Historic black cemetery in Hampton Roads in need of repair

A damaged grave at a historic black cemetery in Portsmouth.

PORTSMOUTH, Va (WAVY) —  As we celebrate Black History Month, 10 On Your Side is uncovering hidden history, and sometimes that means cleaning up a mess.

A long neglected historic black cemetery in Portsmouth is in need of repair.

Mount Calvary, Mt. Olive and Fisher cemeteries, combined with Potters Field, cover 13 acres where an estimated 13,000 are buried, according to local historian Charles Johnson.

“This is our history,” he said pointing to the plots of notable names, ” This is the grave of Jeffrey Wilson, a well-known writer.”

Ida Barber, a celebrated local educator is buried nearby. You can barely read the inscription on her cement stone.

Dozens more stones have been uprooted by trees, destroyed by weather or vandals.

Some graves are caving in. Johnson has seen the sad results of neglect.

“There was the casket with glass over the wood and the skull was inside of the casket.”

As bad as it is he says it has been worse.

These pictures show what happened after the city shut it down in the 1960s.

“I can remember when this was all basically just brush, I mean overgrown trees and so forth,” Johnson recalled.

The city now takes care of mowing, but that’s about it, and Johnson says that’s not right.

“These people are gone, they’re buried, these stones are here its the past but they should never be forgotten,”

Two bills in Richmond right now would grant money for restoration. SB198 sponsored by Senator Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) with co-patron Senator Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), passed last week.

It would add Mt. Calvary to the list of historical African American cemeteries for which qualifying charitable organizations may receive funding for maintenance. Delegates in the House recently passed a bill that would give nonprofit organizations money for preserving historic black cemeteries.

A similar bill, HB527,  introduced by Delegate Matthew James (D) Portsmouth,  is still making its way through the House.

That money, Johnson said, would be used to bring Barber’s stone back to the way it was, to right toppled markers and make sure the cemetery is preserved for future generations.

“If you don’t know your history, you don’t know yourself,” Johnson said.