Tag Archives: US Navy

A Personal Journey Through African-American Cemeteries – National Trust for Historic Preservation

Copyright Nadia Orton

At my great-great-great-grandfather Alexander Orton, 10th U. S. Colored Infantry, at Grove Baptist Church Cemetery in Portsmouth, Virginia.

I’ll never forget the exciting moment when I found the gravesite of Alexander Orton, my paternal great-great-great-grandfather. Born in 1842 in Virginia, he was a Civil War veteran and member of the 10th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry.

Finding his last resting place was part of a genealogy project I’ve been pursuing for nine years now, keeping a long-standing promise made to an elder. Diagnosed with a serious chronic illness as a teenager, I needed a kidney transplant soon after college. My great-aunt gathered her entire church congregation to support my transplant fund, but held a lingering concern about our family legacy.

“Do not let our history die,” she told my father shortly before her passing in 2007. To honor her last wish, I vowed to make the most of my second chance and do my part in documenting our family history.

I’ve traced my father’s ancestry to 1630 in Virginia, and my mother’s to 1770 in North Carolina. Some of my ancestors were born free, while others were enslaved. Like Alexander, some enlisted in the Union Army to fight for freedom in the Civil War. They’d founded four African-American communities in Tidewater, Virginia, along with masonic lodges, banks, churches, and schools. They were oystermen, carpenters, farmers, teachers, Pullman porters, and teamsters at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. READ MORE

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Filed under Baltimore, Chesapeake, Civil War, Durham County, Florida, Franklin County, Gates County, Georgia, Hertford County, Isle of Wight County, Maryland, New Hanover County, Norfolk County, North Carolina, Pasquotank County, Petersburg, Portsmouth, Richmond, Slavery, South Carolina, Stories in Stone, Suffolk, Tombstone Tales, U. S. Colored Troops, Vance County, Virginia, Warren County, Wilmington

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

Pinewood Cemetery COPYRIGHT Nadia Orton

Pinewood 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

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Protected: Portsmouth, Virginia: The Leon A. Turner Family and interconnections, Mt. Olive Cemetery

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Filed under Anne Arundel County, Brunswick County, Delaware, Maryland, New Hanover County, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Portsmouth, Prince George County, Slavery, Stories in Stone, U. S. Colored Troops, Virginia, Wilmington

The Descendants Corner: Update – John Hodges, Civil War Sailor, Mt. Olive Cemetery

John Hodges, USN

John Hodges, USN

The replacement gravestone for Landsman John Hodges was installed in Mt. Olive Cemetery, Portsmouth, Virginia, on December 30, 2015. We received the news from his descendant, Vivian Nicholson. John Hodges (1819-1885) served aboard the USS Lenapee during the Civil War, enlisting on April 22, 1864, and was the grandfather of Portsmouth native William Henry Nicholson, the first African American hired by the New York City Fire Department (FDNY). Vivian shared William’s story with us in a guest blog, which can be read here.

 

A picture of the old gravestone.

A picture of the old gravestone.

 

Landsman John Hodges (1819-1885), Mt. Olive Cemetery

Landsman John Hodges (1819-1885), Mt. Olive Cemetery

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Filed under Civil War, North Carolina, Portsmouth, The Descendants Corner, Tombstone Tales, U. S. Colored Troops, USCT Diaries, Virginia

Charlotte, NC: Veterans Day at Pinewood Cemetery (1853)

Pinewood Cemetery Charlotte Orton

Pinewood Cemetery, established 1853 for African-Americans by the City of Charlotte, North Carolina

William Moore Pinewood Orton

Gravestone of William C. Moore

The inscription: “William C. Moore, U. S. Navy. Died Nov. 30, 1909, Age 35 Years. Gone Home.”


Lt. Col. C. S. L. A. Taylor Pinewood Orton

Gravestone of Lt. Col. Charles S. L. A. Taylor

Lt. Col. C. S. L. A. Taylor, 3rd North Carolina Volunteers

Lt. Col. C. S. L. A. Taylor, 3rd North Carolina Volunteers

Lt. Col. Charles S. L. A. Taylor. From the book, Black America: Charlotte, North Carolina: “The finely attired gentleman seen in this studio portrait is Col. C. S. L. A. Taylor. He was one of the first black colonels in the U. S. Army, and served in the Spanish-American War. Colonel Taylor operated the National Barber Shop at 19 North College Street, and represented Third Ward as an alderman, elected in 1885.” (Photo and text, Vermelle Diamond Ely, Grace Hoey Drain, and Amy Rogers. Black America Series: Charlotte, North Carolina. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2001, p. 11).

