Saturday morning, seven-thirty a.m., and I was prepared. The flags I’d ordered had been delivered. With boots, DEET, and shovels at the ready, I was headed out to the cemeteries with my father to honor our ancestors. It was Memorial Day Weekend, and we were continuing a long-standing family tradition.
This year, our destinations were the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (ca. 1879), Lincoln Memorial Cemetery (1912), and Grove Baptist Church Cemetery (1849). Focused research for the last seven years has allowed me to trace my paternal roots in Tidewater, Virginia to 1690, and I’ve discovered that our family has relatives buried in cemeteries throughout Hampton Roads. Some cemeteries, while in poor condition, have been relatively easy to find, while others are inaccessible (Government restrictions), have been removed, destroyed, or otherwise desecrated.
I hadn’t planned to write a blog about this day. My goal was to continue working on the applications to nominate the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex to the National Register of Historic Places and the Network to Freedom, my contribution to the growing community-based effort to preserve the historic site where over thirty members of our family tree lie. But as I reviewed the photos I’d taken, and reflected on the experience itself, I began to feel that what we’d done had everything to do with preservation, and memory.
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.