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
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’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.
“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.