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.
Orton was diagnosed at fourteen, after her swollen fingers made it hard for her to play her piccolo in her high-school band. The disease concentrated in her kidneys, which she lost right after she graduated from Duke with a double-major in political science and African & African American Studies, and a certificate in markets and management. She relied on dialysis, existing, she says, but not fully living. She needed a kidney, but the cost was beyond exorbitant, so her transplant team told her to send a letter to everyone she knew, asking for help. One of those letters went to her great-aunt Philgrador Rachel Orton Duke, who didn’t respond. A lot of people didn’t, perhaps fearing that she was asking them to donate a kidney. The letter was hard to read, hard to process. The silence in response was its own kind of painful.
Then one day she pulled a thick envelope from her mailbox.
“Dear Grandniece,” she recalls reading, “this is your grand aunt. I know you barely remember me from our family reunion, but I got your letter and I went to my church and they know me….” Checks for a dollar, for fifty dollars, fell to the floor, the names on them all strangers to Orton. She wipes her eyes as she tells the story, some fourteen years later. “I’ve got to get a new perspective,” she thought at the time. “It’s hard but if all of these people are pulling for me, I have to dig deep, go back to my little well I’ve gone to before and power through.”
Years later, when great-aunt Philgrador lay dying, she asked that her people not be forgotten, and the opportunity to in some way repay her aunt launched Orton on her quest to find her ancestors and document their lives. In the years since, she has visited 400 cemeteries, tracing her father’s side back to 1630 in the Tidewater region of Virginia. His lineage was half freeborn, the offspring of a white indentured servant named Mary Elliott. Orton found them by riffling through dusty property tax records, court documents, and later, “free negro” registers and certificates. In her files is a letter written in formal script in 1794 by a white landowner declaring her paternal great-greatgreat- great-great-great-great-grandmother to be free.
She’s still researching the other half of her paternal gene pool, the ones brought to the Colonies in shackles, by digging into plantation records and ship manifests, and sometimes owners’ personal letters, where her family members might be mentioned as a favorite house slave or a mammy who may have been buried off to the edge of a family’s plot.
Orton’s mother’s people were also enslaved. She has traced them back to 1770, and one day she was able to take her mother to see her family’s graves in a slave cemetery on private property in Warren County, in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Before they went, Orton talked on the phone with the cattleman who owned the land, asking if they could visit. He gave a warm, Southern yes. When they arrived, though, he froze.
“I said, ‘Mom, I think he’s Klan,’ ” Orton says. “ ‘He didn’t know we were black.’ ” Her mother replied, “He does now.”
The man was curt, but he loaned them a four-wheeler and directed them through a field, not mentioning the bulls penned there. It was frightening, but Orton was able to show her mother her ancestors’ burial site, their femurs scattered by foraging animals, and the headstone of Orton’s second great-grandmother, Cherry Sutton.
At each cemetery Orton has found the same things—broken gravestones, overgrowth, dead trees. She pauses in her story as a train rumbles by.
“Black cemeteries are usually tucked away like they were nonessential parts of history, and sometimes I could only tell that they were still here because they were so large,” she says. “If they were small, developers would get away with moving the headstones and nobody would know it had been here.”
“Black cemeteries are sacred sites of the black community,” says Brent Leggs, a program assistant at the National Trust for Historic Preservation who focuses on important landmarks in African-American history. “They’re where our ancestors were laid to rest with the dignity and respect they often had not had during their lifetime. The majority are simple and unadorned at first glance, but pull back the layers, and there’s a rich story of black history. They’re often threatened by development, so it’s exciting when a community pulls together and comes up with the resources to preserve these sacred spaces.”
Here at Oak Lawn a cell-phone tower looms on the edge of the land, next to a municipal building with an asphalt parking lot and an abandoned ball field, kept mowed even though kids no longer play there. This graveyard is the final resting place of Civil War veterans, business leaders, dentists and doctors, and the pastors who guided the flock of the surrounding community. Yet there is no sign announcing its existence. Until 2011, it was hard to even see the graves, hidden as they were by weeds and vines, scraggly trees, and people’s discarded bed mattresses and beer cans.
