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Local News in Virginia

Berkley Historical Group Preserves Cemetery’s History

By Leonard E. Colvin

Chief Reporter

New Journal and Guide

The books on library shelves and the Internet give us access to endless amounts of information about our history with the turn of a page or push of a button.

Another gateway to our past, and how we once lived, worked or died, can be found sitting on top or buried beneath the soil of cemeteries.

Sitting next to a stretch of Berkley Avenue-Extended in the Berkley Section of South Norfolk, is a good example: Mount Olive/Paige Cemetery.

The aging gravestones, some decorated with flowers; the memories of loved ones who still live near; and the researching of its history by the city and the Berkley Historical Society, Inc. (BHS, Inc.) are reasons people in the area, and elsewhere, even know the cemetery exists today.

In late August the BHS, Inc. will dedicate a permanent three-foot tall historical monument/marker at the site with the name “Mt. Olive Cemetery” inscribed on it. Currently, there is no sign stating its name.

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BHS, Inc. says that the monument/maker is designed to allow current and future generations to acknowledge the old burial ground’s existence and historic importance.

Since early spring, according to Anne Boone, the BHS, Inc., President and Curator, the organization has raised over $1,500 for the monument which will be unveiled in late August.

“This monument is very important because we want to remind everyone that this is a graveyard, and a sacred resting place of our ancestors,” said Boone. “There are people who still maintain the graves and the memory of the people buried there now. This history of that graveyard tells us a lot about the Black community in Berkley.”

In the past, communities often buried their dead in the backyard, or on plots of land adjacent to churches or small patches of land neighbors collectively bought and maintained to bury their kin.

Some of these old burial sites are owned and maintained by cities today; some have been abandoned and paved over; or they are neglected plots of land overgrown with weeds, grass and refuse.

Others are respectfully maintained by the community of relatives of those buried in sites, with help from the city or corporate owners.

Donna Bluemink works for the Norfolk Bureau of Cemeteries as an Administrative Volunteer/Archivist.

Recently she said she and several of her colleagues conducted an enumeration or census of the Mount Olive Cemetery and determined there are 2,938 graves at the site.

The site dates back 186 years. The oldest gravemarker noted belongs to Mary Buffaloe (correct spelling), laid to rest in March 18, 1826.

The latest – Oliver Brooks, who was born in 1959 and was buried in 2006.

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Blumink and Boone said most of those laid to eternal rest at the site are African-American. There are family plots and 100 military veterans who died during and after the two world wars the nation was involved in during the last century.

Boone said BHS, Inc. is seeking a special maker from the Veterans Administration to signify that servicemen are buried there.

Boone said there was even a section for babies at the cemetery.

“The quality of the headstones and gravemarkers vary at Mt. Olive as they do at most graveyards,” said Bluemink. “You are talking about a lot of people who did not have a lot of money. So if they could afford it, they bought traditional gravemarkers for their loved one, or whatever they could afford.

“ Many of the old markers were washed away over time,” Bluemink said. “Or they fell over and were stolen or discarded. In many instances, we could tell a grave existed because of the indentation in the ground.”

“People living in Berkley, or from elsewhere, on Memorial Day or non-holiday weekends, can be seen cleaning, laying flowers or standing vigil near the graves of their loved-ones” said Boone. “There are also people from outside of the area who visit the burial plots of dead relatives.”

Boone said that various individuals and business donated money to buy the monument.

The city is not obligated to cut the grass and perform acts of upkeep at the graveyard since it is privately owned, she said. The Norfolk Sheriff’s department, at the request of the BHS. Inc., assigns inmate work crews to periodically to cut the grass.

Some very prominent African Amerians are buried at the site, according to Boone, including one of the former owners, an attorney who practiced in Berkley–R.G.L. Paige, who was a Black, Reconstruction-era member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

Businessman Samuel Clanton and members of his family are buried there, also, and so is Dr. William Mapp. He was the second African-American doctor to live and work in the Berkley section of Norfolk, after Blacks moved in great number to the area. Also burried there are L.S. Goodson and J.A. Blount, two prominent Norfolk Black political leaders.

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Boone said she has a brother buried at the site.

Before Norfolk annexed parts of old rural Norfolk County in the early 1900s and later, Bluemink said small communities joined together and bought patches land to be used to bury their dead. Many churches bought and reserved land to develop community cemeteries.

If the cities did not take control of the burial spaces once the land was annexed, the graves were uprooted and moved and the spaces use for housing or commercial use or for streets or stretches of interstate.

They exist all over the region. Two noted ones are in Norfolk’s Huntersville community, next to the western wall of Mason Memorial Church of God and Christ, and the old African-American Cemetery at St. Mary’s Catholic Church which operated from 1895 to 1941.

At one point, during Jim Crow segregation, Black parishioners were buried at the site.

If you are interested in the history of the city’s cemeteries go to www.usgwarchives.net/va/norfolkcity/norfolkcitycem.html

For further information about the upcoming dedication of the marker, call (757) 737-6589.

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