Tag Archives: Civil War sailors

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

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Filed under Beaufort County, Brazos Santiago, Brunswick County, Canada, Charleston County, Chowan County, Cincinnati, Civil War, Craney Island, Currituck County, Denmark Vesey, Edenton, Elizabeth City, Fort Monroe, Gates County, Grand Army of the Republic, Haiti, Hampton, Hanover County, Memorials to Civil War Veterans, New Hanover County, Norfolk, Norfolk County, North Carolina, Northampton County, Ohio, Pasquotank County, Petersburg, Philadelphia, Portsmouth, Richmond, Slavery, South Carolina, Suffolk, Texas, U. S. Colored Troops, Underground Railroad, Virginia, Virginia Beach, Washington D.C., Wilmington

Virginia: Update on a Tidewater Freedom Fighter

Pvt. Jones Portsmouth Enlistment Card

Pvt. Albert Jones, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry, enlistment card

 

Great news for Spring. Pvt. Albert Jones is getting a new headstone! Our request from February has been approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs. It was delivered to Ogg Stone Works on March 21st. Pvt. Jones’ grave has been unmarked for over 78 years, ever since the terrible tragedy that claimed his life on February 27, 1940. The recent rains have caused a terrible bout of flooding in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. We hope to be able to mark his gravesite for the monument company as soon as the flood waters recede.

Pvt. Albert Jones will be the 19th Civil War veteran to receive a new headstone. The others are: Cpl. John Cross, 10th U. S. Colored Infantry; Sgt. Ashley Lewis, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry; Pvt. Arthur Beasley, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry; Pvt. David Bailey, 10th U. S. Colored Infantry; Cpl George Baysmore, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry; Pvt. Austin Smallwood, 14th U. S. Colored Heavy Artillery; Pvt. Richard Reddick, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry; Pvt. Thomas Reddick, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry; Pvt/Landsman Samuel Morris; Sgt. Lewis Rodgers, 28th U. S. Colored Infantry; Pvt. Zachariah Taylor, 5th U. S. Colored Infantry; Pvt. Samuel Dyes, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry; Pvt. Washington Milbey, 10th U. S. Colored Infantry; Sgt. James “Jim” Edwards, 2nd U. S. Colored Cavalry; Pvt. Edmond Riddick, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry; Pvt. Henry Brinkley, 2nd U. S. Colored Cavalry; Pvt. Alfred Savage, 2nd U. S. Colored Cavalry; and Landsman John Hodges. ♥

 

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Filed under Bertie County, Brazos Santiago, Chesapeake, City Point, Civil War, Craney Island, Currituck County, Edgecombe County, Fort Monroe, Galveston, Gates County, Halifax County, Hampton, Hinds County, Lincolnsville, Mississippi, Norfolk, Norfolk County, North Carolina, Ohio, Perquimans County, Petersburg, Portsmouth, Richmond, Slavery, Southampton County, Suffolk, Tarboro, Texas, U. S. Colored Troops, Virginia, Virginia Beach

Portsmouth, Virginia: Eight local heroes to receive new headstones

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 Beasley, Pvt. 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)

Bertie County, North Carolina

Co. I, 14th Regiment, U. S. Colored Heavy Artillery

Mount Calvary Cemetery (Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex)

Smallwood USCT Copyright Orton 2010

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

 


 

Pvt. Richard Reddick (ca. 1847-1896)

Perquimans County, North Carolina

Co. F, 1st Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry

Mount Calvary Cemetery (Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex)

 

Pvt Reddick Copyright 2010 Nadia Orton

Pvt. Richard Reddick. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 25, 2010

 


 

Pvt. Thomas Reddick (ca. 1838-1901)

Suffolk, Virginia

Co. K, 1st Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry

Mount Olive Cemetery (Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex)

 

Pvt Reddick Copyright 2014 Nadia Orton

Pvt. Thomas Reddick. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, May 24, 2014

 


 

Pvt/Landsman Samuel Morris (1839-1902)

Suffolk, Virginia

Co. A, 30th Regiment, U. S. Colored infantry

Landsman, USS Allegheny

USS North Carolina, USS Cyane, USS Independence

Mount Olive Cemetery (Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex)

