Special thanks to: Del. C. E. Cliff Hayes, Jr. (Dist. 77), Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett, Councilman Curtis Milteer, Suffolk Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Chapter 5, LeOtis Williams, Frances McNair, Mike Lane, M/M Hinton (Eye Catch Photos), Otis Richards, First Baptist Church Mahan (FBC), Dr. Harry Quinton and Lt. Col. Bill Burrell (Tidewater Chapter, Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.), and the staff of the East Suffolk Recreation Center. Also, special thanks to all family members, descendants, and volunteers who supported preservation efforts for Oak Lawn Cemetery over the years.
Dedicated to the memory of Deacon George Lee Richards, Sr.
Photos: Nadia K. Orton, 2010-2019. All rights reserved
In the summer of 2007, I began a family history project to document all interments in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. Established in 1879, it is the oldest, extant African American cemetery in Portsmouth, Virginia. It’s a historic site near and dear to our family’s heart, having over forty-eight ancestors buried there, although most are without visible gravestones.
Inspired by finding (and not finding), the burial sites of Civil War ancestors in our own family, I looked to the conditions of the graves of the United States Colored Troops in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. Many of their gravestones were knocked over, buried, dirty, and broken, some with sizable portions sheared off by lawn mowers or other landscaping tools. I could make out the names after a little work, but what would the inscriptions look like in five years? Ten? We decided to do what was within our means to help preserve the graves of these brave souls, adding to similar efforts by descendants and volunteers over the years.
Some of the Civil War veterans qualified for replacement headstones from the Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2015, our family was able to assist two descendant families secure new headstones for their veteran ancestors. In addition, we replaced the headstones of eight other Civil War veterans between 2016 and 2017.
This post concerns the remaining seven replacement headstones installed in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex in December, 2018. They were all approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs between January and June of 2017. Our family didn’t know about local efforts to secure funding for the cemeteries, so we personally paid for the installation of the headstones. In retrospect, I’d say it was $850 well spent.
We have three more headstone installations to go, in Portsmouth’s Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. I hope the stones remain legible for future generations, so these brave men, and their sacrifice and struggle for freedom and equality, will never be forgotten.
Here stood the Nansemond Collegiate Institute, founded in 1890 as the Nansemond Industrial Institute by Rev. William W. Gaines to provide local black children with an education, because free public schools were closed to them. Eventually the institute offered elementary, secondary and normal school courses of instruction. In 1927 a public school for black residents was opened; competition for students and a series of disastrous fires forced the institute to close in 1939.
Department of Conservation and Historic Resources 1988
Pictures from the community meeting held on December 28, 2018, at the East Suffolk Recreation Center. Those present included Delegate C. E. (Cliff) Hayes, Jr. (VA House Dist. 77), Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett, Councilman Curtis Milteer, Deacon Sam Jones, Suffolk Virginia Disabled American Veterans (DAV) #5, Otis Richards, and members of the Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Foundation: President Reginald H. Dirtion, Vice President Rev. Oulaniece Saunders, Treasurer Wilbur Holland, Jr., and Secretary/Historian Nadia K. Orton. Huge thanks to Francis McNair for all of her key assistance at the meeting, and a sincere “thank you” to all who attended in support of this important endeavor.
Two more replacement headstones for Civil War veterans have been approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs. They will be installed as time and weather permits. They are:
Cpl. John Cross, 10th United States Colored Infantry
Cpl. John Cross, of the 10th United States Colored Infantry, was born enslaved about 1833 in Gates County, North Carolina, owned by the Langston Family. He escaped in 1863, and enlisted on the fourth of December of that year at Craney Island, Virginia. He mustered in at Fort Monroe, Virginia, on December 17, 1863. He was appointed Corporal on August 1, 1865, and was discharged from service on May 7, 1866, at Galveston, Texas.
John Cross was married to Eliza Robbins, a free person of color also from Gates County, North Carolina, shortly after the war. The ceremony was performed by Rev. William Brock Wellons of the Suffolk Christian Church. Cpl. John Cross passed away on May 29, 1894, and was interred in Mount Olive Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex). His wife, Eliza Robbins Cross, passed on July 2, 1913. She was also interred in Mount Olive Cemetery, presumably near her husband. Her gravestone has not been located.
Sgt. Ashley H. Lewis, 1st United States Colored Cavalry
Sgt. Ashley H. Lewis, of the 1st United States Colored Cavalry, was born enslaved in 1842 near Tarboro, Edgecombe County, North Carolina, on the Foxhall Estate. He enlisted on December 3, 1863, at Newport News, Virginia, and mustered in at Camp Hamilton on December 22, 1863. He was promoted to Corporal on April 25, 1864, and promoted to Sergeant on November 26, 1865. He was discharged from service on February 4, 1866, at Brazos Santiago, Texas.
After the war, Sgt. Lewis returned to Tidewater, Virginia, and married Josephine Baker, a free person of color from Smithfield, Virginia, on August 21, 1867, Portsmouth. The ceremony was performed by Rev. John W. Godwin, the first pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church (est. 1865), Portsmouth.
Sgt. Ashley H. Lewis was also an ordained minister, serving as pastor for First Baptist Church Mahan (est. 1866), Suffolk, Virginia, from 1880-1883, and the second pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church (following Rev. John W. Godwin), from 1885 to 1890, the year of his death. According to information culled from his death certificate and an article from the Baltimore Sun, Rev. Lewis died from complications of apoplexy, or, a cerebral hemorrhage, on the morning of November 29, 1890. His wife Josephine, whose name also appears on the family monument, preceded him in death, passing on August 6, 1890. ♠