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. ♥

 

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

Gravestone of Leon A. Turner (1890-1916), Mt. Olive Cemetery, Portsmouth, Va.
Gravestone of Leon A. Turner (1890-1916), Mt. Olive Cemetery, Portsmouth, Va.

In Mt. Olive Cemetery, established in 1879, there’s a gravestone standing within the broken remnants of a family plot, shaded by a large tree. Both the gravestone and tree bear visible evidence of their respective ages: the stone is covered in biological growth, and the tree by a dense grouping of liana. However, if you lean in closely, the faint inscription can still be read.

In memory of
Leon A. Turner
Beloved Son of
Weadie S. Turner
Born
July 24, 1890
Departed this life
March 30, 1916
Aged 26 yrs 8 mos &
6 days

Beneath the primary inscription are the first two lines from a hymn, “O what is life? – ‘tis like a flower,” written by English poet Jane Taylor (1783-1824).

“Oh, what is life ‘tis like
a flower
That blossoms and is gone.”

I’d rediscovered Leon’s gravestone recently while skimming through six years of photos for Mt. Olive cemetery. I’d seen it so often before, but on that day I’d paused, and let my eyes linger over the details of the stone. Just what was it that caught my attention? Then I realized why. It was his date of death, the 30th of March, 1916. Leon had passed away exactly 100 years ago this month. And he was only twenty-six years old.

Leon A Turner grave Mt. Olive Cemetery Portsmouth Va.
Gravestone of Leon A. Turner, Mt. Olive Cemetery

He was born Leon Alexander Turner, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Charles Turner, also of Pennsylvania, and Weadie (Weedie) Jones, of Portsmouth, Virginia, daughter of Allen Jones and Mary Craig. The family was never rich or famous, and they don’t turn up very often in genealogical documentation. They are like the majority of people buried in African-American cemeteries, those that history often forgets, whose voices and contributions to their communities may be lost when the cemeteries in which they rest aren’t preserved, or are destroyed through neglect and development. Leon’s father, Charles Turner, has proven most elusive, and while Leon’s place of birth is recorded as Philadelphia, neither he nor Weadie are documented in Pennsylvania records. As an adult, Weadie Turner only surfaces by the early 1900s back in Tidewater, Virginia, employed as a domestic. Leon turns up twice, through announcements of his marriage in 1909 to Zelia Bishop Murray, a native of Anne Arundel County, Maryland, daughter of William Henry Murray, of Prince George County, Virginia, and Rosa Lee Murray, of Washington, D.C. The Portsmouth City Circuit Court has a record of the marriage, and the April 1st, 1909 edition of the New York Age carried an announcement of the nuptials.

The New York Age, April 1, 1909
The New York Age, April 1, 1909

Zelia’s mother Rosa Lee, like Leon’s mother Weadie, worked as a domestic, while her father William Henry was a private coachman to a banker, and later served in the Navy as a cabin steward aboard the USS Tennessee and U. S. Flagship Chicago.

By 1910, Leon’s wife Zelia is recorded living with her mother Rosa Lee and other siblings in Washington, D. C., listed as an “attendant” in the household of Vivian H. Tibbs (ca. 1848-1923), a chauffeur and Virginia-native who, years later, died tragically in a flash flood that swept through the Anacostia District of Washington, D. C. on the evening of March 17, 1923. Between 1910 and 1916, Zelia’s father William Murray’s absence in the household can be explained by his Naval service, but I’ve not found any information on Leon’s whereabouts during this period.

Within six years of his marriage to Zelia, Leon had passed, and was buried in Mt. Olive Cemetery. According to his death certificate, he was described as a general laborer, and had succumbed to complications of pulmonary tuberculosis. William Grogan, a local established undertaker, and a former owner of Portsmouth’s Fishers Hill Cemetery, handled the funeral arrangements. Sadly, Leon’s mother Weadie Jones Turner died only three years later, also from pulmonary tuberculosis. She is interred in Mt. Calvary Cemetery, immediately adjacent to Mt. Olive Cemetery. Unlike her son’s gravesite, Weadie’s has not been found.

I was a bit frustrated over being unable to find more information on the family. Sure, Leon and his relatives aren’t a part of my own lineage, but as I continued to dig for information, they began to feel like family. Stubbornly, I reviewed the records I’d already found, hoping for new insight. While studying Weadie’s death certificate, a small detail caught my eye. It was the surname of her mother Mary, given as “Craig.” On Weadie’s death certificate, it’s misspelled, and reads “Kreg.” Craig. I’d seen the surname before, a Portsmouth family I’d studied several years ago. Was Weadie possibly related to them? Genealogy research doesn’t often resolve itself in such a tidy fashion. But most of my initial research efforts into Leon and Weadie had proven fruitless. Could it be that the genealogy Gods were going to be kind after all? Maybe?

