Tag Archives: Lincoln Memorial Cemetery

Portsmouth, Virginia: Disappointments and Discoveries

Sgt. Williams Lincoln Cemetery Portsmouth Copyright 2018 Nadia Orton

The recently discovered grave of Sgt. George Williams, Company F, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, March 22, 2018.

 

On March 22, 2018, we visited Lincoln Memorial Cemetery (est. 1912), in Portsmouth, Virginia. Our family has long ties to the sacred ground, with ancestors from North Carolina and various areas of Tidewater, Virginia, being buried there for decades.

So, it was no surprise that, after a week of snow and rainstorms, we encountered major flooding in the cemetery. It happens often, as the grounds are low-lying with exceedingly poor drainage. But this flooding was horrible, perhaps the worst I’ve ever seen. It was present in the front of the cemetery…

 

Lincoln Memorial Flooding 2018 Copyright 2018 Nadia Orton

Waterlogged graves of Dr. William E. Reid and wife Cornelia, and Dr. Frank G. Elliott and wife Laura Carr Elliott. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, March 22, 2018.

 

the center of the cemetery…

 

Flood Graves Lincoln Copyright 2018 Nadia Orton

Submerged graves of Korean War veteran Leonard Walker, and Vietnam War veteran William McKentry. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, March 22, 2018.

 

and the rear…

 

Flooding in a rear section of Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, March 22, 2018. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

 

No section of the historic burial ground was spared, and hundreds of grave markers were barely visible beneath the rippling pools of water, mud, and random trash blown in from the roadway. I tried to muster my game face, and family members made a comment that was both practical and dispiriting. “I hope your boots don’t start leaking!” Sigh. This visit was supposed to be a positive one. We were there to mark the gravesite of Pvt. Albert Jones, a member of the 1st Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry. He died in a terrible house fire in 1940 at the age of one hundred and two, and for over seventy-eight years, had rested in an unmarked grave. In February, we submitted a request for a new headstone for Pvt. Jones, which was recently approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs and delivered to a local monument company for installation. It seemed a simple task: go to the cemetery, and flag his gravesite for the monument company. But the flood waters made the simple act of marking Albert’s grave practically impossible.

 

“…you better never let mastah catch yer wif a book or paper, and yer couldn’t praise God so he could hear yer. If yer done dem things, he sho’ would beat yer.”

 

Not long ago, I discovered Albert’s slave narrative, recorded in 1938 as part of the Works Progress Administration. Through it, I had the opportunity to learn details of his life not found in any other source. It’s simply stunning, reading first person testimony, feeling the inherent power of the words. Albert described being born enslaved in Southampton County, Virginia, site of the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831. Though he never shared his name, Albert stated that his owner was relatively decent. However, if the owner found any books, paper, or other reading or writing materials in the hands of the enslaved, they would be beaten or otherwise severely punished.

Albert had remained on the plantation until the age of twenty-one, when he’d escaped with his brother, and enlisted in the Union Army on December 3, 1864, at Newport News, Virginia. In the narrative, he described the living conditions in the Federal camps, and the roles of African American women there who’d joined their husbands in their flight to freedom.

In one battle, Albert had been shot through his right hand. At the time, Albert stated that he’d simply wrapped it with a bandage and continued to fight, but the wound would continue to plague him for the rest of his life. After showing her his injury, the WPA interviewer noted “it was half closed…this was as far as he could open his hand.”

Learning these fascinating tidbits about his life, coupled with the tragic way that he died, made me determined to mark Albert’s grave. He’d begun to feel like a long-lost member of our family. So as we would with any other family member, we tried to find his grave despite the flooding. But good intentions aside, there was no way it was going to happen that day…the whole area was underwater, a foot deep in some sections. Albert would have to wait, again.

 

Flooding in Albert’s section. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, March 22, 2018. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

 

Disappointed, I began to make my way back to the car, but was soon distracted by another grave. It was a headstone of government-issue, and judging by its weathered appearance, a very old one. Mindful of the sodden ground and flood waters, I leaned down as close as I dared, and made out a very faint inscription. “____ Williams, Co. __, __ U. S. C. I.” It certainly wasn’t Albert, so who was this? Had I found another United States Colored Troop?

