Alumna takes care of sacred spaces – Duke Magazine

Thanks, Janine!

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

Suffolk, Virginia: Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Open House

We had a great day on Saturday, February 9, 2019, at the Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Open House! Thanks to all who braved the cold to honor this sacred ground, including: the members of the Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Foundation – President Reginald H. Dirtion, Vice-President Rev. Oulaniece Saunders, Treasurer Wilbur Holland, Jr., Historian/Secretary Nadia K. Orton; Delegate C. E. Cliff Hayes, Jr., chief sponsor, HB 2311; Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett (Suffolk); Suffolk Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 5; Frances McNair; Lt. Col./Chaplain William Burrell (USAF), President, Tidewater Chapter, Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.; Tuskegee Airman Dr. Harry Quinton; Mike Lane, Lane Environmental Consultants; Rev. Baker; the Orton Family. Also, huge thanks to M/M Hinton of Eye Catch Photos!

(Photos: courtesy R. Hinton, Eye Catch Photos, and Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Foundation. All rights reserved)

Members of the Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Foundation with Frances McNair (left), and Delegate C. E. Cliff Hayes, Jr. (Dist. 77, center); Dennis Orton, and Suffolk Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 5
The HIstoric Oak Lawn Foundation with Lt. Col./ Chaplain Dr. Bill Burrell (USAF), President, Tidewater Chapter, Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. (left), and Dr. Harry Quinton, Tuskegee Airman (right), at the gravesite of 1st Lt. William H. Walker (1919-1943), Tuskegee Airman
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In Their Own Words: Voices of African American WWI Veterans

On Sunday, November 11, 2018, the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, the technical end of World War I, was observed by our nation and many countries throughout the world. As with other major historical events, I viewed the day through the lens of a historian and genealogist. It can be quite an interesting enterprise; as a historian, you want to know all of the facts of an event, and as a genealogist, you’re eager to place your ancestors within the context of those events. 

Over the years, our family has located the grave sites of many of our ancestors that served in World War I. We’ve tracked them to historic African American cemeteries in Portsmouth, Richmond and Suffolk in Virginia, Buncombe, Franklin, Henderson, Hertford, and Warren counties in North Carolina, and Knoxville National Cemetery in Tennessee.

At times, whether simply visiting their gravesites, or planting flags, I’d find myself staring down at the stones, and wondering what their WWI experience was like. Sure, I could review the details of the various battles and engagements in books, or read first-person accounts from some of the more famous veterans, but those sources wouldn’t tell me what my ancestors thought, nor how they felt about the war.

That’s why I was so excited to learn about the WWI History Commission questionnaires, many of which have been or are currently being digitized by local and state libraries. A historical window into the minds and memories of long-deceased ancestors? Perfect!

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Portsmouth, Virginia: Brothers in the fight for freedom, rediscovered

Calvin White 1st USCC MCCC Portsmouth VA
Enlistment record of Pvt. Calvin White, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry

Another long lost veteran has been rediscovered in Mount Olive Cemetery, part of the historic Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex, in Portsmouth, Virginia. His name was Calvin White, and he was a member of Company H, 1st Regiment, United States Colored Cavalry.

Calvin was born enslaved about 1833, in Gates County, North Carolina. His owner was Sarah F. Hinton (1832-1854), but Calvin’s surname came from his second owner, Watson Timothy White (1824-1919), whom Sarah F. Hinton married on May 28, 1850, Perquimans County, North Carolina. Both of Calvin’s parents were also born into slavery, his mother, Aggy, owned by the Hinton Family, and his father, Isaac Parker, “owned by a man named Parker,” according to Calvin’s later recollection. Both Calvin and his mother Aggy were moved to an area near Edenton, North Carolina, after Sarah F. Hinton’s marriage to Watson Timothy White in 1850.

At the age of thirty, Calvin “left his master,” and traveled up to Norfolk, Virginia, where he enlisted on December 12, 1863, with the 1st Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry. Calvin didn’t make the journey alone. His younger brother, Jerry, left with him, and also enlisted with the 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry. Calvin and Jerry were both assigned to Company H.

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