Recovering and Preserving African American Cemeteries – Preservation Leadership Forum, National Trust for Historic Preservation

June 1, 2016

Pine Forest Cemetery, Wilmington, North Carolina

The reverence attached to cemeteries and burial grounds, which have long been considered sacred sites, is an example of enduring Africanisms and cultural tradition in the African American community. Burial grounds have always been regarded as places where ancestors could be properly honored and provided with the dignity, care, and respect in death that had often been denied them in life.

Interest in the study of my family tree has led me to over a dozen cemeteries throughout Tidewater Virginia and North Carolina, and helped reconstruct a family legacy spanning over 400 years. Cemeteries offer an important, tangible connection to history allowing closer interpretation of days past than most other sources can. Genealogists and family historians have long recognized the benefit of cemeteries in the study of family history and an increasing popular interest in genealogy has led to an increased focus on them.  READ MORE

Evergreen Cemetery: The Shelton Family

The Q. T. Shelton, Sr. Family plot, Evergreen Cemetery. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, December 18, 2018. All rights reserved.

Researching the family of Q. T. Shelton, Sr., Evergreen Cemetery. Mr. Shelton, whose gravestone is on the right, is the 11,000th interment in my Evergreen Cemetery database. His family story will be featured in my upcoming book on the cemetery.

Richmond, Virginia: Evergreen Cemetery, funerary iconography

December 18, 2018. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, all rights reserved.

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 Hale Nakano - Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Portsmouth Va.
Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, June 21, 2012, Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, all rights reserved.

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.

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Evergreen Cemetery: News, 1970

Evergreen Cemetery, Vandalism 1970

When a historic African-American cemetery goes untended…

Police in Richmond are looking for a group of necrophilic vandals who have made a pastime of breaking into a cemetery crypt here and disturbing a mummified corpse within.

The latest break-in occurred Tuesday night at the Braxton family vault in Evergreen Cemetery on the Richmond-Henrico County line, where dense undergrowth has virtually reclaimed the century-old burying ground.

An iron gate across the entrance to the tomb was broken as was a cinderblock wall of a crypt holding the body of a satin-clothed Negro woman who died in 1927 at the age of 82.

Cemetery officials said fresh beer cans were found nearby along with film tabs from a Polaroid camera, but the body itself had not been disturbed.

Monday after a similar break-in, the body had been partially pulled from a rotted veneer box filled with straw, in which it had been interred.

O. B. Rust, vice president and general manager of the cemetery corporation, said the mausoleum break-ins are “a recurring springtime deal.”

He said chains holding the gate have been broken and bolts sawed through, but the one woman’s body — one of six in the crypt — is the only one ever disturbed.

Police theorize the intruders are teenagers who venture into the Evergreen Cemetery because its remote location and heavy undergrowth provide protection from the area’s infrequent police patrols.

Rust said one night cemetery officials and police investigating a tip found 85 cars in the cemetery, their occupants taking part in an initiation ceremony.

But the intrusions are more than pranks; expensive monuments have been toppled, statues beheaded and — in one engineering feat — a six-foot wide barrier ditch bridged with a span of broken tombstone to allow auto entrance to the cemetery grounds.

Rust says the vandals are taking plenty of chances. The State Code specifies grave violation is punishable by from one to 10 years in prison.

And even greater danger may lie in the old cemeteries dense underbrush. There, says Rust, live swarms of copperheads, rattlesnakes and water moccasins “as big around as your arm.”

The Danville Bee, July 9, 1970

East End Cemetery: News, January 24, 1903

East End Memorial Burial Association, 1903

The East End Memorial Burial Association of Richmond informs the public that having purchases six (6) acres of land, situated in Henrico County, near the city of Richmond, adjoining Oakwood cemetery and that they are disposing of the same, in sections, half sections and at the following terms;

Sections, $25.00 and Half Sections, $15.00

The situation of this Cemetery is high, dry and rolling and accessible to the Richmond Traction Street Railway and Seven Pines Railway lines, adjoining Oakwood cemetery.

This Association has at a considerable expense divided this tract of land into sections, erected a fence around the boundaries, which with the additional improvements contemplated, will be an inducement to those desiring or contemplating purchasing resting places for their deceased relatives and friends. The attention of the general public is solicited and advantageous inducements offered.