Lt. Col. Charles S. L. A. Taylor died on November 17, 1934, and is buried next to his wife Ella, and daughter Louisa T. Johnson.


Former segregation fence Pinewood-Elmwood Cemetery Charlotte Orton

The former barrier between Pinewood and Elmwood Cemeteries, Charlotte

Instead of the infamous fence, erected in the 1930s, trees now line the center aisle between the the drives of Pinewood Cemetery, on the left, and Elmwood Cemetery, to the right. Elmwood Cemetery was established in 1853 by the City of Charlotte, North Carolina, with Pinewood Cemetery as a subsection, set aside exclusively for African-American burials. Visiting the cemetery today, it was sobering to remember that all of the veterans and their family members were once on the “other side of the fence.” It was finally removed in the late 1960s, due to the influence of the national Civil Rights Movement, and local efforts of City Councilman Fred Alexander and the larger African-American community of Charlotte, North Carolina.


Emanuel Snowden Pinewood Orton

Pvt. Emanuel Snowden, Co A, 3rd NC Volunteers

Pvt. Emanuel Snowden was the son of Alfred and Eliza Snowden. He was born sometime during the 1860s, the exact date difficult to pinpoint due to varying discrepancies in census, marriage, and death records. Throughout most of his life, he was identified as a painter by occupation, and lived in Charlotte’s Second Ward. He passed on October 11, 1936, and the informant was Bessie Wilson, Emanuel’s sister.


Pinewood Cemetery Charlotte Nadia Orton

Pinewood Cemetery, Charlotte NC

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Filed under Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, Stories in Stone, Tombstone Tales

The Descendants Corner: William H. Nicholson, First African-American Fireman of the FDNY

Guest post by Vivian Nicholson-Mueller

 

My parents divorced when I was 5 years old, and when my father left the family he took all his family history with him. I knew nothing about the Nicholson side of my family — just that we carried his name.  It was not until many decades later that I got an inkling that I might be related to the first black man who joined the New York City Fire Department — and it came about because of the lawsuit brought against the city by the Vulcan Society, the association of black firefighters. 

My brother Keith had read an August 28, 2009 New York Times article about the suit, and in it there was a mention of a black fireman named William E. (sic) Nicholson.

“After Bias Ruling, Firefighter Applicants Look Back – Black firefighters remain scarce more than a hundred years after the department hired its first African-American employee: William E. Nicholson, a 27-year-old former cement tester, joined the Fire Department in 1898 and took care of the horses, said John L. Ruffins, a former Fire Department captain who has researched the history of the department.” – New York Times, August 28, 2009
Keith asked if we could be related to him and I exclaimed, “Related to him?!  He was our great-grandfather!”
A few years prior I had begun to research my paternal family. The reason: I was diagnosed with an unusual medical condition. I was told by the doctor to research my family’s medical history. While awaiting the analysis of a copious amount of blood taken, I got busy.
 
I knew nothing about my father except he was a “Junior.” Born in 1925, his mother’s name was Ruth (my middle name), and they were both born in Brooklyn, New York, as was my grandfather. My father’s paternal grandmother was known as Grandma Nicky. All of my father’s WWII service records were lost in a fire so I began to research on Ancestry.com.  After many days of searching I found my grandfather, Frederick Howard, Sr., in the 1900 Brooklyn census. I was ecstatic! And, it listed his mother Irene, and father, William H. Nicholson, who was born in Virginia.  His profession, “fireman.” A black fireman in 1900 NYC?!  I thought perhaps I had misread the somewhat illegible enumeration and dismissed it. But the 1910 census again noted he was a “Fireman” in the “Fire Department.”
William H. Nicholson Family, 1900 Census, Brooklyn, New York

William H. Nicholson Family, 1900 Census, Brooklyn, New York. Ancestry.com

 

William H. Nicholson Family, 1910 Census, Brooklyn, New York. Ancestry.com

William H. Nicholson Family, 1910 Census, Brooklyn, New York. Ancestry.com

Now knowing the names of my great grandparents I went to the NYC archives and found their death certificates. William’s death certificate listed “fireman” as his profession, but this time he was noted as “Fireman NYFD.”  I was intrigued.  Could it possibly be true?

