In Remembrance: Our Ancestors’ Emancipation Day

Following in the footsteps of my ancestors in Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia, in an attempt to experience Emancipation Day celebrations of days past as they would have known them. Most white newspaper accounts of the day focused on participants’ clothing and comportment. Beyond an annual observance of “freedom day,” the celebrations were an opportunity to strengthen the bonds of the community, through sharing history, sustaining commitments to progressive political change, and fundraising for benevolent societies and community institutions.

Stories in Stone: Thomas Craig and the Ortons of Tidewater, Virginia – My Mission as a Freedom Storyteller

Thomas Craig USN USS Franklin - Mt. Olive Cem
Thomas Craig Headstone – Mt. Olive Cemetery

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.