I trudged back to the car a little faster, and retrieved a pair of gloves, an old towel, and our trusty brush/ice-scraper for an impromptu cleaning (brush for the stone, ice-scraper for the mud at the base). After a few minutes, the inscription was clear enough to read: “Sergt. Geo. Williams/Co. F/36 U. S. C. I.” Indeed, I had discovered another freedom fighter.

 

Sgt. George Williams 36th USCI Portsmouth Copyright 2018 Nadia Orton

Clearing the gravestone of Sgt. George Williams, 36th Regiment, U. S.Colored Infantry. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, March 22, 2018. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

 

Sgt. Williams Lincoln Cemetery Portsmouth Copyright 2018 Nadia Orton

The recently discovered grave of Sgt. George Williams, Company F, 36th U. S. Colored Infantry. Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, March 22, 2018.

 

Returning home, I looked up Sgt. Williams’ service record. He was born about 1843 in Suffolk, Virginia, and described as five feet, five inches tall, with “black eyes, complexion, and hair,” occupation farmer.  He’d enlisted on August 13, 1863, in Norfolk, Virginia, and mustered in at Portsmouth on October 28th. While his service record doesn’t indicate his participation in any battles, it does note his intermittent assignments with the Quartermaster Department. He was appointed Corporal on September 9, 1863, and Sergeant on July 24, 1866. He mustered out on August 13, 1866, at Brazos Santiago, Texas, after a term of three years.

Excited, I continued to dig. After the war, George married Jennie Knight, daughter of Paul and Jennie Knight. According to later

Enlistment record of Sgt. George Williams, 36th U. S.Colored Infantry.

testimony of their children, both George and Jennie had ancestral ties to Richmond, Virginia. In the 1870 and 1880 census, George, Jennie and family were documented in Portsmouth, with George working as a general laborer. Not having much luck finding the family in the 1900 census, I did learn that Jennie Knight Williams passed away in 1909, and was interred in Mount Olive Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in the historic Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex, Portsmouth. To date, Jennie’s grave has not been located.

In Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, Sgt. George Williams is interred with several other family members, Present are the graves of some of his children, including sons George, Jr. (1878-1941), and Edward (Edinborough) (1866-1934). Edward (Edinborough) Williams is interred next to his wife, Hattie A. Churchwell Williams (1867-1934), daughter of Isaac and Ellen Churchwell, free persons of color.

 

Central portion of Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. The Williams Family plot is on the lower left. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, March 22, 2018.

 

Over the years, flooding hasn’t spared Sgt. George William’s family plot either. Edward’s (Edinborough’s) gravestone is currently upside down, and his wife Hattie’s has shifted slowly to the right of its original location. And I’ve come to wonder how Sgt. George Williams is even buried in Lincoln Memorial. After all, according to military records, he’d died about 1901, and yet the earliest recorded burials in Lincoln Memorial began in 1913.

One possibility is that Sgt. Williams’ children had his grave moved to Lincoln after the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex became increasingly overgrown in the 1940s. It wouldn’t be the first instance of grave relocations to Lincoln from other historically African American burial grounds in the area. The family of realtor and businessman Thomas William Newbie (1879-1936), had done the same in the 1970s, and the grave of Sgt. Lewis Rodgers (1844-1884), of the 28th U. S. Colored Infantry, was moved to Lincoln during the construction of Portsmouth’s historic Truxtun community in 1919. Although George rests among family in Lincoln Memorial, it’s still somewhat disheartening to think of him resting apart from his wife, Jennie, buried somewhere in the rear of the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. There’s a logical conclusion; George’s children had moved the only ancestral grave they could find amidst the overgrowth.

