Thomas Craig. So reads the name on the faded and sunken headstone of military issue in Mount Olive Cemetery, one of the oldest African-American cemeteries in Portsmouth, Virginia. Part of the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (Fisher’s Hill) (est. 1879), I first noticed Thomas Craig’s gravestone in Mt. Olive on a humid July 4th holiday weekend in 2007, searching for ancestral grave sites with my family. Not being aware of any known map, we walked the entire cemetery, and in doing so, passed the Craig gravestone several times. At the time, my focus was on finding any and all headstones with the name “Orton.” My paternal ancestry stretches back to 1690 in the Tidewater area of Virginia. My grand-aunt, Philgrador Rachel Orton Duke, was concerned about the lasting legacy of our family line. Born in 1923 in a home on Griffin Street, she was a life-time Portsmouth resident. Before her passing in March of 2007, she called my father and other relatives to her bedside in Maryview Hospital, with the admonition “do not let our history die.” Hearing that call, I concentrated fully on researching the paternal side of my family tree. I’d dabbled in genealogy since 2001, but now I had a mission. This was my grand-aunt’s last wish. Honoring this wish led us to the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex.
With further research, I discovered that our ancestors had visited and tended to family plots from some of the first burials performed in the early 1880s through to the early 1940s. However, elders that live in and around Portsmouth informed me that by the late 1940s, the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex was about full, and the then existing owner allowed it to become overgrown in the decades that followed. By 1960, the cemetery complex was nearly impassable, and was closed by the city soon thereafter. Trees, vines, poison ivy, and trash came to dominate what was once the premier burial ground and one of the earliest institutions of Portsmouth’s African American community (Portsmouth cemeteries were segregated until 1975). Visitation had largely ceased, and calls for its care and restoration by the Portsmouth branch of the NAACP, pastors, lodges, and various civic groups went unheeded. With Lincoln Memorial cemetery (1912), and the graveyards of Grove Baptist and Olive Branch Church (and eventually, Greenlawn Memorial Gardens in Chesapeake) becoming the primary cemeteries of Portsmouth’s black community, the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex fell into shadow, a forgotten area of the old city.
Due to almost two generations of family being unable to visit the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex between 1945 and 1993, the exact locations of our ancestors’ grave sites were unknown. Although necessary, walking the entire cemetery (several times) in the heat was almost unbearable, with the mosquitoes the size of small birds. There were hundreds of grave stones, each representing family legacies. Spotted were the Norcoms, Pontons, Riddicks, Bakers, Baileys, and many others, including Thomas Craig. Our forebears and the black community of Portsmouth once held the cemeteries as a sacred place, honoring their ancestors each Decoration Day, making them the end point of annual Memorial Day parade ceremonies. The New Journal and Guide wrote a story about one of these Portsmouth Memorial Day parades to Mt. Calvary in 1917. Our elders visited regularly for over sixty years. So as we walked through the cemeteries on that blistering day, I’d have to say we were propelled less by stubbornness (a family trait), and more with the goal of reestablishing this family and cultural tradition.
With a little luck, we did eventually find five of our Portsmouth ancestors on that humid July 4th, scattered about different sections of the cemetery complex. One was Max Jolly Orton (1850-1902), my paternal third great-grandfather and Navy veteran. He’s buried in the rear of Mt. Olive Cemetery next to his second wife, Jerusha Copeland (1861-1928), who descends from a line of free persons of color out of Nansemond County (now Suffolk). His first wife, Jerusha Elliott (1850-1873), my third great-grandmother and also a descendant of free persons of color, is buried in the Pig Point (now Harbour View) area of Suffolk. I’ve yet to find her grave site.
The next stop on our genealogical journey was a trip over to Lincoln Memorial Cemetery (1912), before heading home. We didn’t have a map for Lincoln either, but were again lucky in finding an entire burial plot containing the grave sites of Virginius Young (1868-1928) and family, my paternal second great-grandfather, great grandparents, and other ancestors. It all seemed rather fated, as they were located just to the side of one of the main drives, ten feet from the entrance. Although Lincoln was generally in better condition than Mt. Calvary, we could still see evidence of a pattern of neglect suffered by black cemeteries in the area and nationwide. Cemeteries are institutions that anchor communities and memory. Lincoln Memorial and Mt. Calvary were two of the first such institutions that African-Americans in Portsmouth had formed after the Civil War. So many other buildings and structures that once bore the names of important figures in African-American history in Portsmouth have been torn down or had their names changed, making these cemeteries some of the last tangible sites to tell the tale of over two hundred years of their contributions to the City of Portsmouth. Yet there’s constant flooding, downed trees, trash, and irregular maintenance. Many gravestones are lost, vandalized, or sinking. The history and legacy that can be learned from these sites is on the verge of becoming lost forever.
