PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — At the Albert G. Horton Jr. Memorial Veterans Cemetery there is a sea of heroes. Their stones nicely arranged, everyone looking like the other. Every name etched as their legacies live on.
The graves aren’t nearly as organized in West Point Cemetery in Norfolk.
“You can kind of see the conditions of all the stones,” said historian Jorjia Jean. “Here we are walking up to a section that is dedicated to Civil War African American Union soldiers and sailors.”
10 On Your Side met Jean at the cemetery. She points to stones which are faded.
“You have to try to figure out who they are by feeling the letters,” Jean added looking at a stone. “You can’t tell who this person is,” Jean added.
Time is taking a toll on the markers. They are slowly withering away. History is literally erasing right before our eyes.
“How would you feel if you had a stone and no one cared about it, and 100 years later despite a great sacrifice, you were lost?” Jean asked.
The issue isn’t confined to Norfolk.
“The only thing you can make out was that he was a member of the 1st U.S. Colored Cavalry,” said historian Nadia Orton.
Orton has ancestors buried at Mt. Cavalry Cemetery in Portsmouth.
“Once we came here and found them, we saw all the other grave sites and how hard they were to read and broken,” Orton added.
That included nearly two dozen African American Civil War vets.
“I’ve been studying him for eight years and I still don’t know who he is,” Orton said pointing to a grave.
Orton has made it her mission to recover the lost identities. Some have eluded her.
“I’ve tried wetting the stone and taking pictures in different light conditions,” Orton added. “You’re not supposed to try to trace and do rubbings, but that didn’t work. I thought if maybe I could identify his company, which should be here, I could try and narrow it down, but that’s gone too.”
There are others who have been saved.
The federal government replaces veterans’ stones free of charge, but there has to be a name and proof of service. Orton has applied for and has had 20 replaced.
Orton says the government doesn’t pay to have the stone installed. Ogg Stone Works in Portsmouth has helped install the stones for Orton at a discounted price. She has paid $1,000 out her pocket for the 20 stones.
“Once it is done and the stone is here, and you can stand here and think ‘I saved this part of history,'” Orton said.
Orton and Jean would love see others pitch in.
“Maybe we can get behind some sort of community effort and get these people recognized for their sacrifice,” Jean added.
“Their entire lives are going to be lost if you can’t read a name,” Orton said. “You wonder how many stories, how many legacies and how many tales of bravery are going to be lost, because their names are fading away.”