Portsmouth, Virginia: Update on one of Portsmouth’s “Harlem Hellfighters”

Gravestone of Pvt. Ollie Lee Snow. Cypress Hills National Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York. Photo courtesy Find-a-Grave user Leslie W.

We’re pleased to report that we now have a photo of Pvt. Ollie Lee Snow’s headstone. It was taken by Find-a-Grave volunteer Leslie Wickham, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.), and she graciously allowed me to use it.

Pvt. Ollie Lee Snow, a Portsmouth, Virginia native, served during World War I. He was a member of the 369th Infantry, 93rd Division, the famed “Harlem Hellfighters.” He was featured in an earlier blog from last year, “In Their Own Words: Voices of African American WWI Veterans,” in recognition of Veterans Day. At the time, Pvt. Snow wasn’t listed in the Find-a-Grave database for Cypress Hills National, so I added the listing, and sent a photo request. Leslie fulfilled the request just a few weeks later. Thanks so much, Leslie!

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Portsmouth, Virginia: New Civil War headstones approved

Two more replacement headstones for Civil War veterans have been approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs. They will be installed as time and weather permits. They are:

Cpl. John Cross, 10th United States Colored Infantry

Cpl Cross Mt. Olive Portsmouth Copyright 2011 Nadia Orton
Gravestone of Cpl. John Cross, Co. F, 10th U. S. Colored Infantry. Mount Olive Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex). Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 11, 2011.

Cpl. John Cross, of the 10th United States Colored Infantry, was born enslaved about 1833 in Gates County, North Carolina, owned by the Langston Family. He escaped in 1863, and enlisted on the fourth of December of that year at Craney Island, Virginia. He mustered in at Fort Monroe, Virginia, on December 17, 1863. He was appointed Corporal on August 1, 1865, and was discharged from service on May 7, 1866, at Galveston, Texas.

John Cross was married to Eliza Robbins, a free person of color also from Gates County, North Carolina, shortly after the war. The ceremony was performed by Rev. William Brock Wellons of the Suffolk Christian Church. Cpl. John Cross passed away on May 29, 1894, and was interred in Mount Olive Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex). His wife, Eliza Robbins Cross, passed on July 2, 1913. She was also interred in Mount Olive Cemetery, presumably near her husband. Her gravestone has not been located.


Sgt. Ashley H. Lewis, 1st United States Colored Cavalry

Sgt. Ashley Lewis Mt. Calvary Portsmouth Copyright 2015 Nadia Orton
Gravestone of Sgt. Ashley H. Lewis, Co. B, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry. Mount Calvary Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex). Photo: Nadia K. Orton, May 23, 2015

Sgt. Ashley H. Lewis, of the 1st United States Colored Cavalry, was born enslaved in 1842 near Tarboro, Edgecombe County, North Carolina, on the Foxhall Estate. He enlisted on December 3, 1863, at Newport News, Virginia, and mustered in at Camp Hamilton on December 22, 1863. He was promoted to Corporal on April 25, 1864, and promoted to Sergeant on November 26, 1865. He was discharged from service on February 4, 1866, at Brazos Santiago, Texas.

Lewis Family Mt. Calvary Portsmouth Copyright 2015 Nadia Orton
The Lewis Family Plot, Mount Calvary Cemetery, Portsmouth. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, January 22, 2015.

After the war, Sgt. Lewis returned to Tidewater, Virginia, and married Josephine Baker, a free person of color from Smithfield, Virginia, on August 21, 1867, Portsmouth. The ceremony was performed by Rev. John W. Godwin, the first pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church (est. 1865), Portsmouth.

Sgt. Ashley H. Lewis was also an ordained minister, serving as pastor for First Baptist Church Mahan (est. 1866), Suffolk, Virginia, from 1880-1883, and the second pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church (following Rev. John W. Godwin), from 1885 to 1890, the year of his death.  According to information culled from his death certificate and an article from the Baltimore Sun, Rev. Lewis died from complications of apoplexy, or, a cerebral hemorrhage, on the morning of November 29, 1890. His wife Josephine, whose name also appears on the family monument, preceded him in death, passing on August 6, 1890. ♠

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. ♥