvas. The feelings of the chivalric men and high strung women on that occasion may be imagined; no pen could de-scribe them. It was a remarkable event, and one that will gratify the loyal people, and receive a special page in history.”

 

USCT Monument Petersburg National Battlefield VA Copyright Nadia Orton 2012

“In Memory of the Valorous Service of Regiments and Companies of the U. S. Colored Troops, Army of the James and Army of the Potomac, Siege of Petersburg, 1864-1865.” Petersburg National Battlefield, Petersburg, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, November 2, 2012.

 


 

Richmond, Virginia

Garland H. White, Chaplain. 28th U. S. Colored Infantry

Letter, April 12, 1865

 

“I have just returned from the city of Richmond, my regiment was among the first that entered that city. I marched at the head of the column, and soon I found myself called upon by the officers and men of my regiment to make a speech, with which, of course, I readily complied. A vast multitude assembled on Broad Street, and I was aroused amid the shouts of ten thousand voices, and proclaimed for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind. After which the doors of all the slave pens were thrown open, and thousands came out shouting and praising God, and Father, or Master Abe, as they termed him. In this mighty consternation I became so overcome with tears that I could not stand up under the pressure of such fullness of joy in my own heart. I retired to gain strength, so I lost many important topics worthy of note.

Among the densely crowded concourse there were parents looking for children who had been sold south of this state in tribes, and husbands came for the same purpose; here and there one was singled out of the ranks, and an effort was made to approach the gallant and marching soldiers, who were too obedient to orders to break ranks.

We continued our march as far as Camp Lee, at the extreme end of Broad Street, running westwards. IN camp the multitude followed, and everybody could participate in shaking the friendly but hard hands of the poor slaves. Among the many broken-hearted mothers looking for their children who had been sold to Georgia and elsewhere, was an aged woman, passing through the vast crowd of colored, inquiring for [one] by the name of Garland H. White, who had been sold from her when a small boy, and was brought by a lawyer named Robert Toombs, who lived in Georgia. Since the war has been going on she has seen Mr. Toombs in Richmond with troops from his state, and upon her asking him where his body-servant Garland was, he replied: “He ran off from me at Washington, and went to Canada. I have since learned that he is living somewhere in the State of Ohio.” Some of the boys knowing that I lived in Ohio, soon found me and said, “Chaplain, here is a lady that wishes to see you.” I quickly turned, following the soldier until coming to a group of colored ladies. I was questions as follows:

“What is your name, sir?”

“My name is Garland H. White.”

“What was your mother’s name?”

“Nancy.”

“Where was you born?”

“In Hanover County, in this State.”

“Where was you sold from?”

“From this city.”

“What was the name of the man who bought you?”

“Robert Toombs.”

“Where did he live?”

“In the State of Georgia.”

“Where did you leave him?”

“At Washington.”

“Where did you go then?”

“To Canada.”

“Where do you live now?”

“In Ohio.”

“This is your mother, Garland, whom you are now talking to, who has spent twenty years of grief about her son.”

I cannot express the joy I felt at this happy meeting of my mother and other friends. But suffice it to say that God is on the side of the righteous, and will in due time reward them. I have witnesses several such scenes among the other colored regiments.

Late in the afternoon, we were honored with his Excellency, the President of the United States, Lieutenant-General Grant, and other gentleman of distinction. We made a grand parade through most of the principal streets of the city, beginning at Jeff Davis’s mansion, and it appeared to me that all the colored people in the world had collected in that city for that purpose. I never saw so many colored people in all my life, women and children of all sizes running after Father, or Master Abraham, as they called him. To see the colored people, one would think that they had all gone crazy. The excitement at this period was unabated, the tumbling of walls, the bursting of shells, could be heard in all directions, dead bodies being found, rebel prisoners being brought in, starving women and children begging for greenbacks and hard tack, constituted the order of the day. The Fifth [Massachusetts] Calvary, colored, were still dashing through the streets to protect and preserve the peace, and see that no one suffered violence, they having fought so often over the walls of Richmond, driving the enemy at every point.”

 

Pvt Collins 5 Mass Cav Calvary Cemetery Norfolk Copyright 2015 Nadia Orton

Pvt. Severn S. Collins, of Northampton County, Virginia, Company L, 5th Massachusetts Cavalry. Calvary Cemetery, Norfolk, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton,  May 23, 2015.

 

(Garland H. White) “Among the first to enter Richmond was the 28 U. S. C. T. – better known as the First Indiana Colored Volunteers…

 

Sgt. Lewis Rogers USCT Portsmouth Orton

Sgt. Lewis Rodgers (1845-1884) of Gates County, North Carolina, 28th U. S. Colored Infantry. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, May 23, 2015.

