Honoring the subject of my first blog years ago, Landsman Thomas Craig, a free-born African American Civil War Navy veteran from Delaware. After the war, Thomas served aboard the receiving ship Franklin with two of my paternal ancestors, great-great-great-grandfather Max, and great-great-grandfather Arthur, during the 1880s in Portsmouth and Norfolk, Virginia. Thomas Craig and my great-great-great-grandfather Max Orton are buried about twenty feet apart in the rear of Mt. Olive Cemetery, one of the oldest cemeteries of the historic Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. Great-great-grandfather Arthur Orton is buried near the front of the cemetery complex, in the section known as Fishers Cemetery.
Over Decoration Day (Memorial Day) weekend, I visited the cemetery complex with my father to plant flags at the graves of the some of the several hundred veterans we’ve documented there. After planting a flag at Max’s gravesite, we walked over and stood before Thomas’ grave, and reflected on the historical connections between him and our family. Another detail popped into view, the fire ants at the base of his gravestone. They will have to be removed before his headstone can be cleaned and reset. His sacrifice for freedom and equality is not forgotten. The struggle continues…
Thomas Craig. So reads the name on the faded and sunken headstone of military issue in Mount Olive Cemetery, one of the oldest African-American cemeteries in Portsmouth, Virginia. Part of the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (Fisher’s Hill) (est. 1879), I first noticed Thomas Craig’s gravestone in Mt. Olive on a humid July 4th holiday weekend in 2007, searching for ancestral grave sites with my family. Not being aware of any known map, we walked the entire cemetery, and in doing so, passed the Craig gravestone several times. At the time, my focus was on finding any and all headstones with the name “Orton.” My paternal ancestry stretches back to 1690 in the Tidewater area of Virginia. My grand-aunt, Philgrador Rachel Orton Duke, was concerned about the lasting legacy of our family line. Born in 1923 in a home on Griffin Street, she was a life-time Portsmouth resident. Before her passing in March of 2007, she called my father and other relatives to her bedside in Maryview Hospital, with the admonition “do not let our history die.” Hearing that call, I concentrated fully on researching the paternal side of my family tree. I’d dabbled in genealogy since 2001, but now I had a mission. This was my grand-aunt’s last wish. Honoring this wish led us to the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex.
With further research, I discovered that our ancestors had visited and tended to family plots from some of the first burials performed in the early 1880s through to the early 1940s. However, elders that live in and around Portsmouth informed me that by the late 1940s, the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex was about full, and the then existing owner allowed it to become overgrown in the decades that followed. By 1960, the cemetery complex was nearly impassable, and was closed by the city soon thereafter. Trees, vines, poison ivy, and trash came to dominate what was once the premier burial ground and one of the earliest institutions of Portsmouth’s African American community (Portsmouth cemeteries were segregated until 1975). Visitation had largely ceased, and calls for its care and restoration by the Portsmouth branch of the NAACP, pastors, lodges, and various civic groups went unheeded. With Lincoln Memorial cemetery (1912), and the graveyards of Grove Baptist and Olive Branch Church (and eventually, Greenlawn Memorial Gardens in Chesapeake) becoming the primary cemeteries of Portsmouth’s black community, the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex fell into shadow, a forgotten area of the old city.