 

Morris USCT Copyright 2011 Nadia K. Orton

Pvt/Landsman Samuel Morris. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, November 5, 2011

 


 

Sgt. Lewis Rodgers (1844-1884)

Gates County, North Carolina

Co. G, 28th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry

Lincoln Memorial Cemetery

 

Sgt. Rodgers Copyright 2012 Nadia Orton

Sgt. Lewis Rodgers. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, January 22, 2012

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Baltimore, Bertie County, Brazos Santiago, City Point, Civil War, Corpus Christi, Craven County, Gates County, Hampton, Lincolnsville, Maryland, Norfolk, Norfolk County, North Carolina, Perquimans County, Petersburg, Portsmouth, Richmond, Slavery, Southampton County, Suffolk, Texas, Tombstone Tales, U. S. Colored Troops, Virginia

Delaware: Tracing family roots, past and present

African American Cemetery Delaware - Copyright 2017 Nadia K. Orton

African-American cemetery, Kent County, Delaware, August 19, 2017. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

 

In mid-August, we attended a family reunion in Wilmington, Delaware, for two of the paternal branches of our collective family tree, lines that extend to the 18th-century in Virginia’s Mecklenburg County (est. 1765), and City of Portsmouth (est. 1752), and to Warren County (est. 1779), in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.

On the way to the reunion, and in keeping with the theme of “family,” we stopped at this peaceful spot, a well maintained cemetery in Kent County, Delaware. It’s located near the birthplace of Thomas Craig (ca. 1831-1896), a free person of color and Civil War Navy veteran who was included in my first blog a few years ago. (Thomas is buried near my paternal great-great-great grandfather, Max Jolly Orton, also a Navy veteran, and other ancestors in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, Portsmouth, Virginia.)

Walking through the sacred ground, I reflected on Thomas Craig’s family history, and wondered if any of his relatives were laid to rest in the cemetery. In all probability, they’re not, as the family moved to several areas throughout Kent and New Castle counties after 1855, when Thomas left Delaware and moved to New York City to enlist in the Union Navy. Still, it was nice to be able to visit the region, and forge another tangible connection to history, a moment only made possible through the protection and preservation of the cemetery. ♥

 

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Filed under Chesapeake, Civil War, Delaware, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, Portsmouth, Stories in Stone, U. S. Colored Troops, Virginia, Warren County, Wilmington

On Memorial Day, Reflecting on African-American History – The National Trust for Historic Preservation

First Memorial Day plaque Charleston SC Copyright Nadia Orton 2015

Plaque honoring the first Memorial Day in the United States. Hampton Park, Charleston, South Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, September 6, 2015

 

Every May, the nation marks Memorial Day, the longstanding tradition we use to recognize fallen veterans. The holiday has its origins in “Decoration Day,” originally held in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865, when thousands of former slaves, Union soldiers, and missionaries honored Union soldiers who had died in a Confederate prison and were subsequently buried in a makeshift mass grave.

Historian David Blight recounts that after the soldiers’ proper burials, a massive parade followed. Participants decorated the graves with flowers, and clergy delivered speeches to commemorate the fallen.

My personal introduction to Decoration Day began with oral histories provided by my family’s elders. In rural Tidewater, Virginia, they told stories of Decoration Day commemorations stretching back to the 1880s. Parades began in African-American communities and ended at local black cemeteries. Families and friends honored their ancestors through song and praise, while their graves were cleaned and re-decorated.

They had good reason to pay homage: Many veterans had returned from the front lines of war to become leaders in their communities, forming masonic lodges, burial societies, schools, churches, and cemeteries. These institutions formed the foundations of post-Civil War African-American communities, giving their communities potential for the very type growth and development African-Americans had been denied in slavery. READ MORE…

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Filed under Charleston County, Civil War, Craven County, Mississippi, New Hanover County, New York, North Carolina, Petersburg, Portsmouth, Slavery, South Carolina, U. S. Colored Troops, USCT Diaries, Virginia

Memorials to United States Colored Troops, Pt. 5 – Portsmouth, Virginia

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

 

