Congratulations to Nadia Orton our featured volunteer of the month for June, 2021! She’s been documenting mostly African-American cemeteries in the Tidewater region of Virginia and also throughout North Carolina. She’s also made great strides in documenting the headstones for U.S. Colored Troops in those areas as well as Maryland, Georgia, and South Carolina. She posts about this on her website here.
Nadia was diagnosed with Lupus when she was fourteen. She needed a kidney transplant and her grandaunt raised funds for her surgery through her church. Before her grandaunt passed on she was worried about their family losing touch and warned her not to let their history die. So, to honor her last wish, Nadia began to document their family lineage. The search led from cemetery to cemetery beginning in Portsmouth and Suffolk, Virginia, and Franklin, Hertford, and Warren counties in North Carolina, and eventually to other African American cemeteries along the Eastern seaboard. She was lucky to find many ancestors’ graves but was concerned about the physical conditions of the cemetery sites and other families roots.
Many African American cemeteries have not received the same level of care as historically white cemeteries. They were neglected, used as trash/dump sites, were tucked behind gas stations and under freeway entrances, and/or overgrown. Many had no signs, and headstones were missing, illegible, or damaged. I realized this precious history was on the verge of disappearing and had already done so at an alarming rate. I found my family, but what about other descendants who had not yet begun their search? I vowed to do whatever I could to protect these important sites of collective American history, in essence, to “pay it forward.”
She’s made a big difference over all these years and now photographing cemeteries, recording graves, cemetery database reconstruction and researching the stories of people’s lives has become a daily activity. Whenever she travels she searches for and visits cemeteries, especially those that are historically African-American, as it is the primary way that she learns about little-known history in each location.
In Nadia’s years of work she’s captured not only these stones in photographs, but the history and culture of that community. For some communities, their cemetery is the one of the few records left of their lives. In African-American cemeteries burials haven’t always been marked with gravestones. For example one can find certain plants, such as yucca, where there was a burial. She’s rediscovering history when she finds and records these all too often forgotten cemeteries and graves. She searches for illegible or unknown burials by using property tax records, church newsletters, newspapers, obituaries, death certificates – any record that might include more information about the person or the burial. In this way she is able to reconstruct the cemetery database that has been lost. Now photographing cemeteries, recording graves, cemetery database reconstruction and researching the stories of people’s lives has become a daily activity.
The memorials she’s added to Find a Grave® have helped people solve family history mysteries, fill in the gaps, and make family connections. Nadia is her fourteenth year of a project to identify lost and unmarked graves of United States Colored Troops in Virginia and North Carolina.
In her research she found a headstone that was illegible in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex in Portsmouth, Virginia. She took photos of the headstone in different light, wet the stone, traced the remaining letters with her fingers, and researched to identify the USCT soldier. In cross referencing the information that she had with Civil War records and also a Portsmouth city directory and was certain that she found Alfred Savage of Company D, Second U.S. Colored Calvary. It was important to honor and remember him with a replacement headstone.
I searched for descendants to approve a replacement gravestone. I contacted descendants in three states, who eventually put me in touch with their family elder who’d been looking for the same person, his paternal great-grandfather. As it turned out, this family elder lived only twenty minutes away from me in Virginia. He shared that he’d visited his grandfather’s grave in his youth but had been unable to visit the site for decades because the cemetery was overgrown. On his eighty-ninth birthday, I was able to take him directly to his grandfather’s gravesite. Later, I was also able to assist the family in securing a replacement gravestone from the Department of Veterans Affairs. They plant a flag at their ancestor’s grave every Memorial Day.
In the same cemetery I found a broken veteran’s stone. Most of his name, and vital statistics were missing. I used over ten genealogy sources to verify the name of this individual, a journey which I captured in an article on my website. I also posted the gravestone photo on Findagrave. Distant relatives of the veteran in New Jersey and Pennsylvania read the blog, and happily contacted me, excited to learn about their elusive ancestor, Simon Leach. They had heard his name at many family reunions but didn’t know much about him. My article and the photo of his partial headstone on Findagrave helped answer a lot of their questions. In appreciation, they shared a photo of this ancestor with me.
In her years of research and photographing headstones, she’s found some headstones that have become her favorites. Their use of color and objects such as marbles, glass, ceramic, or seashells are “usually emblematic of cultural African traditions that have been passed down over generations.”
She’s also interested in the “iconography found on many gravestones (masonic/fraternal symbols, etc.), as they can relay not only information on the individual, but history regarding community institutions.” For example, this headstone for William H. Bowe, includes the letters “L. P .T.” which stands for love, purity, and truth and is affiliated with the Good Samaritans. Thank you for sending in these other examples of headstones crafted by hand.
Our accolades to you for your extraordinary work in cemeteries! We are so glad that you are a Find a Grave member and appreciate all your efforts in recording and memorializing those that have passed.
We welcome your suggestions for Volunteer of the Month. If you’d like to submit a volunteer for consideration in future months, please send an email with details of their work to firstname.lastname@example.org.