Portsmouth, Virginia: Honoring Civil War Veterans of Virginia and North Carolina

Photos: Nadia K. Orton, 2010-2019. All rights reserved

So pleased that Rev. Ashley H. Lewis has a new headstone! Photo: Dennis E. Orton, December 8, 2018.

In the summer of 2007, I began a family history project to document all interments in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. Established in 1879, it is the oldest, extant African American cemetery in Portsmouth, Virginia. It’s a historic site near and dear to our family’s heart, having over forty-eight ancestors buried there, although most are without visible gravestones.

Inspired by finding (and not finding), the burial sites of Civil War ancestors in our own family, I looked to the conditions of the graves of the United States Colored Troops in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. Many of their gravestones were knocked over, buried, dirty, and broken, some with sizable portions sheared off by lawn mowers or other landscaping tools. I could make out the names after a little work, but what would the inscriptions look like in five years? Ten? We decided to do what was within our means to help preserve the graves of these brave souls, adding to similar efforts by descendants and volunteers over the years.

Some of the Civil War veterans qualified for replacement headstones from the Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2015, our family was able to assist two descendant families secure new headstones for their veteran ancestors. In addition, we replaced the headstones of eight other Civil War veterans between 2016 and 2017.

This post concerns the remaining seven replacement headstones installed in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex in December, 2018. They were all approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs between January and June of 2017. Our family didn’t know about local efforts to secure funding for the cemeteries, so we personally paid for the installation of the headstones. In retrospect, I’d say it was $850 well spent.

We have three more headstone installations to go, in Portsmouth’s Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. I hope the stones remain legible for future generations, so these brave men, and their sacrifice and struggle for freedom and equality, will never be forgotten.


Cpl. George Baysmore

Company H, 36th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry

Original gravestone, Mt. Calvary Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex). Photo: Nadia K. Orton, April 8, 2011. All rights reserved.
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A Personal Journey Through African-American Cemeteries – National Trust for Historic Preservation

Copyright Nadia Orton
At the gravesite of my great-great-great-grandfather Alexander Orton, 10th U. S. Colored Infantry, at Grove Baptist Church Cemetery in Portsmouth, Virginia.

I’ll never forget the exciting moment when I found the gravesite of Alexander Orton, my paternal great-great-great-grandfather. Born in 1842 in Virginia, he was a Civil War veteran and member of the 10th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry.

Finding his last resting place was part of a genealogy project I’ve been pursuing for nine years now, keeping a long-standing promise made to an elder. Diagnosed with a serious chronic illness as a teenager, I needed a kidney transplant soon after college. My great-aunt gathered her entire church congregation to support my transplant fund, but held a lingering concern about our family legacy.

“Do not let our history die,” she told my father shortly before her passing in 2007. To honor her last wish, I vowed to make the most of my second chance and do my part in documenting our family history.

I’ve traced my father’s ancestry to 1630 in Virginia, and my mother’s to 1770 in North Carolina. Some of my ancestors were born free, while others were enslaved. Like Alexander, some enlisted in the Union Army to fight for freedom in the Civil War. They’d founded four African-American communities in Tidewater, Virginia, along with masonic lodges, banks, churches, and schools. They were oystermen, carpenters, farmers, teachers, Pullman porters, and teamsters at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. READ MORE

Portsmouth, Virginia: The Leon A. Turner Family and interconnections, Mt. Olive Cemetery

Gravestone of Leon A. Turner (1890-1916), Mt. Olive Cemetery, Portsmouth, Va.
Gravestone of Leon A. Turner (1890-1916), Mt. Olive Cemetery, Portsmouth, Va.

In Mt. Olive Cemetery, established in 1879, there’s a gravestone standing within the broken remnants of a family plot, shaded by a large tree. Both the gravestone and tree bear visible evidence of their respective ages: the stone is covered in biological growth, and the tree by a dense grouping of liana. However, if you lean in closely, the faint inscription can still be read.

In memory of
Leon A. Turner
Beloved Son of
Weadie S. Turner
Born
July 24, 1890
Departed this life
March 30, 1916
Aged 26 yrs 8 mos &
6 days

Beneath the primary inscription are the first two lines from a hymn, “O what is life? – ‘tis like a flower,” written by English poet Jane Taylor (1783-1824).

“Oh, what is life ‘tis like
a flower
That blossoms and is gone.”

I’d rediscovered Leon’s gravestone recently while skimming through six years of photos for Mt. Olive cemetery. I’d seen it so often before, but on that day I’d paused, and let my eyes linger over the details of the stone. Just what was it that caught my attention? Then I realized why. It was his date of death, the 30th of March, 1916. Leon had passed away exactly 100 years ago this month. And he was only twenty-six years old.

Leon A Turner grave Mt. Olive Cemetery Portsmouth Va.
Gravestone of Leon A. Turner, Mt. Olive Cemetery

He was born Leon Alexander Turner, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Charles Turner, also of Pennsylvania, and Weadie (Weedie) Jones, of Portsmouth, Virginia, daughter of Allen Jones and Mary Craig. The family was never rich or famous, and they don’t turn up very often in genealogical documentation. They are like the majority of people buried in African-American cemeteries, those that history often forgets, whose voices and contributions to their communities may be lost when the cemeteries in which they rest aren’t preserved, or are destroyed through neglect and development. Leon’s father, Charles Turner, has proven most elusive, and while Leon’s place of birth is recorded as Philadelphia, neither he nor Weadie are documented in Pennsylvania records. As an adult, Weadie Turner only surfaces by the early 1900s back in Tidewater, Virginia, employed as a domestic. Leon turns up twice, through announcements of his marriage in 1909 to Zelia Bishop Murray, a native of Anne Arundel County, Maryland, daughter of William Henry Murray, of Prince George County, Virginia, and Rosa Lee Murray, of Washington, D.C. The Portsmouth City Circuit Court has a record of the marriage, and the April 1st, 1909 edition of the New York Age carried an announcement of the nuptials.