J. R. Griffin, President, No. 2412 E. Broad street, E. A. Washington, Secretary. Old Phone, 1983.

For information, apply ___ Coleman, Keeper, No. 2920 ____, William Custalo, 702 East Broad St., ____, Jones, 1037 St. Peter street, ____ Lewis, 806 Buchanan street; Samuel Meredith; 1223 North 26th street; Joseph Robinson, No. 49 1st Market or 2811 9-mile Road; D. J. Chavers, Supt., 1827 Carrington street.” — The Richmond Planet, January 24, 1903

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

The obituary of Marietta Lillian Chiles (ca. 1862-1921), Woodland Cemetery

Ms. Marietta Lillian Childs (ca. 1862-1921). The Richmond Planet (n.d.)

Miss Marietta L. Chiles is dead. She passed away during the early morning hours of Saturday, April 16, 2:20 o’clock after a long and painful illness. She was one of the most influential women in the State. She was a veteran in the profession of teaching and she had a host of friends throughout the country. Every effort was made to prolong her life and the physicians held out hopes of her recovery up to the last moment. She was a teacher in Baker School, Grand Worthy Register of Deeds of the Grand Court of Virginia, Order of Calanthe, member of the Executive Board of the Pythian Calanthe Industrial Association and a most influential member of many other organizations.
 
A Remarkable Character
 
She was a tireless worker in her particular field of endeavor. Her funeral took place Tuesday, April 19th from the First Baptist Church. The rostrum was one mass of expensive floral offerings. Representatives of the Grand Court from all over the State were present and floral offerings came in by mail and express. The long list of testimonials were read. Grand Worthy Counsellor John Mitchell, Jr., directed that all charters  of the subordinate courts be draped for a period of one year and the same be done with the charter of the Grand Court.
 
Many Divines There
 
Rev. W. T. Johnson, D. D., pastor of the First Baptist Church had charge of the funeral services. On the rostrum with him were: Rev. A. A. Hector, Rev. T. J. King, D. D., President of the Va. Baptist State Convention, Rev. R. J. Bass, Rev. A. D. Daly, Rev. D. N. Vassar, D. D.; Rev. R. O. Johnson, D. D., lined the hymn, “Lead, Kindly Light.” The Scriptures were read by Rev. A. A. Hector. Prayer was offered by Rev. A. D. Daly. Madame Carrie Hawkins sang with charming melody, “Looking this Way.”
 
Rev. Dr. Johnson Officiated
 
Rev. W. T. Johnson, D. D., then took his text from 11 Corinthians, 5th Chapter; 1st verse. He paid a most touching tribute to the deceased and paid a glowing tribute to her and her many virtues. He commented upon the great loss this community had sustained and consoled with the thought that she was only sleeping and that we all would meet hereafter. A large number served as honorary pallbearers and even they were overladened with the floral offerings. Mr. Robert Coles sang with rich emphasis, “Sometime we’ll Understand.” Then the mournful cortege filed out to Woodland Cemetery, where the remains of Miss M. L. Chiles were interred in the “heart” of the cemetery, the Circle. This was the first interment in this particular part of the Cemetery.
 
At Woodland Cemetery
 
The various organizations then conducted their funeral rites. Those who came to attend the funeral exercises were the following:
Her brothers, Lawyer J. Alex Chiles of Lexington, Ky., and C. R. Chiles of Washington, D. C. Her sister, Mrs. Julia Jeter of Newport News, Va., and her children; Mrs. Lula Jeter Sears and daughter, Gladys, Messrs. Jas. and Julian Jeter. Her nephew, Mr. Robt. F. Brooks and family of Phoebus, Va. Mrs. Frank Banks of Hampton, Va., and Mrs. Chas. H. Gibson of Tuskegee Institute, Ala., who had been at her bedside since March 3rd.
 
List of Representatives
 

Mrs. Rowena White G. Ins., Lynchburg, Va.; Mrs. Lizzie B. Greene, G. W. O., Newport News, Va.; Mrs. P. M. D. Hodge, G. W. P., Danville, Va. Mrs. Florence L. Wilson, G. W. L., Danville, Va.; Mrs. Mollie G. Adams, G. W. Orator, Portsmouth, Va.; Mrs. Lizzie Archer, G. W. A. Con., Norfolk, Va.; Mrs. Fannie Coleman, D. D., So. Boston, Va., Miss Lucy Lockett, D. D. N., Danville, Va.; Mrs. Lucy Peters, D. D., Petersburg, Va.; Mrs. Cornelia Drew, D. D., Portsmouth, Va.; Mrs. Lillie D. Byrd, D. D., Newport News, Va.; Mrs. N. B. Callaham, Hot Springs, Va.; Mrs. Ada U. Gary, D. D. Franklin, Va.; Mrs. Mary N. Gay, Advis. B., Norfolk, Va.; Mrs. E. B. Brown, Advis. B., Covington, Va.; Mrs. Anna Seay, Evening Star No. 77, Blackstone, Va.; Mrs. Rosa Davis, West Point, Va.; Mrs. Lucy D. Robinson, West Point, Va.; Sir C. H. Clarke, West Point, Va.; Mrs. Fannie Ashe, Portsmouth, Va.; Mrs. Rachel Webb, Advis. B., Portsmouth, Va.; Mrs. Nannie Brown, Petersburg, Va.; Mrs. Adelaide Wilson, Petersburg, Va.; Mrs. Elizabeth Brown; Petersburg, Va.; Mrs. Elizabeth Wynne, Petersburg, Va.; Sir T. J. Pree, Newport News, Va.; and Sir J. E. Byrd, Newport News, Va.
 