Perhaps fate is the reason why I stumbled across Sgt. Williams’ gravesite, to help tell his family story. Or maybe I just got lucky, spotting the grave of a local freedom fighter I didn’t expect to find while carefully tracing a path amidst flood waters and sunken graves. Or maybe I’m just overthinking again, and the buzzing sounds in my ear are my annoyed ancestors telling me to just be happy with the discovery. Either way, finding Sgt. George Williams is a great reminder that in cemetery preservation, despite all disappointments, the delays, lack of funding, cooperation, and in my case, chronic health issues, there are still wonderful discoveries to be made that keep the awful tug of hopelessness at bay. The job’s never a small task, but every little bit helps the larger goal. You have to keep trying, no matter what.

As for the flooding, I hope someday that funds can be secured to fix the problem. Thousands of families have connections to Lincoln Memorial, and no matter the conditions, descendants and the surrounding community remain committed to maintaining family connections to this sacred ground. This is especially evident every Memorial Day (Decoration Day) weekend, where hundreds come out, clean the gravesites they can reach, and decorate them with flowers, telling stories of ancestors and sharing memories while they work. The constant flooding only makes these family moments, precious as they are, that much harder to accomplish. Floods erase inscriptions and valuable history. It has to be remedied. There are simply too many priceless stories and family legacies at peril. ♦

 

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Filed under Brazos Santiago, Brunswick County, Civil War, Edgecombe County, Franklin County, Gates County, Grand Army of the Republic, Hampton, Hertford County, Memorials to Civil War Veterans, New Hanover County, Newport News, Norfolk, Norfolk County, North Carolina, Portsmouth, Richmond, Slavery, Southampton County, Suffolk, Texas, Tombstone Tales, U. S. Colored Troops, Vance County, Virginia, Warren County

Pasquotank County, NC: The Moore Family Cemetery

Moore Cemetery Pasquotank NC Orton

Moore Cemetery, Elizabeth City, Pasquotank County, North Carolina

On a recent road trip down Route 158, in Pasquotank County, North Carolina, I spotted a small family cemetery.  I was on the way to Durham, North Carolina, to attend a commemoration for George Henry White (1852-1918), a nineteenth century officeholder and civil rights advocate. At first, I noticed the trash, beer cans and other detritus along the roadway, discarded by careless passersby. But then I noticed what appeared to be a granite headstone, peeking through a bed of ivy and other types of overgrowth. Was that what I thought it was? Right by the road, so close? I’d wanted to inspect it immediately, but the long line of irritated-looking drivers behind us nixed the opportunity. I wrote down the nearest cross street (Blindman Road), and vowed to revisit the cemetery on the way back home.

Anyone who chronicles burial grounds is probably used to seeing these sites on road trips. Marked by their relative small size, they’re common in rural areas, and hearken back to the era when ancestors were buried on family homesteads and estates. At times, the gravestones and other markers that signal sacred ground stand out, due to their height and prominence, whether located next to gas stations and convenience stores, in the middle of grain fields, or in modern homeowners’ front yards. In other cases, the graves may be unmarked, or have flat, worn, or hard to read headstones shrouded in overgrowth, surrounded by grazing cows and horses.

During our frequent travels, my family’s used to me pointing these cemeteries out, and groans ensue. “Another one?” they may say. Well, yes, of course. These sites are everywhere. My folks made me the history nut that I am, instilling in me a love of books, museums, and all things historical from a young age. So it’s an understandable development, I think, being drawn to spaces of tangible family history. After all, it’s the type of curiosity that helped me find my own ancestral roots, a line that stretches back to 1600s, Tidewater, Virginia. But my family has accommodated me on these unplanned stops so many times I’m sympathetic to the groans. To a point, that is. The desire to see the cemeteries remains, and when we do stop to read the names on the stones, I’m fortunate to discover clues that may lead to interesting nuggets of local history.

Making good on the original promise, we returned to the family cemetery on US- 158 this past Sunday. We’d spent the better part of the day taking the road less traveled from Durham, winding along various state routes through Franklin, Warren, Halifax, Northampton, and Gates counties, North Carolina, the geography of my mother’s ancestry. Eventually, the GPS on my Android sounded a reminder. Blindman Road was coming up. It was time to look for the roadside cemetery.

