African American cemetery in Portsmouth recognized on Virginia’s list of most endangered historic places


PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Charles Johnson Jr. has been visiting the Mount Calvary Cemetery complex in Portsmouth since he was 10 years old.

When he tiptoes over the tombstones, he’s checking to see how much damage has happened since the last time he visited.

“I just feel a responsibility, and not just to my family,” said Johnson.

Headstones have shattered into jigsaw puzzles and the names on them are gone. He says this 13-acre piece of African American history is slowly being erased by time and neglect.

“When the water is not here like it’s filled in right now, you can see wood. The wood would have to come from the coffin because we’re talking going back to the early 1920s,” said Johnson.

Dating back to 1879 and started by slaves, the complex consists of four cemeteries separated by ditches: Mount Calvary, Mount Olive, Potters field and Fishers Hill.

Scholars estimate as many as 15,000 gravesites can be found.

Just ask Mae Breckinridge-Haywood; she’s devoted her time to digging up the stories of the dead.

The chipped concrete marks the lives of prominent Portsmouth natives the African American Historical Society is hoping to preserve.

“This is our history, we must save it, we must do something for that history,” said Breckinridge-Haywood, who’s the vice president of the African American Historical Society in Portsmouth.

She applied to get the property put on Preservation Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Places.

The gesture was successful and recognized as such, she says is a big step towards their goal.

“We can go to funders, go to grant sources, and say ‘This property, this cemetery, ancestors are on endangered area, can you help us?’ That’s what it’s all about,” she said.

Until the money rolls in to help with the drainage, gravestone, and foliage problems, Johnson says he’ll keep checking on his ancestors.

“They’re gone to most people, but they’re not forgotten. I haven’t forgotten them. Others have not forgotten them, and that’s why we are here, to try to make sure there is something to represent them,” Johnson said.

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