Resolutions of Condolence
 
I deem not they are blest alone
Whose life a peaceful tenor keep;
The Power who pities man has
                known
A blessing for the eyes that weep.
 
For God hath marked each sorrowing day,
And numbered every secret tear,
And heaven’s long age of bliss shall pay
For all His children suffer here.
 
The grim reaper, death, has entered the ranks of The Baker Group for the third time this year and borne away from us three teachers, who were held in high esteem. The last visit in removing Miss Marietta L. Chiles was sudden and unexpected. This caused an aching void which an outsider cannot realize.
 
Miss Marietta L. Chiles has had under her instruction hundreds—yea, thousands of children from our community who today are voicing praise of her sincere interest in their progress and general welfare.
 
There was no cause of uplift work for young and old that she failed to prove her hearty and honest co-operation. While we deeply mourn our irreparable loss, we dare not murmur—for our Heavenly Father knows what is best for us—hence we humbly bow to His will, Miss Marietta L. Chiles gave efficient service to her people in the City, State and County and thereby gave honest service To God, and Baker School, and the Community has lost one of the most brilliant co-workers.
 
Resolved: That we tender to the family our genuine sympathy for their loss, and commend that to that Friend of mankind – who sticketh closer than a brother,–and never will leave us, nor forsake us in time of distress.
 
Resolved: That we teachers of Baker School, embrace her virtues, and not a mark high in striving to do the best thing possible for the good of all. “She hath done what she could.”
 
Resolve: That a copy of these expressions be sent to her family, and a copy be sent to the family, and a copy sent to our weekly papers.
Baker School Faculty

Richmond Planet, April 19, 1921
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Finding an African American Civil War Veteran – Evergreen Cemetery

Enlistment record of Pvt. William H. Payne, 117th U. S. Colored Infantry. Source: Fold3

We’ve verified another African American Civil War veteran in Evergreen Cemetery, Pvt. William H. Payne of Company D, 117th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry. Born in Richmond, Virginia, William enlisted at the age of 22 on April 8, 1865, five days after the city fell to Union forces. He mustered out on August 10, 1867, at Brownsville, Texas. William passed away on November 18, 1911, and was interred in Evergreen Cemetery on November 20, 1911. I’ll know a bit more about him once I finish reviewing his pension file.

The obituary of Elisha Mayo, Evergreen and East End Cemeteries

**Elisha Mayo originally researched and documented in the East End Cemetery database on Find-a-Grave, July 31, 2015**

Elisha Mayo (1837-1915)

In Memoriam – Mayo – The record of a faithful life, though it may have no place in written history, will always be enshrined in hearts its faithfulness has touched and so, moved to the expression of a single tribute to such an one, we pronounce at the bier of an old and honored servant this encomium to his fidelity, from which, along the humble path he trod so many years he never wavered. ELISHA MAYO, or “Uncle Elisha,” was born April 10, 1837, and died at his home in this city June 4, 1915. His parents, Samuel and Fannie Mayo, were slaves, and were wedding gifts to Mr. and Mrs. E. A. Blanton, Sr., of Amelia County, Va., parents of Mr. T. L. Blanton, of this city, in whose employ “Uncle Elisha” was for many years, and up to the time of his death, and who joins in this memorial to his valued and trusted servant. Elisha was twice married, and left surviving him seven children, namely Walter L. Mayo, Ella Mayo Price, Mary Mayo Rogers, Bettie Mayo Kemp, Edmonia Mayo Brown, Grandison Mayo and Frank J. Mayo. Of many of those to whom he ministered in the days now long gone, and who have passed into the beyond, it may doubtless be said that in his latter days, when his head was “bending low,” he “heard their gentle voices calling him, as in the days “before the war.” And so, full of years, he has passed peacefully from an humble, though well-spent earthly, life to that reward that knows neither race nor class nor creed. X X X.


Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 21, 1915; Richmond Planet, June 26, 1915
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