At Lincoln Memorial, I thought again about Thomas Craig’s gravestone in Mt. Olive cemetery, sunken halfway into the ground, showing evidence of lawn mower damage. Why did I keep passing his grave site? I wondered. On a whim, we went back to Mt. Olive, and I cleared away the dirt from the area beneath his name. After all, I’d yet to encounter the Craig surname in my study of the cemetery to date, and thought it unusual for the area. Once clear, the inscription read “US Navy.” So, he was a 19th century navy veteran, like my third great-grandfather, Max Orton. “Craig”, I thought, “I wonder where he’s from? Did he serve on the same ship(s) as Max?” Both of their headstones were weathered to the same degree. Were they buried around the same time? Who was he?
Admittedly, I did not return to my query until recently. One aspect of my research involves the study of my ancestors’ and other African-American veterans’ contribution to their liberation in the Civil War, and the ongoing struggle for self-respect and dignity in their involvement in all other wars fought by the United States, including the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and Vietnam. I will make reference to the individual contributions of other ancestors in future writings. Here, I’d like to mention one of my forebears, Daniel Orton, a member of Company A, First Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. Escaping slavery in the Sleepy Hole area of Suffolk, he’d made his way to Baltimore, Maryland, and enlisted on May 19, 1863. He lost his life at the age of only twenty-two on June 15, 1864, at the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia. His sacrifice made me think of all the other men of African descent from Portsmouth that participated in every war since the American Revolution. I’d found out so many details about Max Orton, that he served in the Navy over twenty years until his death in 1902. He was of a small build, five foot one and one-half inches, and lived on Green Street and at 223 Fort Lane, which was just down the way from Cedar Grove Cemetery, and is now the current site of Harbor Point Behavioral Health. The area was once on the border of Lincolnsville, the historic African-American community that began around 1885, and was its own self-contained community until it was demolished in the 1960s, the first project of Portsmouth’s Urban Renewal Program. I’ll be writing more about Lincolnsville and my ancestors in the coming months.
As I delved into research on Max Orton’s life in Portsmouth, my mind kept drifting back to his Navy counterpart, Thomas Craig. I’d passed his headstone so many times looking for Max’s grave site, I couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t for a reason. So, six years after I first found him, I decided to take a look into his life. What I would find out about Thomas Craig would lead me on a trail from Portsmouth to 19th century Delaware, a major center of abolitionism and Underground Railroad activity before and during the Civil War, to Union Navy recruitment in New York, to the South China Sea, with an ultimate return to Portsmouth and subsequent glimpse into its African-American community of the post-Civil War era.
Thomas Craig was born in 1831 in northeastern Delaware. Different accounts point to his birth in Wilmington, New Castle County, or Smyrna, New Kent County. His parents, Noah and Sarah Craig, were free persons of color. New Kent County was largely a more rural area, while Wilmington and New Castle County were more industrialized.
Compared to other slave states, such as Maryland and Virginia, Delaware had a rather high percentage of free African-Americans. By 1810, nearly 76% of the African-American population was free, compared to 23% in Maryland, and 7.2% in Virginia. By 1861, the percentage was over 92%. Delaware, as in other states of the country, saw a rise in abolitionist fervor after the Revolution, perhaps spurred by its idealism. This was in part due to a concentration of Quaker anti-slavery activity in the region. Gradual emancipation was preferable to large-scale anti-slavery efforts the State may have enacted. Delaware passed its first private manumission act in 1787, and individual acts of emancipation were the most successful part of this new movement.