Dred Smith Lincoln Memorial Portsmouth VA Copyright Nadia Orton 2017

Pvt. Dred Smith, Co. G, 38th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry. Commander, Silas Fellows Post No. 7, Grand Army of the Republic. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery (est. 1912)

 

“After an illness of two days, Mr. Dred Smith, an energetic and faithful member of G. A. R., died at his home, 612 Race street, Thursday, June 20, at 9 p.m. Funeral service was held at Emanuel A. M. E. church Sunday at 1:30 p.m. Sympathy is extended the family. Thus passes away another of the grand old landmarks.” — New Journal and Guide, June 30, 1917

(Photo: Nadia K. Orton, May 27, 2017)

 

Sgt. Nelson Carney 10 USCI Portsmouth VA Copyright Nadia Orton 2015

1st Sgt. Nelson Carney, Co. E, 10th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry – Mt. Calvary Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex)

 

“Zion’s Oldest Deacon Dead – Mr. Nelson Carney, a well-known and respected citizen of Portsmouth, Va., died at his residence, 717 King street Sunday, November 1, at 6:15 p.m.

He was stricken at his home October 20, and sustained a brief illness of just eleven days. The funeral service was held Tuesday, at 2 p.m., at the Zion Baptist Church of which he was the oldest deacon and Sunday school teacher.

The rain did not prevent the attendance of a large number of members and friends who were anxious to pay the last tribute of respect.

Mr. Carney served in the Civil War and was a member of Silas Fellows Post No. 7, G. A. R. and Grand Chaplain of the Dept. of Va., and North Carolina.

Rev. J. M. Armistead conducted the service, and eulogistic remarks were made by Rev. E. E. Smith, A. Gomer, Commander Grandy of Dept. of Va. and North Carolina, G. A. R.

The floral tributes were numerous and beautiful and the casket was draped with a large American flag.

He is survived by five children, five grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and a host of friends.

He will be greatly missed by both the church and community. His remains were interred in (Mt.) Calvary cemetery.” — The New Journal and Guide, November 7, 1925

(Photo: Nadia K. Orton, May 23, 2015)

 

Alexander Gordon USN Portsmouth VA Copyright 2011 Nadia Orton

Alexander Gordon, USS Young Rover – Mt. Olive Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex)

 

“The funeral of Alexander Gordon, a well-known colored man, who died yesterday at his residence, 633 North street, will take place from the North Street A. M. E. Church Friday at 3 p.m. Gordon, who was 70 years old had a wide acquaintance in Portsmouth, where he had lived all his life, and had the respect of all who knew him. He is survived by his widow, two sons and a daughter.” — The Portsmouth Star, August 9, 1917

(Photo: Nadia K. Orton, February 20. 2011)

Pvt. Edmond Riddick 36 USCI Portsmouth Copyright Nadia Orton 2016

Cpl. Edmond Riddick, Co. A, 36th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry – Mt. Calvary Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex)

 

“Death Claims Prominent Citizen – The funeral services of Com. Edmond Riddick, who died after a brief illness at midnight Thursday, took place from Zion Baptist Church last Sunday at 1:15 p.m. Rev. E. E. Smith, pastor, officiated assisted by Revs. J. M. Armistead, D. D., W. H. Willis and W. Miller. Rev. Smith spoke from those words, “Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life.” He paid a glowing tribute to Mr. Riddick’s loyalty and faithfulness to the church and community. Dr. Armistead stressed his straight forwardness and character, pronouncing it the best he has known in any man. “A Charge To Keep I Have,” and “I Am But A Stranger Here,” the favorite hymns of the deceased were sung. The Roland Hayes Glee Club sang, very effectively, “Sleep Sweetly, Tender Heart.”

The large concourse and numerous floral tributes bore unspeakable evidence of the esteem and worth in which he was held.

At the age of seventeen he enlisted in the Civil War, Co. A 36th Regiment U. S. C. Inf., served throughout the war, was honorably discharged at Brazos, Texas. Mr. Riddick was commander of Silas Fellows Post, member of Evening Star, Lodge of Odd Fellows, Grand Master’s Council and the Teamster’s Association.

Two sons, Richard Riddick and W. E. Riddick, survive him.