The Craig Family in question concerns Civil War Navy veteran Thomas Craig (1831-1896), born free in Delaware, the subject of my inaugural blog post. Thomas is also buried in Mt. Olive Cemetery. I remembered that he’d had a wife named “Mary.” With fingers crossed, and using the 1870 estimation of Weadie’s birthdate, I looked to the 1880 Federal Census record I’d saved in my Craig Family file.

And there she was! Ten year old Weadie, spelled “Weeddie” in the census record, living in the household of Thomas and wife Mary, listed as his adopted daughter.

Weadie Jones, age 10. 1880 Federal Census, Portsmouth, Va. Ancestry.com
Weadie Jones, age 10. 1880 Federal Census, Portsmouth, Va. Ancestry.com

This discovery provided another window into Leon’s ancestry, through his mother Weadie’s lineage. With previous research conducted into Thomas Craig’s life, I’d discovered his wife Mary Craig was born Mary Manger, about 1845, to parents James Manger and Violet Rivers, in Brunswick County, Virginia. She remained in Portsmouth most of her life, and passed away in 1910. Through his mom Weadie, it’s very likely that Leon A. Turner has maternal ties to Brunswick County as well, although it may also mean that, sadly, he’d lost his maternal grandmother Mary Craig only one year after his marriage to Zelia.

Several questions about Leon A. Turner remain. I still don’t anything about his father, Charles, or his exact whereabouts for most of his adult life. I’m also not sure how Weadie’s father, Allen Jones, maternal grandfather to Leon, fits into Mary Craig’s timeline, and Leon’s connection to Weadie and her parents needs to be verified. However, I’m happy to know a little more about Leon beyond the etchings on his faded gravestone. As part of the long-standing preservation process for the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, I have studied hundreds of family genealogies for the people buried in the historic site, and can now add Leon’s narrative to the fascinating tale of one of Portsmouth’s first African American institutions, a site still in dire need of preservation, yet has so much to offer to regional and national history.

Fort Fisher Trees NC Orton
Windswept trees at Fort Fisher, New Hanover County, North Carolina

Thinking on the interconnected nature of Leon’s ancestry, I reflected back on a recent family visit to Fort Fisher, in New Hanover County, North Carolina, following up on local Civil War history. There, I was taken by the sight of the windswept trees along the shoreline, and the nature in which the tree limbs interlaced. As I took pictures, the various branches appeared to meld into one large tree, and my mind flashed to family history. All of the successes, tragedies, and surprises you may learn; the discoveries that can make you cry both in sadness and joy. Perhaps it wasn’t so crazy, after all, to look at the trees and think about family. I felt sadness rediscovering Leon’s gravestone, silently resting in Mt. Olive, and realizing it was the 100-year anniversary of his death, and at such a young age. However, there was also joy, I’d found his mother Weadie, and her parents, which ultimately became a trail that led me back to Thomas Craig, and my own family history. To my first blog! There really is something to the idea of six degrees of separation. But that’s genealogy, and it’s a wonderful thing. ♥

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

Thomas Craig USN USS Franklin - Mt. Olive Cem
Thomas Craig Headstone – Mt. Olive Cemetery

Thomas Craig. So reads the name on the faded and sunken headstone of military issue in Mount Olive Cemetery, one of the oldest African-American cemeteries in Portsmouth, Virginia. Part of the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (Fisher’s Hill) (est. 1879), I first noticed Thomas Craig’s gravestone in Mt. Olive on a humid July 4th holiday weekend in 2007, searching for ancestral grave sites with my family. Not being aware of any known map, we walked the entire cemetery, and in doing so, passed the Craig gravestone several times. At the time, my focus was on finding any and all headstones with the name “Orton.” My paternal ancestry stretches back to 1690 in the Tidewater area of Virginia. My grand-aunt, Philgrador Rachel Orton Duke, was concerned about the lasting legacy of our family line. Born in 1923 in a home on Griffin Street, she was a life-time Portsmouth resident. Before her passing in March of 2007, she called my father and other relatives to her bedside in Maryview Hospital, with the admonition “do not let our history die.” Hearing that call, I concentrated fully on researching the paternal side of my family tree. I’d dabbled in genealogy since 2001, but now I had a mission. This was my grand-aunt’s last wish. Honoring this wish led us to the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex.

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

Continue reading