Portsmouth, Virginia: The Story of Thomas Riddick

Gravestone of Thomas Riddick, Mt. Olive Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex), est. 1879. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, March 16, 2014. All rights reserved.

One of the most interesting gravestones in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (est. 1879), is for Thomas Riddick. Located in the northwest corner of Mt. Olive Cemetery, the oldest in the complex, it features an interesting inscription regarding Thomas’ occupation.

In Their Own Words: Pvt. John E. Deans, 2nd U. S. Colored Cavalry

African American Civil War Monument DC Copyright 2017 Nadia Orton
African American Civil War Memorial. Washington, D. C. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, August 5, 2017

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John E. Deans, of Company A, 2nd U. S. Colored Cavalry, was born about 1845 near Murfreesboro, Hertford County, North Carolina. He enlisted at the (stated) age of eighteen on December 22, 1863, at Yorktown, Virginia, and mustered into service on the same day at Fort Monroe, Virginia. At the time of enlistment, he was described as five feet, six inches tall, with dark eyes, black hair, and a “yellow” complexion. John was appointed bugler on January 16, 1865. He mustered out of service on February 12, 1866, at Brazos Santiago, Texas.

She Promised to Honor Her Ancestors. First She Had to Find Them. The State of Things, WUNC 91.5, North Carolina Public Radio

Nadia Orton stands with the replacement gravestone she secured for African American Civil War veteran Sgt. Ashley H. Lewis (1842-1890), 1st U.S. Colored Cavalry. She has replaced 20 gravestones for African American Civil War veterans, most from various counties in North Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, December, 2018. All rights reserved
Warren County NC Rosenwald Orton
Mayflower Rosenwald School (ca. 1924), Inez, Warren County, North Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2015. All rights reserved.
The gravestone of Cherry Williams Sutton (1860-1911), Nadia Orton’s maternal great-great-grandmother, located in a slave cemetery. Inez, Warren County, North Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2015. All rights reserved.

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

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Richmond, Virginia: Evergreen Cemetery, funerary iconography

December 18, 2018. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, all rights reserved.

Funerary iconography can be defined as the identification of symbols and motifs and the interpretation of their cultural meaning. Over the last eleven years, I’ve been fortunate to visit hundreds of cemeteries in multiple states, and have been able to spot very unique headstones containing intricate icons and symbols. Sometimes, the headstones are handmade, such as the gravestone of Matilda Ella Hale Nakano, of Portsmouth, Virginia, constructed and designed by her husband, a Japanese national.

Matilda Ella Hale Nakano - Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Portsmouth Va.
Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, June 21, 2012, Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, all rights reserved.

Matilda Ella’s ancestral roots were tied to Bertie and Hertford counties, North Carolina. The kanji at the base of Matilda Ella’s gravestone indicates that her husband, Hosuke, made the gravestone himself. The top of the gravestone contains images of ivy, denoting eternal life and/or affection, and the “crown and cross,” representing redemption through faith, or the Kingdom of Heaven.

In other cases, the families would order a stone from the U. S. Government or monument company, and request personal touches at an additional cost, like the gravestone of Pvt. Thomas Fisher, of the 36th U. S. Colored Infantry, in New Bern, North Carolina, whose military-issue headstone contains a masonic emblem of the square and compass, by his wife, Lucy Fisher.


In Richmond, I’m in my sixth year of researching interments of Evergreen Cemetery, and have documented 7,245 to date, most covering the period where there are no official interment records (pre-1926). However, my physical and health limitations have hindered my ability to visit as often as I would like. Still, I’ve managed to snag enough photos to provide a small peek into this amazing site, and plan more photo sessions in the near future.

Between May 18-19, 2012, I attended a cemetery seminar in Eastville, Virginia, conducted by representatives from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Part of that seminar involved a discussion of funerary iconography. Here, I share some of that valuable insight, with examples of some of the gravestones that bear those symbols in Evergreen Cemetery.