Assisting grassroots efforts to preserve a historical, African American institution of Suffolk, Virginia
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…
Funerary iconography can be defined as the identification of symbols and motifs and the interpretation of their cultural meaning. Over the last eleven years, I’ve been fortunate to visit hundreds of cemeteries in multiple states, and have been able to spot very unique headstones containing intricate icons and symbols. Sometimes, the headstones are handmade, such as the gravestone of Matilda Ella Hale Nakano, of Portsmouth, Virginia, constructed and designed by her husband, a Japanese national.
Matilda Ella’s ancestral roots were tied to Bertie and Hertford counties, North Carolina. The kanji at the base of Matilda Ella’s gravestone indicates that her husband, Hosuke, made the gravestone himself. The top of the gravestone contains images of ivy, denoting eternal life and/or affection, and the “crown and cross,” representing redemption through faith, or the Kingdom of Heaven.
In other cases, the families would order a stone from the U. S. Government or monument company, and request personal touches at an additional cost, like the gravestone of Pvt. Thomas Fisher, of the 36th U. S. Colored Infantry, in New Bern, North Carolina, whose military-issue headstone contains a masonic emblem of the square and compass, by his wife, Lucy Fisher.
In Richmond, I’m in my sixth year of researching interments of Evergreen Cemetery, and have documented 7,245 to date, most covering the period where there are no official interment records (pre-1926). However, my physical and health limitations have hindered my ability to visit as often as I would like. Still, I’ve managed to snag enough photos to provide a small peek into this amazing site, and plan more photo sessions in the near future.
Between May 18-19, 2012, I attended a cemetery seminar in Eastville, Virginia, conducted by representatives from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Part of that seminar involved a discussion of funerary iconography. Here, I share some of that valuable insight, with examples of some of the gravestones that bear those symbols in Evergreen Cemetery.