The following members of the Col. Young Post Spanish War Veterans, Moses Shepherd, Albert Holliday, Chas. Ahrens, Alex Davis, James Tann, Albert Baker and Hall served as active pall bearers. Messrs. L. Mingo, Mason, Solomon Vann Sr., Wellington Jefferson were honorary pall bearers.

The members of the Grand Army were with the family.

The body was laid away in the family plot in Mt. Calvary Cemetery.” — New Journal and Guide, June 26, 1926

(Photo: Nadia K. Orton, February 6, 2017)

 

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Memorials to United States Colored Troops, Pt. 2 – Norfolk, Virginia

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. 2

Norfolk, Virginia

West Point Cemetery, Calvary Cemetery

Cornelius Garner Service Record

“Civil War Veteran Dies at Age of 94 — Cornelius Garner, one of the city’s oldest residents, passed away on Sunday morning after a long illness.

He was within less than a month of being ninety-five years of age, having been born in St. Mary’s County, Md., on February 11, 1846.

He was one of the last two surviving members of the Local Grand Army of the Republic organization.

He joined the Federal army upon his escape from slavery at the age of eighteen years. Following his discharge from the army, he had worked as a farmer, seaman, oyster-shucker, and landscape gardener.

Mr. Garner’s funeral was held Wednesday afternoon at two-thirty o’clock from the First Baptist Church of which he had been a member for more than sixty-nine years. The eulogy will be delivered by the pastor, the Rev. Richard H. Bowling.

Military honors were paid the deceased by the local Spanish-American War Veterans. Men of this group will also serve as active pallbearers, along with members of the local Star of the East Lodge of Odd Fellows and the St. Jon’s Lodge of Good Samaritans.

The connection of the deceased with these organizations dates back a full sixty years.

BURIED IN CALVARY

One of the interesting coincidences regarding the deceased is that he will be interred in Calvary Cemetery just outside of which is a large roadside marker of the site as a camp for Federal soldiers during the Civil War.

Mr. Garner himself was stationed in this camp as a young army recruit and many a day marched from there down to Bute St. and past the small brick church that then occupied the site of the present First Baptist Church.

Mr. Garner is survived by his widow, Mrs. Mary Davis Garner, formerly of Portsmouth. Other survivors include nieces and nephews.

According to his pastor, secret plans had been on foot to have the congregation give a surprise celebration of Mr. Garner’s birthday in consideration both of his advanced age and his being the oldest surviving male member.” – The New Journal and Guide, February 1, 1941

 

Charles Grandy USN Norfolk VA Copyright 2015 Nadia Orton

Charles Grandy, USS St. Lawrence – Calvary Cemetery, Norfolk, Virginia

 

“Comrade Charles Grandy, Norfolk’s last surviving colored veteran of the War Between the States, will not participate in the Memorial Day celebration this year. Death overtook him just twenty days before the annual celebration, and a few months before he reached his 100th birthday.

Mr. Grandy passed away on Saturday at his home, 609 Smith Street to join his old friend comrade Cornelius Garner who died last year, and his brother Willis, whose passing Friday night preceded his by a scant few hours.

In impressive double funeral services which were conducted at St. John A. M. E. Church for the Messrs. Grandy by the Rev. H. M. Shields, Comrade Grandy’s long career came to an end.

Pays Tribute to Life

Taking his text from Mark: 13-35, the speaker paid tribute to the church life of the deceased and point out the fact that the late Mr. Grandy was only 47 years younger than the A. M. E. connection.

The deceased was accorded full military honors with members of the United Spanish American War Veterans with Veterans of Foreign Wars serving as honorary and active pall-bearers.

Born as a slave on the old Cook plantation in Camden, N. C., January 31, 1842, young Grandy picked cotton and plowed corn with the other slaves, but one day he stole up the river to Hampton Roads to join the Union forces.

(After the war Mr. Grandy became a foreman down at Great Bridge and during that time helped to build his home on Smith street, and the first building owned by St. John A. M. E. Church.

But his greatest pleasure came from recounting his experiences as acting general in the G. A. R. Upon his suggestion, the annual convention was held in Springfield, Ill., last August and he left his sick bed to make the trip.