That was when George Richardson, a deacon of the Mahan Street First Baptist Church and a supervisor for the Suffolk Housing Authority, looked out his office window at the remaining tombstones and decided that something had to be done. So he founded the Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Foundation. Together he and other members of the community whacked down weeds and hauled out trash. They got the power company to cut down dead limbs, and local jail inmates to pick trash off the banks of the railroad.
“There’s soldiers that’s out there who died for us,” says Reginald Dirtion, a member of the foundation. “I think we owe them that much, if we can’t do anything else.”
Still, this is no city-maintained white cemetery. The man who mows it is a volunteer, possibly paid a small stipend by one of the churches. The town long ago lost track of the owner, and there’s no perpetual-care fund. People fresh out of slavery didn’t have hundreds of dollars to pay for a plot, and because of Jim Crow laws that lingered into the mid-’70s, they were kept segregated even in death. There were few records, and double burials weren’t uncommon, not out of disrespect but because after a pine casket deteriorated, grave diggers often found nothing to show that a plot had been occupied.
“A lot of people cluck their tongues at that, but it’s more about what they were up against versus what they chose to do,” Orton says. “If they didn’t have a lot of spaces or a lot of money, they would work a deal to do it cheaply, maybe in the middle of the night, because it was the only choice they had.”
This cemetery’s fate is common among black gravesites, perched as they almost always are next to train tracks, on land others don’t want. The property for Oak Lawn, next to an existing white cemetery, was purchased by African-American community leaders, the effort led by a freed slave. The white congregation buried nearby insisted on a fence dividing the two, but soon even that wasn’t enough, and the majority of the white graves were moved, taking their marble saints and seraphim and leaving behind Sears-catalogue concrete crosses and the calcified remains of memorials made of wood. The site is listed as five acres, but tiers down to the creek stretch it to about eleven, those graves rarely accessible because the overgrowth is a perfect habitat for copperheads and cottonmouths.
The place is still historic, in spite of its lack of architectural flourish.
“You’re not going to have a lot of angels and pretty headstones,” Orton says, “but you have all this history here, and considering what these individuals went through or what their ancestors did, you don’t need statuary to make it historic. It’s the people who make it historic.”
By the time Orton found her own kin, her curiosity had been well stoked, and she continued to spend her days in libraries and archives deep in courthouse basements. There are people who help preserve cemeteries by pulling weeds and scrubbing graves, but Orton’s research training at Duke and her physical limitations have primed her for the dusty book work. During college she built her schedule to accommodate her limited energy, grouping her classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays so that she could rest up the rest of the week. She learned time management and to persist in the face of frustration. The lupus and the related medications led to depression, which forced her to take a year off. But that detour also taught her to pivot when she hits an obstacle and take on something else.
“Learning how to manage Duke University while sick helped prepare me for everything else,” she says. “I learned how not to give up, and that helps a lot out here, because you just have to stick to it.”
She’s been doing this for eleven years and, in that time, she’s seen two Rosenwald schools—the ones built throughout the South to educate African-American children—and three historic black lodges torn down. “How many other things are disappearing right now that I don’t know about?” she says. “I can stay mad and rail, or I can pull up my sleeves and see what I can do to save some of this history.”
Orton has identified veterans’ graves and replaced their headstones. As a member of the online community Find A Grave, she has contributed more than 10,000 memorials, internments, and photographs to a site that helps others find their ancestors. She’s working now to get the 140-year-old Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex in Portsmouth, Virginia, recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. She shares stories about her discoveries on her blog, Sacred Ground, Sacred History, and gets e-mails from strangers saying, “Thank you for finding my great-grandfather!”
On one level the research is thrilling, because she’s unearthing people’s stories. On another, it is infuriating.
“Why is there so much to be discovered? Why isn’t this already out there?” she says. “I shouldn’t be able to study for ten minutes and find another Civil War hero that no one knows about.”
