When Nadia Orton’s kidneys were failing, she sent letters to friends and relatives in the hopes that someone could be a donor or help defray the cost. Orton’s great-aunt Philgrador responded with money from her church. So a few years later, when Aunt Phil asked on her deathbed that her family not be forgotten, Orton knew she had to find a way to honor her ancestors. The problem was that she didn’t know who they were, or where to find them.
As she started tracing her lineage and locating her ancestors’ final resting places in North Carolina and Virginia, Orton began to notice the state of black cemeteries. Many were overgrown, unprotected and unmapped. Seeing the condition of these sacred spaces sparked a passion for protecting them.
Orton has since visited hundreds of cemeteries, and helps other families identify their ancestors’ plots. Host Frank Stasio talks with Nadia Orton, a public historian and professional genealogist, about how she uncovers the past and how it feels to find who came before you
“You had to be good….you had to be better.” These words were spoken by Mr. John Richard Johnson, Jr., reflecting on his days as a Montford Point Marine, the first African Americans to serve in the United States Marine Corps. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with Mr. Johnson recently in Chesapeake, Virginia.
An affable host, Mr. Johnson was, at the time of the interview, just shy of his eighty-eighth birthday. He was born in 1926, on the 31st of October, or “Goblin Day,” as he humorously refers to it. A native of Scotland Neck, in Halifax County, North Carolina, he’s the son of John Richard Johnson, Sr., and Sallie Mae Arrington. He was pleasantly surprised that I knew Scotland Neck; I told him I’d studied my family’s genealogy for many years and had ancestors from various counties in North Carolina, including Halifax, Warren, Vance, Hertford, and Franklin. Smiling, he went on, and told me about his mother and father. John Richard Sr., “a deeply religious, praying man” as described by Mr. Johnson, was the son of Burgess and Rosetta Davis Johnson. His mother, Sallie Mae, was one of seven children, with four brothers and two sisters. The family lived next door to Ephraim Mutts, Jr., who was an undertaker for the community. Mr. Mutts had two daughters and two sons that were about Mr. Johnson’s age growing up.