His niece Mrs. Charleston who has been his nurse for the past eight years, tried to discourage all plans for the trip, and in a final effort, asked Comrade Grandy just what he was going to do in case something happened.

“Suppose you get sick on the train?” she said.

“Well, Hale will know before you,’ replied the old soldier as he climbed aboard the train for Springfield.

He repeated incidents of what last convention often and always told about his visit to Abraham Lincoln’s grave.

“When I found it I wept for joy,” he was accustomed to saying, “and I just stretched out on that grave and went to sleep.”

He was the true soldier up to the very last and always insisted upon receiving his company downstairs because coming up to his bedroom made him “feel like sick.”

This same spirit was demonstrated several years ago when he refused to ride in the car which had been provided for the veterans. He walked about ten city blocks before he collapsed in the wheelchair which was being pushed behind him.” — New Journal and Guide, May 24, 1941

(Photo: Nadia K. Orton, May 26, 2015)

A A Portlock West Point Norfolk

Anthony A. Portlock, Ward Room Steward, USS Minnesota 1862-1864 – West Point Cemetery, Norfolk

 

“Mr. Anthony A. Portlock one of Norfolk’s best known and most estimable citizens who has been ailing at his residence on Johnson Avenue, for sometime and who had sufficiently recovered to be able to resume his duty in connection with an office in the Maryland was taken suddenly ill Wednesday evening last from which he never rallied, death claiming him as a victim about 12 o’clock his funeral took place Sunday afternoon from the Bank St. Baptist at 2:30, Rev. H. H. Mitchell, D. D., the pastor, officiating, assisted by several of the local clergymen. Calloiux Post, No. 2, of which the deceased was a member attended the funeral in body; Dahlgreen, 4; Shaw 5, and Silas Fellow, 7, of Portsmouth, united with Callioux Post in respect to the deceased. The interrment was in West Point Cemetery, the remains being followed to their last resting place by a host of friends. The deceased was a consistent Christian for forty years. He left several children, Messrs. L. H. Portlock, Randall Portlock, Miss Nina Portlock and Mrs. Mary ——; and his wife Mrs. Mary Portlock and another young son to mourn their loss.” — Richmond Planet, 1898

“The colored G. A. R. Posts of Norfolk and Portsmouth attended the funeral Sunday of Anthony Portlock, a well known colored man.” – The Norfolk-Virginian, February 1, 1898

(Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 30, 2012)

 

Pvt. Marshall Land 2 USCC Copyright 2015 Nadia Orton

Pvt. Marshall Land, Co. H, 2nd Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry – Calvary Cemetery, Norfolk, Virginia

 

“Rev. Marshall Land, one of Norfolk’s most prominent and influential citizens, and a member of those fast depleting ranks of the Grand Army of the Republic, an old settler in the town, died at his residence at the corner of Goff and Bolton streets, Saturday, June 30, at 12:15 o’clock, in his 75th year.

Rev. Land had been in declining health for some time, but with strong constitutional powers, he remarkably withstood his ailments and the bearing down of the infirmities of age, until about two weeks before his death when he was forced to take to his bed.

Although, having resigned from actively holding pastorates for more than a dozen years ago, upon the advice of his physician on account of a throat infection, Rev. Land for forty years previous to that time had been a power in the Baptist ministry and held enviable influence in the denomination until the day of his death.

Built Several Churches

He founded a number of churches in Norfolk county years before Norfolk city comprised that section where his home was. He built a church in Shouler’s Hill, one in Bower’s Hill and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Norfolk county, and pastored these charges for several years.

Rev. Land had been a member of the First Baptist Church of this city, for over 49 years and would have celebrated his 50th year membership there in September. The congregation under the leadership of pastor R. H. Bowling was at the time of his death planning to give him a grand surprise celebration on his fiftieth anniversary as a member of the church.

Marshall Land practically settled Barboursville, having been one of the first residents in that section, it was thru the great respect that the most influential white citizens of Norfolk city and county held for him, he was able to aid any number of families to become home owners in Barboursville.

In this respect his civic pride never waned. He always urged those whom he knew to buy homes and he lived to see what was a sparse settlement when he moved there, to become a fine residence section with colored home owners.