A review of Federal Census records from 1830, 1840, and 1850 helped to place the members of Thomas Craig’s family in this period. In 1830, a Noah Craig is living in Appoquinimink Hundred (est. 1682), New Castle County, Delaware, head of a household of six free persons of color. In Delaware, a hundred is defined as a “sub-county division in England and were introduced in some of the British colonies. For Delaware, the origin is cited as a letter written in 1682 by William Penn, the newly appointed Lord Proprietor of the province of Pennsylvania and the counties on the Delaware. Penn directed that from this point onward, settlements be divided into sections of 100 families. The first use of the term Hundred in official records relating to the Delaware colony dates to 1687, when reference is made to ‘a list of taxables of north side of Duck Creek Hundred’” (Delaware State Archives)
Noah Craig is listed in the 1840 Census living in Brandywine Hundred, New Castle County, Delaware. He is noted as born between 1786 and 1804 (the census estimate), with two sons under the age of ten, a spouse, possibly Sarah, born between 1805 and 1816, and one additional female born between 1817 and 1830. One person in the household, most likely Noah, is listed as working in agriculture.
By 1850, Noah and Sarah Craig, ages fifty-nine and sixty-four, respectively, are documented in New Castle Hundred, New Castle County. Thomas Craig is listed in the 1850 Federal Census of Appoquinimink Hundred, New Castle County, age twenty-one, laborer, living on the farm of Robert M. Latimer.
Although Thomas Craig and his family were part of a thriving and progressive community of free African-Americans, white majority fears of this growing population were a direct result, and between 1800 through 1850, the Delaware State legislature passed laws curtailing the rights of free African-Americans in everything from the right to vote, to a law against being unemployed while poor. As seen in the recent film “12 Years a Slave,” free African-Americans were also at constant risk of being kidnapped and sold into slavery down South.
Perhaps in response to these crippling and repressive measures, and in search of better economic opportunity, by 1855, Thomas Craig had left Delaware, and taken up residence in New York. Military records show he enlisted in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Vermont, and in doing so would join the ranks of the few hundred African-Americans serving in the Navy before 1861, a number that would soon swell to over 19,000 (with an additional 180,000 in the US Army) through the duration of the Civil War. The Vermont, a ship-of-the-line, was first laid down in 1818, one of nine, 74-gun warships authorized by Congress. Although she was completed by 1825, she remained essentially mothballed in the Boston Navy Yard until commissioned in late 1861. From 1862 to 1864, the USS Vermont was anchored in Port Royal, South Carolina, functioning primarily as a support, store, and hospital ship for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. After two years, the USS Vermont returned to New York.
While aboard the USS Vermont from 1855 to 1864, Thomas Craig had served a total of nine years with a predominantly African-American crew, a common occurrence on supply and support vessels during the Civil War. Joseph P. Reidy, in his article “Black Men in Navy Blue During the Civil War,” notes that the “disproportionate presence of black sailors on supply ships” in many ways was a direct result of the “broader cultural biases that associated persons of African descent with menial labor and personal service.” Upon the Vermont’s return to New York, Thomas Craig transferred to and served aboard the USS Hartford in 1865, which became part of the Asiatic squadron formed after the Civil War.
Upon his discharge from the USS Hartford in 1868, Thomas Craig served aboard the storeship USS Guard, and the sloop USS Swatara. He arrived in the Tidewater area aboard the Swatara and transferred to the USS New Hampshire in 1869 after the Swatara was decommissioned.
Though not found on the 1870 Federal Census, military records place Thomas Craig as a resident of Portsmouth, Virginia by 1871.
He would there join a growing, vibrant African-American community in the city, with recently elected city councilmen, newly established churches, businesses, and benevolent and fraternal organizations. On October 8, 1874, during his service on the USS New Hampshire, Thomas Craig married Mary Manger Butt, a widow from Brunswick County, Virginia, daughter of James Manger and Violet Rivers. According to the marriage certificate, the ceremony was performed “at nine o’clock at night in Portsmouth” by Reverend John H. Offer, a Baptist minister originally from Anne Arundel County, Maryland. A Civil War veteran, Rev. Offer was a member of Company H, 30th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry. Reverend Offer served as Pastor of historic Emanuel A.M.E. on North Street from 1871-1877. In 2012, I had the great fortune of finding his and his wife’s headstones poking around a church graveyard on the Eastern Shore, at the conclusion of a great cemetery preservation seminar hosted by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR).
