Alumna takes care of sacred spaces – Duke Magazine

Thanks, Janine!

Nadia Orton ’98 made a pledge to document her family lineage. It’s turned into a mission to preserve disappearing and discarded history

Nadia Orton ’98 steps carefully around concrete vaults and sunken spots where pine caskets have collapsed inside century- old graves, her knee-high camo boots laced tight.

“I’ve had snakes and stray dogs come out of holes like that,” Orton says, nodding at a grave split in two by a fallen tree branch. Her family insists on the snake boots, a walking stick, a companion.

They tell her, “We know you love history, but you’re not supposed to be part of it yet.”

So the boots are always in the car. So are the thin purple gardening gloves she pulls on to protect her hands from her own impatience to sweep aside pine needles and poison ivy and run a finger over the engravings there, thinned by weather and time.

It is cool out, but still Orton has had to stay home and rest up for five days in order to muster the energy for this tour of Oak Lawn, an unmarked black cemetery in Suffolk, Virginia. The lupus that dogged her at Duke is dragging on her still, after kidney failure and dialysis, and finally a transplant, but it was also her lupus that led her on this quest to preserve black and African-American gravesites. Continue reading

Richmond, Virginia: Finding an African American Civil War veteran, Evergreen Cemetery

Enlistment record of Pvt. William H. Payne, Company D, 117th U. S. Colored Infantry

We’ve verified another African American Civil War veteran in Evergreen Cemetery, Pvt. William H. Payne of Company D, 117th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry. Born in Richmond, Virginia, William enlisted at the age of 22 on April 8, 1865, five days after the city fell to Union forces. He mustered out on August 10, 1867, at Brownsville, Texas. William passed away on November 18, 1911, and was interred in Evergreen Cemetery on November 20, 1911. I’ll know a bit more about him once I finish reviewing his pension file.

Portsmouth, Virginia: Update on one of Portsmouth’s “Harlem Hellfighters”

Gravestone of Pvt. Ollie Lee Snow. Cypress Hills National Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York. Photo courtesy Find-a-Grave user Leslie W.

We’re pleased to report that we now have a photo of Pvt. Ollie Lee Snow’s headstone. It was taken by Find-a-Grave volunteer Leslie Wickham, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.), and she graciously allowed me to use it.

Pvt. Ollie Lee Snow, a Portsmouth, Virginia native, served during World War I. He was a member of the 369th Infantry, 93rd Division, the famed “Harlem Hellfighters.” He was featured in an earlier blog from last year, “In Their Own Words: Voices of African American WWI Veterans,” in recognition of Veterans Day. At the time, Pvt. Snow wasn’t listed in the Find-a-Grave database for Cypress Hills National, so I added the listing, and sent a photo request. Leslie fulfilled the request just a few weeks later. Thanks so much, Leslie!

Continue reading