Member School Board

Besides preaching the gospel, building churches and going among his people as an apostle of home ownership, Rev. Land found time in his earlier days to take a hand now and then in Norfolk county politics. That he was a man of large influence was recognized by those around the county courthouse, and to be in the favor of Marshall Land was a coveted desire of young aspirants for county offices. He was made a member of Norfolk County School Board in those days when his residence sat in the county and many of the teachers owed their appointments to Rev. Land’s influence.

An impressive echo from those days when Negroes were in the midst of the political arena in Norfolk county was the appearance of Lawyer R. H. Bagby, white, of Portsmouth, at the funeral of Rev. Marshall Land. Lawyer Bagby was, too, one time a power in county politics.

Rev. Land’s funeral was held Tuesday at the First Baptist Church. Rev. J. M. Armistead, dean of the Baptist Ministry in Tidewater, and pastor of Zion Baptist Church, Portsmouth, delivered the funeral sermon. Dr. Armistead stated that when he came to this section 45 years ago Rev. Marshall Land was one of the first Baptist ministers he met here.

A large crowd attended the funeral. Rev. Armistead was assisted by Dr. Bowling, pastor of First Baptist. Eulogies were read by Rev. C. C. Somerville, on behalf of the Tidewater Ministerial Alliance; Rev. Saunders, of Princess Anne County, and a former pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church here; Rev. Metz, Rev. Black, former and present pastors of Shiloh respectively; Andrew Young, deacon of a church built by Rev. Land; Attorney R. H. Bagby, of Portsmouth.

Solos were sung by Mr. Lawrence Harrison, Mr. Paul Langley and Madame Wimberly.

Eastern Light Lodge of Masons and Grand Army of the Republic, both of which Rev. Land was a member, held ritualistic services at the bier. The deceased was one of the oldest members of the lodge.

He is survived by his widow, Mrs. Sophia Land; four children, Mrs. Marcella Paige, Mrs. Ella Fauckland, Mr. Russell Land, of New York city, and attorney Walter H. Land, of this city, and 14 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren.

A number of white friends of the deceased attended the funeral. Interment was in Calvary Cemetery, under the direction of undertaker W. C. Baker.” — Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 7, 1923

(Photo: Nadia K. Orton, May 23, 2015)

 

Cpl Daniel Langley 2 USCI Norfolk Copyright Nadia Orton 2012

Cpl. Daniel Langley, Co. B, 2nd Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry – West Point Cemetery, Norfolk, Virginia

 

“The funeral of Mr. Daniel Langley, who died at his home on East Brambleton avenue Tuesday, will be held at St. John’s A. M. E. Church, of which he had been a member for 50 years Friday at 2 o’clock.

Mr. Langley was 84 years of age, was one of Norfolk’s oldest and best known citizens. He had been in declining health for about ten years. He was a Civil War Veteran and an active member of the G. A. R.

For years Mr. Langley conducted a shoe repair shop on Charlotte street, giving up that occupation on account of failing health and later entering the Navy Yard.

He is survived by a brother, Mr. St. Paul Langley; sister, Mrs. Lucile Proctor and a foster-daughter, Mrs. Sallie T. Dickey, all of Norfolk.” — Norfolk Journal and Guide, October 2, 1926

(Photo: Nadia K. Orton, November 6, 2012)

 

 

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Filed under Chesapeake, Civil War, In Memoriam, Memorials to Civil War Veterans, Norfolk, Norfolk County, Slavery, U. S. Colored Troops, USCT Diaries, Virginia

Protected: Portsmouth, Virginia: The Leon A. Turner Family and interconnections, Mt. Olive Cemetery

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Filed under Anne Arundel County, Brunswick County, Delaware, Maryland, New Hanover County, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Portsmouth, Prince George County, Slavery, Stories in Stone, U. S. Colored Troops, Virginia, Wilmington

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

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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 Ancestry.com.  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. Ancestry.com

 

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

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

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 Ancestry.com 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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Filed under Civil War, New York, North Carolina, Portsmouth, The Descendants Corner, U. S. Colored Troops, Virginia