When my brother read the article to me I had the confirmation I needed.  Mining information from Ancestry.com I found: William H. Nicholson, Jr., born in 1869 in Portsmouth, Virginia. His father was William H. Nicholson Sr., born in Enfield, North Carolina.  His mother Katherine, born in Portsmouth, was a Hodges. Her father was John Hodges, who had served in the Navy during the Civil War, and her mother, Martha Jordan, was descended from the Edenton, North Carolina Jordans. They were members of the North Street Emanuel AME Church, and along with other Nicholsons, Hodges, and Jordans, were interred in Mt Olive Cemetery in Portsmouth.

John Hodges USN Portsmouth Orton

Landsman John Hodges, Civil War Navy Veteran, maternal grandfather of William H. Nicholson. Mt. Olive Cemetery, Portsmouth, Va. John Hodges’ headstone will be replaced this year by the US Dept. of Veterans Affairs. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

Emanuel A.M.E. Church Portsmouth Orton

Emanuel A.M.E. Church (1772). Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

 

In 1885, William enlisted in the Navy and served on the USS Pensacola. He was only 15 at the time, but lied saying he was 19. According to census information, he moved to Brooklyn in 1887. In January of 1889, William again served in the Navy, again as a “waiter.”  He later worked as a messenger and cement tester. On October 9, 1889, he married Irene Howard (my Great-Grandma Nicky), whose family could trace its lineage back to Colonial Long Island, New York free people of colour and Sellacott and Montaukett Indians. Married into a solid middle class and influential New York family, and being related to the Virginian and New York Hodges, he was politically connected to the Republican party.  On November 9, 1898 with the backing of Republican party bigwigs and a white high ranking Fire Department chief, he began his fireman’s instruction at the Brooklyn Fire Department School. He had previously taken the written fireman’s test and, according to an article in the November 13, 1898 issue of The New York Press, passed with a score which was “one of the highest in percentage on the list.” The article also noted “There is no law to deprive his race from the right of such an appointment, but Nicholson is the first colored man to successfully pass the examinations.” William completed his training on December 9, 1898 and in 1900 and 1910 he could proudly list his profession as “fireman.”

Finding no information about my great-grandfather in NYFD records, I turned to the New York Public Library, and was directed to Harlem’s Schomburg Library. When I realized there was an entire collection dedicated to the Vulcan Society and the city’s earliest black firefighters, my heart skipped with excitement.  Would I find something about my great-grandfather there? Indeed I did!

I found a treasure trove of information about the late 19th Century and early 20th Century fire department. Documents compiled by former Fire Commissioner Robert Lowery, the 1st black fire commissioner,  indicating that my great-grandfather, William H. Nicholson, had become, in 1898, the first “coloured” man hired by the NYC Fire Department! 

11-12-1898 NYT Nicholson Orton

November 12, 1898. New York Times

First Colored Fireman in This City – Fire Commissioner Scannell has appointed twenty-one new fireman on probation, for duty in the Borough of Brooklyn. W. H. Nicholson, one of the men, is colored. He has the distinction of being the first colored fireman in the department. The Commissioner found his name on the eligible list of Brooklyn, and thought he had a right to an appointment. Nicholson, who lives at 200 Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, has been assigned to Engine Company 6.

I also found evidence that although William had one of the highest scores on the city test and had successfully finished his training, he was immediately rejected by his “fellow” firefighters in Brooklyn Engine Co 6.  Upon his assignment, the captain quit and many others threatened to do so.  The solution: send him to the Manhattan Veterinary Unit to care for the horses – since he showed “a natural ability” to handle them.  