A large number of my ancestors were members of Emanuel A.M.E. Church since the 1840s, so I visited the church archives between 2010 and 2012 to learn more about them. There, I had the opportunity to talk with church historian Sara Choate Brown on numerous occasions. As in so many other cases in my research, talking with Mrs. Brown was an invaluable opportunity to learn from one of the elders in our community, griots and archivists that are often the last repositories of important history. In discussing Lincolnsville, she often spoke about remembering the days when Green Street “went all the way down.” I recall various ancestors that lived on Green Street in those days. My second great-grandmother, Adeline Vann Crowell (1888-1965) moved from Como, Hertford County, North Carolina to Portsmouth around 1900, and lived on Chestnut and Green Streets until her death. In the same area, another ancestor, Alfred Elmore Young (1896-1966), owned and operated a retail coal yard at 1700 Effingham, near the current location of the Portsmouth Fire Station. They are both buried in Lincoln Memorial cemetery.
Thomas Craig and family lived near the “way down” section of Green Street too. By 1875, city directories place the Craig family at the corner of Griffin and Green Streets, which is now the area bordered by Effingham Street, Bart Street, Court Street, Pavilion Drive, and Race Street, bisected by Interstate 264. The Sheriff and Co.’s Norfolk and Portsmouth City Directory for 1875-1876 listed Thomas Craig’s occupation as “mariner.”
Thomas Craig continued his service with the U.S. Navy, reenlisting and serving on the USS New Hampshire in 1875, the USS Worcester in 1876, and US Receiving Ship Franklin in 1877 through 1880. Throughout his career, he’d held the rank of “landsman,” given to new recruits, and “ordinary seaman,” a rank landsmen were usually promoted to after one year’s service. The lone exception was during his service aboard the USRS Franklin, when he was listed as a “jack o’ the dust.” An interesting sounding term, I learned the rank originates with the Royal Navy, and is defined as the “person in charge of breaking out provisions for the food service operation.” Nothing to do with cleaning, my first thought upon seeing the phrase. My third great-grandfather, Max Orton, also served aboard the USRS Franklin. A twenty-two year navy veteran, he first enlisted on October 27, 1880 at Norfolk, Va., and held the rank “jack o’ the dust.” I remember thinking “jack of the what?” the first time I read it while reviewing Max’s military records. Talk about six degrees of separation in genealogy. I suppose I can scratch that item off the family history to-do list!
In 1880, Thomas Craig was admitted to the Naval Hospital at Portsmouth, and diagnosed with Phthisis–pneumonica chronica, or pulmonary tuberculosis/chronic pneumonia. J. E. Gardner, P. A. Surgeon (physician’s assistant) at the Naval Hospital, noted that Thomas’ chronic illness was developed aboard the U. S. Receiving Ship Franklin, and being “exposed to the foul air and also to the dangers of overheating himself while attending to the water that was collected from the ‘exhaust’ steam which kept the hold hot and damp.” As a result of the diagnosis, Thomas was discharged from the Navy for medical reasons on June 30, 1880, after twenty-five years of service.
Due to his disability, Thomas filed for and began receiving his navy pension in 1881. Friends, neighbors, and fellow veterans, many of whom are also buried in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, were required to act as witnesses to validate his identity for the government before he could receive his pension. In the years that followed, he and his wife Mary continued to live at 1200 Green Street, with Thomas working off and on as a general laborer. Between 1888 and 1889, he worked as a lighterman, operating a small barge delivering and ferrying goods.
On February 1, 1896, Thomas Craig passed away. A copy of Thomas Craig’s death certificate was supplied by Portsmouth medical
officer Frank Stanley Hope (1855-1927), who is buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery. Thomas Craig’s wife, Mary, was the informant. The certificate notes that Thomas was sixty-five years old at the time of his death, and his place of birth Wilmington, Delaware. His residence is listed as 1100 Green St. (an error), and burial in Mt. Olive Cemetery. The undertaker was George Colden, with business address of 629 Pearl Street, Portsmouth. George Colden (1843-1921), from Nansemond County (now Suffolk), was one of the primary undertakers for the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex.
