In 1937, Ms. Mary Jane Wilson, “Pioneer Negro Teacher of Portsmouth, Virginia,” reflects on her life…Continue reading
When Nadia Orton’s kidneys were failing, she sent letters to friends and relatives in the hopes that someone could be a donor or help defray the cost. Orton’s great-aunt Philgrador responded with money from her church. So a few years later, when Aunt Phil asked on her deathbed that her family not be forgotten, Orton knew she had to find a way to honor her ancestors. The problem was that she didn’t know who they were, or where to find them.
As she started tracing her lineage and locating her ancestors’ final resting places in North Carolina and Virginia, Orton began to notice the state of black cemeteries. Many were overgrown, unprotected and unmapped. Seeing the condition of these sacred spaces sparked a passion for protecting them.
Orton has since visited hundreds of cemeteries, and helps other families identify their ancestors’ plots. Host Frank Stasio talks with Nadia Orton, a public historian and professional genealogist, about how she uncovers the past and how it feels to find who came before you
Photos: Nadia K. Orton, 2010-2019. All rights reserved
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.