To my delight and profound sadness I found an 1898 Brooklyn Engine Co 6 journal that covered the first year of William’s service. It detailed how he reported day after day in full uniform – when he was finally given one – only to be sent “to Manhattan”.  There is no evidence that William ever fought a fire.  He may have done so on the 4th of July when all firefighters were called to duty. But my great-grandfather continued to report for duty for 13 years – until his very early death, on January 21, 1912, at the age of 42. The cause of death was heart trouble and asthma.  And when he died he was not listed in the 1912 memorial brochure issued by the NYFD.  He was simply and purposely ignored and then forgotten.  And he would have remained so if not for the Vulcan Society suit, the Schomburg and Ginger Adams Otis, a New York Daily News reporter who wrote the book Firefight.  Ginger and I are determined to have a plaque put on William’s grave to honour his achievements.

Nicholson Obit 22 Jan 1912 Brooklyn Daily Eagle Orton

January 22, 1912. Brooklyn Daily Eagle

William Henry Nicholson, aged 43 years, the only colored fireman of this borough, died at his residence, 163 Fort Greene place yesterday. Mr. Nicholson was born at Portsmouth, Va., and was one of five sons and daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Nicholson of Portsmouth, Va. He was educated in the schools of Portsmouth and joined the North Street A. M. E. Church of that city in 1885. He had been a resident of Brooklyn for nearly twenty-three years and served as a fireman for fourte(e)n years. On January 1, of this year, he was retired as a fireman on annuity of $700, owing to ill health. While a fireman he was attached to the headquarters department on Jay street. A few years ago he, with many others united with Bridge Street African M. E. Church. The funeral services will be at Bridge Street African M. E. Church tomorrow evening, at 8 o’clock. Mr. Nicholson is survived by his widow, two sons, Clarence and Frederick Howard; his parents, a sister, Mrs. Fannie Ash, and two brothers.”

When I was a little girl, being a great fan of Nancy Drew and Elliott Ness, I wanted to be a “FBI Man.” I was told, on a 6th grade class trip to Washington, on our visit to The FBI Building, that “girls aren’t allowed to be FBI agents.”  I was devastated, to say the least.  I cannot help but wonder if I had known what my Great-Grandfather William H. Nicholson had achieved in his life, against all odds, enduring abject prejudice and rejection, I would have indeed achieved my dream of becoming a member of the FBI. – Vivian Nicholson-Mueller, New York


On January 24, 1912, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that William Henry Nicholson had been laid to rest in Brooklyn’s The Evergreens Cemetery. Members of the Society of the Sons of Virginia, and William’s sister, Fannie Franklin Nicholson Ash, a teacher in Portsmouth, Va., attended the funeral services at Bridge Street African Methodist Episcopal Church, once a station on the Underground Railroad. “First Colored Fireman Dead,” read the headline of William’s obituary in the January 25, 1912 edition of The New York Age. Discriminated against in life, and nearly forgotten for over a century after his death, William’s story is finally being told. The author of our guest post, William’s great-granddaughter Vivian Nicholson-Mueller, was profiled about her discoveries in a recent article for the New York Daily News, and the book by journalist Ginger Adams Otis, Firefight: The Century Long Battle to Integrate NY’s Bravest, was released earlier this year. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, whose archival collections contain the ledger that helped Vivian discover her pioneering ancestor, is celebrating its 90th Anniversary. Thinking on what Vivian Nicholson-Mueller was able to accomplish in her research, I asked Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center, for his thoughts on the importance of the preservation of archival documentation and historic sites, and how they may help connect African-Americans to their ancestral pasts. I end this blog with his response.

“The preservation of historical material is critical to building a foundation of knowledge about those who came before. Wisdom is not just smart ideas; wisdom is brilliance, whether in word or deed, that has stood the test of time.” – Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad

 

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Filed under Civil War, New York, North Carolina, Portsmouth, The Descendants Corner, U. S. Colored Troops, Virginia

Protected: To Honor and Remember – Memorial Day Weekend, 2014

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Protected: Stories in Stone: Thomas Craig and the Ortons of Tidewater, Va. — My Mission as a Freedom Storyteller

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Portsmouth, VA: Finding ancestors, Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex

 

Orton Mt. Calvary Copyright Nadia Orton

Great-great-great-grandfather Max J. Orton (1850-1902), USN

 

Orton Mt. Calvary Copyright Nadia K. Orton

Great-great-great-grandmother Jerusha Copeland Orton (ca. 1864-1928)

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July 4, 2007 · 8:31 pm