The New York Age, April 1, 1909
The New York Age, April 1, 1909

Zelia’s mother Rosa Lee, like Leon’s mother Weadie, worked as a domestic, while her father William Henry was a private coachman to a banker, and later served in the Navy as a cabin steward aboard the USS Tennessee and U. S. Flagship Chicago.

By 1910, Leon’s wife Zelia is recorded living with her mother Rosa Lee and other siblings in Washington, D. C., listed as an “attendant” in the household of Vivian H. Tibbs (ca. 1848-1923), a chauffeur and Virginia-native who, years later, died tragically in a flash flood that swept through the Anacostia District of Washington, D. C. on the evening of March 17, 1923. Between 1910 and 1916, Zelia’s father William Murray’s absence in the household can be explained by his Naval service, but I’ve not found any information on Leon’s whereabouts during this period.

Within six years of his marriage to Zelia, Leon had passed, and was buried in Mt. Olive Cemetery. According to his death certificate, he was described as a general laborer, and had succumbed to complications of pulmonary tuberculosis. William Grogan, a local established undertaker, and a former owner of Portsmouth’s Fishers Hill Cemetery, handled the funeral arrangements. Sadly, Leon’s mother Weadie Jones Turner died only three years later, also from pulmonary tuberculosis. She is interred in Mt. Calvary Cemetery, immediately adjacent to Mt. Olive Cemetery. Unlike her son’s gravesite, Weadie’s has not been found.

I was a bit frustrated over being unable to find more information on the family. Sure, Leon and his relatives aren’t a part of my own lineage, but as I continued to dig for information, they began to feel like family. Stubbornly, I reviewed the records I’d already found, hoping for new insight. While studying Weadie’s death certificate, a small detail caught my eye. It was the surname of her mother Mary, given as “Craig.” On Weadie’s death certificate, it’s misspelled, and reads “Kreg.” Craig. I’d seen the surname before, a Portsmouth family I’d studied several years ago. Was Weadie possibly related to them? Genealogy research doesn’t often resolve itself in such a tidy fashion. But most of my initial research efforts into Leon and Weadie had proven fruitless. Could it be that the genealogy Gods were going to be kind after all? Maybe?

The Craig Family in question concerns Civil War Navy veteran Thomas Craig (1831-1896), born free in Delaware, the subject of my inaugural blog post. Thomas is also buried in Mt. Olive Cemetery. I remembered that he’d had a wife named “Mary.” With fingers crossed, and using the 1870 estimation of Weadie’s birthdate, I looked to the 1880 Federal Census record I’d saved in my Craig Family file.

And there she was! Ten year old Weadie, spelled “Weeddie” in the census record, living in the household of Thomas and wife Mary, listed as his adopted daughter.

Weadie Jones, age 10. 1880 Federal Census, Portsmouth, Va. Ancestry.com
Weadie Jones, age 10. 1880 Federal Census, Portsmouth, Va. Ancestry.com

This discovery provided another window into Leon’s ancestry, through his mother Weadie’s lineage. With previous research conducted into Thomas Craig’s life, I’d discovered his wife Mary Craig was born Mary Manger, about 1845, to parents James Manger and Violet Rivers, in Brunswick County, Virginia. She remained in Portsmouth most of her life, and passed away in 1910. Through his mom Weadie, it’s very likely that Leon A. Turner has maternal ties to Brunswick County as well, although it may also mean that, sadly, he’d lost his maternal grandmother Mary Craig only one year after his marriage to Zelia.

Several questions about Leon A. Turner remain. I still don’t anything about his father, Charles, or his exact whereabouts for most of his adult life. I’m also not sure how Weadie’s father, Allen Jones, maternal grandfather to Leon, fits into Mary Craig’s timeline, and Leon’s connection to Weadie and her parents needs to be verified. However, I’m happy to know a little more about Leon beyond the etchings on his faded gravestone. As part of the long-standing preservation process for the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, I have studied hundreds of family genealogies for the people buried in the historic site, and can now add Leon’s narrative to the fascinating tale of one of Portsmouth’s first African American institutions, a site still in dire need of preservation, yet has so much to offer to regional and national history.

Fort Fisher Trees NC Orton
Windswept trees at Fort Fisher, New Hanover County, North Carolina

Thinking on the interconnected nature of Leon’s ancestry, I reflected back on a recent family visit to Fort Fisher, in New Hanover County, North Carolina, following up on local Civil War history. There, I was taken by the sight of the windswept trees along the shoreline, and the nature in which the tree limbs interlaced. As I took pictures, the various branches appeared to meld into one large tree, and my mind flashed to family history. All of the successes, tragedies, and surprises you may learn; the discoveries that can make you cry both in sadness and joy. Perhaps it wasn’t so crazy, after all, to look at the trees and think about family. I felt sadness rediscovering Leon’s gravestone, silently resting in Mt. Olive, and realizing it was the 100-year anniversary of his death, and at such a young age. However, there was also joy, I’d found his mother Weadie, and her parents, which ultimately became a trail that led me back to Thomas Craig, and my own family history. To my first blog! There really is something to the idea of six degrees of separation. But that’s genealogy, and it’s a wonderful thing. ♥