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. ♥
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.