At this point, I wanted to discover more about the company that supplied Thomas’ headstone (and those of many other Civil War veterans) in Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex. After a little research, I discovered that it was W. H. Gross, proprietor of Lee Marble Works (est. 1852), located in Lee, Massachusetts. Under contract with the U. S. Government, a section of a Department of the Interior Lime Belt Survey, published in 1923, reads:
“One of the products of the quarry is headstones for graves of soldiers in United States cemeteries. The epitaphs are cut in raised letters by attaching brass letters with roundish upper surfaces to the marble and exposing it to a sand blast long enough to remove the marble between the letters to a depth of a quarter of an inch. The sides of the letters are then sharpened with pneumatic hand tools.”
After Thomas Craig’s death, his widow, Mary, lived at 1307 Green Street with daughter Rebecca (by her first husband Stephen Drummond) and her daughter’s family: husband Enos Hodges, sons William, Owen, Charles, Elmore; and daughters Cornelia, Blanche, Minnie, Colestia, and Mary Louise. Mary Craig passed in 1910, and is also buried in Mt. Olive Cemetery. I’ve yet to find her grave site, though it’s possible she rests alongside her husband in an unmarked grave.
Other interesting tidbits found amongst Mary Craig’s records are a few receipts from notable African American businesses in Portsmouth’s history, some of which I’d never seen before in years of research. When Mary Craig became ill in late 1909, she was attended by Joseph Jabez France, M.D. (1865-1926), a native of Accra, Ghana, and a highly regarded doctor in Portsmouth’s African American community. Dr. France’s office was located at 803 Glasgow Street. The Craig family also required the services of Dr. Eugene J. Bass (1866-1944), a pioneering businessman and druggist whose pharmacy was located on the corner of Green and London Streets. Dr. Joseph J. France and family are buried in Mt. Calvary Cemetery, and Dr. Eugene J. Bass is buried in Lincoln Memorial cemetery.
The information that one can discover from a headstone! What I’ve learned from the study of Thomas Craig’s life is amazing, and in a surprising way. I “met” him in a search for family and ancestry, in honoring the last wish of an elder. In a personal journey through history, I encountered a stranger, one whose story came to mirror the lives of some of my ancestors, with similar life experiences that were marked by racism, discrimination, hardship, struggle, and triumph. Their story is a Portsmouth story, an American story, part of our collective history, speaking to us from stones weathered by time. However, these stories in the stones may be lost. The cemeteries where they rest are threatened every day by the history of neglect, vandalism, flooding, overgrowth, and more recently, by gentrification and commercial development. Thomas Craig’s headstone, which taught me so much about his life, family, and 19th century African American life in Delaware, is sinking into the ground. Some of my ancestors’ gravestones have been vandalized. Thanks in part to these stones, and the cemeteries where they rest, I’ve been able to reconstruct a family legacy that spans over three hundred years. What other stories do the cemeteries contain? How much of our history remains to be rediscovered? As indicated on my website, I’ve visited many cemeteries in the last seven years, and continue to see the systemic blight of these important institutions that often matches the conditions of the surrounding neighborhoods. As the communities deteriorate or disappear because of the lack of jobs, resources, or the impact of commercial development, this fragile but important history may be lost to future generations. Genealogists and historians like me feel a sense of urgency to reclaim and preserve this history. These places matter, and merit our respect and protection. I hope to honor my ancestors and those of many others by working to place the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex on the National Register of Historic Places. In the coming months, I will continue to tell the stories of the many family legacies I find interred in these sites, following the trail illuminated by genealogical records, and incorporating the oral histories imparted by elders and members of the community. The ancestors are speaking, and I’m listening.
Reidy, Joseph P. “Black Men in Navy Blue During the Civil War. Prologue Magazine. 33.3 (2001). National Archives and Records Administration. Web. 15 Jan. 2014
Marriage records, Portsmouth Circuit Court, Portsmouth, Virginia.
U. S. City Directories, 1821-1989. Ancestry.com.
Dalleo Peter T. “The Growth of Delaware’s Antebellum Free African American Community. University of Delaware. Web. 8 Jan. 2014.
Knight Rebecca. “Hundreds In Delaware.” University of Delaware Library. Web. 10 Jan. 2014
Thomas Craig Pension File. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
U. S. Federal Census Records, Ancestry.com
Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812. Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Va., by the University of North Carolina, 1968. Print.
“Terms, Traditions and Customs of the Naval Service.” Bluejacket.com. Web. 8 Dec. 2013
Dale, T. Nelson. The Lime Belt of Massachusetts and Parts of Eastern New York and Western Connecticut. Washington D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1923.