PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – By the light of a summer moon in 1855, an enslaved man broke the damp Portsmouth earth with his spade, and fulfilled a grim service that ultimately won his freedom. The city assigned this crew to bury the dead from the infamous Yellow Fever Epidemic that was sweeping the area.

An account published by the Portsmouth Relief Association in 1856 revealed a monumental task:

“In this last sad duty the Association materially assisted by the indefatigable and truly praiseworthy exertions by one of our colored population familiarly known as Bob Butt. This humble negro in his line performed duty beyond all price. From morn till night he labored at his spade, and frequently made the graveyard his resting place. Under his direction and superintendence, all who died of the Fever were decently committed to their mother Earth.”

In the months that followed, Portsmouth lost about one thousand residents, or 10% of the city’s population, and the man charged with burying the dead was literally the property of someone else.

“Slavery was a part of life then,” said Mae Breckenridge-Haywood of the African American Historical Society of Portsmouth. “It was a hard life. Slaves were loaned out to work other places. Whatever they earned was not their earnings. Their earnings were given to the owners.”

The summer of 1855 was grim, as cities in Hampton Roads struggled to keep up with treating the sick and burying the dead.

“People were just dyin’ and dyin,’ and the graves had to be dug, and Bob Butt was that grave digger,” Breckenridge-Haywood said.

Local historian Dean Burgess said Butt and his crew of nine or 10 men often worked to the point of exhaustion, and that Butt would sometimes fall asleep in the graves he dug. Burgess tells the story of mourners who attended a graveside service the next day and encountered a shocking sight.

“And they heard a voice coming up from the grave, and there was Bob Butt, and they thought the dead had risen,” Burgess said.

Records at Trinity Episcopal Church say for his tireless service, a group of women purchased Bob Butt’s freedom from his owner and he was made the church sexton – a post he held for 30 years.

“And they say the main reason was they wanted to be absolutely sure that he would stay here in this church, and not be sold away to some other place,” Burgess said.

This moment in time illustrates the powerful dichotomy between those who were free and human beings who toiled in bondage.

Breckenridge-Haywood said Butt’s contributions are but one example of an enslaved population working against great odds as they toiled in bondage.

“They were owned. They were property! They still would rise,” Breckenridge-Haywood said, “and do great things!”

In the case of Bob Butt, greatness came through his service, years before other Black Americans finally heard freedom ring.