I’ve written the text for two highway historical markers for African American cemeteries in Virginia: the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (est. 1879), Portsmouth, in 2016, and Oak Lawn Cemetery (est. 1885), Suffolk, in 2019. However, I never knew how they were made. Thanks to a wonderful story about the manufacturer, Sewah Studios (Marietta, Ohio), I know the answer. The historical marker for Oak Lawn Cemetery is shown briefly in this great video courtesy of WTAP News, Parkersburg, West Virginia.
(Virginia Department of Historic Resources News)
“The story of Oak Lawn Cemetery will be relayed in Suffolk. Established by African Americans in 1885, the cemetery now contains the graves of numerous prominent business, religious, educational, and political leaders in Nansemond County (present-day Suffolk), as well as Civil War-era United States Colored Troops, and veterans of other U.S. wars.
Full Text of Marker: (Oak Lawn Cemetery)
(Please note that some texts may be slightly modified before the manufacture and installation of the signs. Also locations proposed for each sign must be approved in consultation with VDOT or public works in jurisdictions outside VDOT authority.)
“Seven African American trustees acquired land here in 1885 and established Oak Lawn Cemetery. Community leaders interred here include John W. Richardson, president of the Phoenix Bank of Nansemond; Wiley H. Crocker, founder of the Tidewater Fair Association and Nansemond Development Corporation; William W. Gaines, Baptist minister and founder of the Nansemond Collegiate Institute; Fletcher Mae Howell, Baptist missionary; Dr. William T. Fuller, physician and banker; and William H. Walker, Tuskegee Airman. Also buried here are late-19th-century local politicians, United States Colored Troops, and veterans of World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam.
Sponsor: Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Foundation
Proposed Location: 449 Market Street
Sponsor Contact: Nadia K. Orton, firstname.lastname@example.org.” – Continue reading…
Nadia Orton ’98 made a pledge to document her family lineage. It’s turned into a mission to preserve disappearing and discarded history
Nadia Orton ’98 steps carefully around concrete vaults and sunken spots where pine caskets have collapsed inside century- old graves, her knee-high camo boots laced tight.
“I’ve had snakes and stray dogs come out of holes like that,” Orton says, nodding at a grave split in two by a fallen tree branch. Her family insists on the snake boots, a walking stick, a companion.
They tell her, “We know you love history, but you’re not supposed to be part of it yet.”
So the boots are always in the car. So are the thin purple gardening gloves she pulls on to protect her hands from her own impatience to sweep aside pine needles and poison ivy and run a finger over the engravings there, thinned by weather and time.
It is cool out, but still Orton has had to stay home and rest up for five days in order to muster the energy for this tour of Oak Lawn, an unmarked black cemetery in Suffolk, Virginia. The lupus that dogged her at Duke is dragging on her still, after kidney failure and dialysis, and finally a transplant, but it was also her lupus that led her on this quest to preserve black and African-American gravesites. Continue reading…