White Bronze Markers of Norfolk’s African American Cemeteries – Nadia Orton
A tour of Norfolk’s historical African American cemeteries is a veritable walk through history. Cemeteries offer an important, tangible connection to history allowing closer interpretation of days past than most other sources can. Many historic cemeteries are notable for their funerary art, but a great majority of African American cemeteries do not contain such features. Families simply couldn’t afford them, due to the economic deprivations of generations of enslavement, and subsequent systemic segregation of the Jim Crow era. To maintain cultural traditions, African American families marked their ancestors’ graves as best they could, with comparatively modest headstones of granite, marble, or brick, or handmade markers of stone, wood, flowers, or concrete.
Of particular interest in Norfolk’s black cemeteries are the monuments made of a material known as “white bronze.” Composed almost entirely of pure zinc, these rare markers were popular between the late 19th and early 20th century, produced by the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
I first noticed them during a visit to West Point (est. 1827) and Calvary (est. 1877) cemeteries in January, 2012, on the hunt for an ancestor, William Isaiah Thomas Orton, a Navy veteran who’d served aboard the USS Franklin, a mid-nineteenth century frigate recommissioned as a receiving ship in 1877. The distinct bluish tinge of the white bronze markers set them apart from the more muted sea of greys and browns that typify the great majority of gravestones in the historic burial grounds.
In her article, “Monumental Bronze: a Representative American Company, author Barbara Rotundo notes that most of the original casting work for the monuments was performed by an artist on site at the company’s main foundry in Bridgeport. Describing the production process, she notes:
“A plaster cast was made of the wax model, and the cast was then used to make a plaster duplicate of the wax model. From this second plaster cast they made the sandcastings that became the monuments. The final plaster cast was cut in pieces so that the white bronze pieces were comparatively small and simple, allowing each casting to have sharp details. The pieces were then fused together…Monumental Bronze workers clamped the pieces together and poured pure, hot zinc into the joints. Since the heat melted the surface of the cast pieces, they were truly fused together and became inseparable” (Rotundo, 267).
Rotundo notes that most cemeteries typically only have one or two white bronze markers, likely due to Monumental Bronze Company’s sales strategy. The markers were made to order, and sold via catalog by door-to-door salesmen. In addition, the company faced stiff competition from more established, local monument companies, and it was common for many salesmen to work for the company as a way of supplementing their primary income.
Rotundo’s theory appears to correlate with the relatively low number of white bronze markers I’ve noticed in other cemeteries. In North Carolina, Raleigh’s historic Odd Fellows Cemetery has one white bronze marker. In Virginia, Farmville’s Odd Fellows Cemetery also contains a singular white bronze monument. In Hampton, Pleasant (Union Street) Cemetery has one white bronze marker for Susan Brooks Matthews (ca. 1845-1906), a laundress, and in historic Elmerton, there’s one placed for Milton Tyler Walker, Jr., a barber by trade.
In contrast, Norfolk’s historic African American cemeteries have seven white bronze monuments, three in Calvary Cemetery, and four in West Point, all erected between 1904 and 1905. Monumental Bronze Company allowed clients to choose from multiple bas-reliefs to add to monuments at no additional cost, and a close inspection of the monuments reveals that families took full advantage of the opportunity. In Calvary Cemetery, the monuments for James Fultz (1855-1904), a brakeman, and Luke Cotton, an oysterman from North Carolina, bear the square and compass symbol of the Freemasons. James Fultz’s monument also contains the shield and suit of armor, inscribed with the letters “FCB” (“Friendship, Charity, and Benevolence”), indicating membership with the Knights of Pythias.
Below: Left-right, the gravestones of James Fultz and Luke Cotton. Calvary Cemetery, 2013
The Wright-Morris monument, the most elaborate in the cemetery, is dedicated to three generations of the family from Virginia’s Eastern Shore. All four panels are inscribed, and included the masonic emblems of the three links, the symbol of the International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF), and an elk, representing the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World (I. B. P.O.E. of W.) The family plot also has white bronze name plate affixed to the entrance.
Below: Panels of the Wright-Morris Family Monument. Calvary Cemetery, 2012
Below: The Wright-Morris Family plot, with white bronze nameplate. Calvary, 2017
Three of four white bronze markers of West Point Cemetery are similar to the Wright-Morris monument, in that they are dedicated to several generations of family. The McRae Monument was commissioned by Isaac W. McCrae, a native of Cumberland County, North Carolina, for his first wife Mary L. Robinson (1873-1904), and three of their children, Viola, Rodrick, and John, who died in infancy. The Smith Family monument was placed by Lucinda Odom Smith, in honor of her husband, Peter R. Smith (ca. 1865-1905), a huckster from Mathews County, Virginia, and five of their children, Angeline, Peter, Charlie, Ross, and Edna.
Below: The McCrae Family Monument. West Point Cemetery, 2012
Below: The Smith Family Monument. West Point Cemetery, 2013
The Shepherd-Lee Family monument was placed in honor of Lettice Shepherd (1801-1878), and her son, William Lee (1825-1878). They were free persons of color, with ties to Surry County, Virginia.
Below: Shephard-Lee Family Monument. West Point Cemetery, 2013
Perhaps the most unique of the four is the monument for Ida L. Harris (ca. 1852-1905). Although there is some damage to the base of the monument, a flower urn accompanies the grave marker, and the top features a representation of an open Bible, with the inscription from Revelations 21: 4: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away.”
Below:: Ida Harris Monument, West Point Cemetery, 2012-2013
Cemeteries are hallowed grounds that function as outdoor museums, offering invaluable opportunities in which we can both tangibly connect to, and learn more about our collective past. Spring is just around the corner, so be sure to stop by Calvary and West Point cemeteries to see these rare, white bronze monuments in person, testaments to family heritage and legacy, that provide a unique window into an intriguing aspect of turn-of-the-century, Norfolk, Virginia history.