Checking the rear view, no one was behind us, so we were able to slow down and find it. The cemetery is located across the street from a recycling company, and as there’s no dedicated parking, we pulled onto the shoulder of the road. Walking up to the cemetery, I proceeded with caution. It was a really warm day, and there might’ve been critters about (the kind with fangs).

The cemetery seemed to contain only two modern-looking headstones. There may be depressions indicative of sunken graves on the site, but the existing bed of leaves and ivy made it impossible to tell. The nearest, visible gravestone, the one I’d spotted from the road days before, read “Mother Hattie M. Moore.”

Hattie Moore Gravestone Orton Elizabeth City NC

Gravestone of Hattie Moore (1917-1954).

For a lazy Sunday afternoon, US-158 was a very busy thoroughfare, spurts of traffic passing by at over 50 mph. With only a ditch between myself and the road, I was aware of every single vehicle.

Traffic passing Moore Cemetery Elizabeth City NC Orton

Traffic passing Moore Cemetery on US-158. January 31, 2016

I zoomed in on the second stone from a distance; there was far too much leaf and ivy ground cover to get any closer. Rattlesnake territory, I thought. There was no way this stone would receive a full inspection, but I could make out the inscription, “Father.”

Curtis J Moore Grave Elizabeth City NC Orton

Gravestone of Curtis Jarvis Moore, Sr. (1915-1971).

At one point, I heard a truck approaching, and for safety reasons, paused till it lumbered past.

Truck passing Moore Cemetery Orton

Truck passing Moore Cemetery, January 31, 2016. Elizabeth City, NC

I couldn’t get over how close this hallowed ground is to a major roadway. Thinking about how many times we’d zipped past this little cemetery on family genealogy trips, I took a few more pics for good measure, being sure to keep my distance. Then I decided it was time to go. I’d seen this:

Is that a snake I see?

Is that a rattlesnake I see?

It looked like a canebrake rattlesnake, and where there’s one, there could be more. I quickly realized the grave site of Curtis Jarvis Moore, Sr. may have been host to a little snake den. Yep, definitely time to go home.

Later that evening, I reviewed a few documents that provided some information about the burial ground. Known as the Moore Cemetery, the only documented burials are Curtis Jarvis Moore, Sr. (1915-1971), and Hattie M. Moore (1917-1954). Curtis and Hattie were married on May 13, 1939, in Pasquotank County, by Rev. Monroe Ramsey Lane (1856-1943), whose brother-in-law is buried in Portsmouth, Virginia’s Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Curtis J. Moore, Sr. was the son of John Lee Moore and Edna Hunter, the grandson of Axum J. Moore and Katie Ann “Kitty” Stewart, and the great-grandson of Isaac and Louisa Moore.

Marriage certificate of Axum J. Moore and Katie Ann Stewart. Pasquotank County, 1881. Ancestry.com

Marriage certificate of Axum J. Moore and Katie Ann Stewart. Pasquotank County, 1881. Ancestry.com

Hattie M. Moore’s death certificate states her maiden name was “Varn,” born in Pasquotank County, the daughter of John Varn and Mary Pernell. However, the marriage certificate states Hattie M. Moore was a Freeman, originally from Bertie County, North Carolina, and the daughter of John Freeman and Melvina (Melvinia) Freeman. The couple lived in the Newland district, in the northern section of Pasquotank County. I’m not sure when family last visited the cemetery. A hopeful sign are the flowers that, while faded, have been carefully placed beside both headstones.The cemetery has been added to Find-a-Grave, and is also included in a county cemetery database which can be found here.

The next time you’re on the road, keep your eyes peeled. You never know what genealogical treasures may be found along the roadways of Tidewater. And watch for snakes.

 

 

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Filed under Durham County, Franklin County, Gates County, Halifax County, North Carolina, Pasquotank County, Portsmouth, Tombstone Tales, Virginia, Warren County