She waits for another train to pass, then rattles off details of a soldier whose grave had been buried beneath six inches of decomposing tree leaves. Visit after visit she had passed it, which makes her wonder how many more are out here, given that 70 percent of tombstones in historically black cemeteries are missing or hidden by overgrowth. For a time, people here were buried in concrete vaults, their domed roofs flush with the soil, their name and date of birth and death engraved on the top, a solution more sturdy than wooden coffins and cheaper than buying both a vault and a headstone. One here has a stuffed bear in a jar affixed to the top, along with a yard ornament angel and a handful of silk flowers. Four others sport fresh silver paint, their tops swept clean of the ubiquitous pine needles. A series of nearly a dozen are crammed, shoulder-to-shoulder, clearly relocated and shoehorned together, although Orton looks back at the municipal center’s parking lot and wonders how many remains are still under there.
For generations community members and congregations paraded to such cemeteries for Decoration Day, spending the day cleaning and placing flowers on their ancestors’ gravesites, picnicking and singing and chanting prayers. But families moved away, elders died off, the records that kept track of who was buried where were destroyed.
Orton re-creates them using church lists of congregants who have passed on, but they’re often as vague as “buried at Owen’s Farm” or “Wilson’s Cemetery” or “Mann’s Place”—none of which exists on current maps. There were official records at some point, but when the elders died, the younger generations tossed them out, not understanding their importance. Churches were burned in the ’50s by the Klan, and again in the ’60s and since. The same was true of black-owned funeral homes. So Orton searches old newspapers and church newsletters, property-tax and court records, deeds of trust and obituaries stored in court houses and historical societies. Occasionally she finds something that makes her heart race, like the letter she found in 2015 in the National Archives in Washington from her great-great-great-grandfather to his older brother. But such finds are rare.
“If you try to restore a black cemetery, you might know who is buried there but you don’t know where,” she says. “You can get a death list by going through death registers, obituaries, Bible records, maybe mentions in newspaper articles…. You have to look at every scrap of paper you can possibly find, and even then, you can never get to 100 percent sure.”
At Mount Calvary in Portsmouth, where seventy-seven U.S. Colored Troops are interred, she came across the gravestone of a Private Savage, the letters of his first name shallow and hard to read. She took photos from different angles and in varied lighting. She wet the stone; it didn’t help. So she pulled on her gloves and traced the letters of his first name, finding an A, an L, an F. She cross-referenced that with Civil War records and learned that the headstone belonged to Alfred Savage of Company D, Second U.S. Colored Calvary. She then found his name in the 1877 Portsmouth City Directory, an asterisk next to it clarifying that he was “colored.”
As a veteran he should have had a government-issued headstone, so she sought out permission from the family to order a replacement. She first contacted a family member in Cincinnati, who directed her to another family member in Georgia who was interested in genealogy, who directed her to an uncle who lived just ten minutes from the cemetery. On that descendant’s eighty-ninth birthday, Orton was able to take him and his nephew to see their veteran forefather’s grave.
“Here are two guys talking about their family history at their ancestor’s gravesite,” she says, smiling at the memory, “and I helped make it happen.”
Orton has considered having her own remains interred in an ancestral family cemetery. The laws in Virginia allow a developer to move a cemetery if it hasn’t been active in a quarter century, and the arrival of Orton’s remains would reset that clock. In general, though, she doesn’t think about death. She’s focused instead on rediscovering history.
“When I come out here, I see families,” she says. “I see disappointment, triumph, tenacity, history. I’m too excited about that to find these spaces sad or creepy. One day I’m going to be in the ground, too, but until then I just think there’s so much to be done, and I’m happy to do even a little bit of it.”
Another train passes as she peels off her gloves and loosens the laces on her boots. She pops open the back of her van and sets them inside, then takes one last look at the asphalt beneath her feet. Next week or maybe the week after she’ll be back, with other members of the Oak Lawn Cemetery Foundation, trying again to save a piece of history.