 

(Garland H. White) “Some people do not seem to know that the colored troops were the first that entered Richmond. Why, you need not feel at all timid in giving the truthfulness of my assertion to the four winds of the heavens, and let the angels re-echo it back to the earth, that the colored soldiers of the Army of the James were the first to enter the city of Richmond. I was with them, and I am still with them, and am willing to stay with them until freedom is proclaimed throughout the world.”

 


 

Thomas Morris Chester

African-American Civil War Correspondent

 

“The white soldiers, when orders for advancing were passed along the line, were posted nearer Richmond than the negroes. But, with that prompt obe-dience to orders that has never made the discipline of the blacks the pride of their officers, they soon passed over their own and the rebel works, and took the Osborne road directly for the city. When within a few miles of the city I heard Gen. Kautz give the order to Gen. Draper to take the left-hand side of the road, that Devin’s division might pass by. Gen. Draper obeyed the order implicitly, and, in order that he might not be in the way with his brigade, put it upon a double-quick, and never stopped until it entered the limits of the city. The colored troops had orders not to pass through the city, but to go around it and man the inner fortifications. When Devin’s division came within the outskirts of the city, and marched by General Draper’s bri-gade, who had stacked their arms, and whose drum corps was playing na-tional airs, they were loudly cheered by the colored troops, and they failed to respond, either from exhaustion or a want of courtesy. To Gen. Draper belongs the credit of having the first organization enter the city, and none are better acquainted with this fact than the officers of the divi-sion who are claiming the undeserved honor. Gen. Draper’s brigade is composed of the 22nd, 36th, and 118th U. S. colored troops, the 36th being the first to enter Richmond.”

 

1st Sgt Firbee 36 USCI Elizabeth City Copyright 2013 Nadia Orton

1st Sgt Peter Firbee, of Currituck County, North Carolina, Co. A, 36th USCI. Oak Grove Cemetery, Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, November 2, 2013.

Pvt. Jerome Morris, of Norfolk County, Virginia, Co. K. 36 USCI. Calvary Cemetery, Norfolk, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, February 10, 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Wilmington, North Carolina

1st Sgt. John S. W. Eagles, Company D, 37th U. S. Colored Infantry

Address before the J. C. Abbott Post, Grand Army of the Republic

Wilmington, North Carolina, 1884

 

“Why are over 50,000 colored soldiers laying beneath the sod to-day? Why are their bones bleaching in the dust to night? For the privileges we are enjoying to-day. Civil rights, political rights, soldiers’ and sailors’ rights, and religious rights; and we propose to protect those rights, let come what will or may. Let weal or woe, let us survive or perish, we will maintain those rights.” ♥

 

1st Sgt. J. S. W. Eagles Wilmington NC Copyright 2014 Nadia Orton

1st Sgt. John S. W. Eagles, Co. D, 37th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry – Wilmington National Cemetery, Wilmington, NC. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 18, 2014


Washington, District of Columbia

The African American Civil War Memorial and Museum

Celebrating its 20th year anniversary, July 18-21, 2018

African American Civil War Monument DC Copyright 2017 Nadia Orton

African American Civil War Memorial. Washington, D. C. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, August 5, 2017

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, VA: 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

Norfolk, VA: Soldier for Christ and Community, Rev. Israel LaFayette Butt, Norfolk Society for Cemetery Conservation

Tucked away in the oldest section of Calvary Cemetery is the family plot of Rev. Israel Lafayette Butt. He was born on May 3, 1848, at the Northwest Bridge, in Norfolk County, Virginia, just north of the intersection of Ballahack Rd. and the Chesapeake Expressway, near the North Carolina border. Born enslaved, he was the chattel property of John Fisk (ca. 1810-1870), and was known by the name of “Israel Fisk” prior to emancipation. Read more

Recovering and Preserving African American Cemeteries – Preservation Leadership Forum, National Trust for Historic Preservation

Pinewood Cemetery COPYRIGHT Nadia Orton

Pine Forest Cemetery, Wilmington, North Carolina

The reverence attached to cemeteries and burial grounds, which have long been considered sacred sites, is an example of enduring Africanisms and cultural tradition in the African American community. Burial grounds have always been regarded as places where ancestors could be properly honored and provided with the dignity, care, and respect in death that had often been denied them in life.

Interest in the study of my family tree has led me to over a dozen cemeteries throughout Tidewater Virginia and North Carolina, and helped reconstruct a family legacy spanning over 400 years. Cemeteries offer an important, tangible connection to history allowing closer interpretation of days past than most other sources can. Genealogists and family historians have long recognized the benefit of cemeteries in the study of family history and an increasing popular interest in genealogy has led to an increased focus on them.  READ MORE