I finally had a chance to swing by and see the historical marker for Oak Lawn Cemetery. I first pitched the idea to the other members of the Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Foundation late last year, and once approved by the existing members (3), quickly got to work on writing the text for the marker. With the assistance of the representative from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR), a working text was hammered out over the early months of this year. It’s wonderful to see this project come to fruition, with the added bonus of the marker being located just across the way from Suffolk’s City Hall (read: lots of traffic!)
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.
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