Connecting the Bridgefords: Warren County, North Carolina to Suffolk, Virginia

Recently, I came across a short news item concerning a member of the Bridgeford Family of Suffolk, Virginia. The notice was in reference to the death of the father of William McFarland Bridgeford, Sr., a successful merchant.

Although the brief obituary does not contain the name of William’s father, it nevertheless represents an important piece of information regarding the Bridgeford Family in Suffolk, Virginia. Most of Suffolk’s African American cemeteries, do not have publicly available databases, necessitating our effort to begin reconstruction of the relevant databases in 2013.1

To determine Williams’ father’s identity, I consulted alternate forms of documentation. After a little digging, I learned that William’s father was Mr. James “Mack” Bridgeford, born about 1827 in Warren County, North Carolina. With information culled from the death notice, James “Mack” Bridgeford passed away on May 4, 1902, and was soon interred in Oak Lawn Cemetery by a local, African American funeral company.

James was the son of Stephen Bridgeford and Harriett Fennel (Fennell) Bridgeford, who were both born enslaved about 1810 in Warren County. Per their marriage record, Stephen and Harriett “cohabitated” as man and wife during their enslavement in Warren County beginning in April, 1826, perhaps after a “slave marriage,” or, by the permission of their respective slaveholders. Cohabitation provided no legal protections for the enslaved, so Stephen and Harriette’s union could’ve been dissolved by their respective slaveholding families at any time.

“The marriage ceremony in most cases consisted of the slaves’ simply getting the master’s permission and moving into a cabin together. The masters of domestic servants either had the local white minister or the black plantation preacher perform the marriage ceremony and then gave a sumptuous feast in their own parlors to the slave guests. Afterwards the slaves had long dances in the quarters in honor of the couple.”

JOHN BLASSINGGAME, THE SLAVE COMMUNITY

Cohabitation record of Stephen Bridgeford and Harriett Fennel (Fennell). Warren County, North Carolina. May 5, 1866

With further research, I was able to expand James “Mack” Bridgeford’s family tree, in Warren and Wake counties, North Carolina. James “Mack” Bridgeford and family moved to Suffolk, Virginia from Warrenton, North Carolina, about 1895, after the death of his first wife, Jane Bridgeford, and James’ second marriage to Miss Emily Taylor in 1886. James’ parents, siblings, and cousins mostly remained in Warren County, North Carolina, and maintained strong ties to Greenwood Baptist Church, near Warrenton. Many Bridgeford family members are interred in the oldest of Greenwood’s two cemeteries. I happened to have many pictures of the cemeteries, a by-product of previousluy conducted personal family research in Warren County. In this instance, the prior on-site visits and photos taken to research my own maternal ancestry helped me to form a more tangible connection to James’ extended famijly in Warren County, North Carolina.

The oldest section of Greenwood Baptist Church’s two cemeteries. Photo: April 4, 2015, Warren County, North Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.
Photo: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.
Photo: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.
Warrenton, Warren County, North Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.

On the Suffolk, Virginia side of the Bridgeford Family tree, the short death notice also helped determine James’s direct relationship to several other extant Bridgeford Family interments in Oak Lawn Cemetery.

The grave of one of James’ grandchildren, Major William McFarland Bridgeford, is currently marked by a military-issue headstone, placed on the eastern edge of his burial vault in Oak Lawn Cemetery. William, who passed away in 1981, was a member of the American Legion, the National Association of Retired Federal Employees, Mt. Vernon Masonic Lodge, 28, and the Greater Sweet Beulah Holiness Church, Suffolk, Virginia.2

Photo Nadia K. Orton, 2015. All rights reserved.

Another member of the Bridgeford family, George W. Bridgeford, also rests in a marked grave in Oak Lawn. George W. Bridgeford was born about 1853 in Warren County, North Carolina. A son of Stephen and Harriett Fennell Bridgeford, George was James “Mack” Bridgeford’s younger brother, and great-uncle of Major William McFarland Bridgeford, Jr. George W. Bridgeford’s family plot, located in the rear of the cemetery, is currently marked by a single family monument. The only confirmed interments in the family plot, to the best of our knowledge, are Rev. George W. Bridgeford, his wife, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Alston, Bridgeford, and their children Charlie N. Bridgeford (ca. 1884-1917), who passed away in Erie County, Pennsylvania, Paul Bridgeford (ca. 1885-1929), and Gracie C. Bridgeford White, wife of Kelly Grant White. It is possible that a total of six graves may be lie within the George W. Bridgeford Family plot in Oak Lawn Cemetery.

Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2015. All rights reserved.

The James “Mack” Bridgeford family tree of Warren County, North Carolina, and Suffolk (former Nansemond County), Virginia.3

William McFarland Bridgeford, Jr. (1895-1981) and Rev. George W. Bridgeford identified in the Bridgeford Family tree. Copyright 2020 Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.

Finding James “Mack” Bridgeford’s death notice, and creating the Bridgeford Family tree led to the identification of other members of the family interred in Oak Lawn, Carver Memorial, and Rosemont Cemeteries (Suffolk, Virginia), Calvary Cemetery (Norfolk, Virginia), Rosewood Memorial Park (Virgnia Beach, Virginia), Greenwood Baptist Church Cemetery (Warrenton, North Carolina), and other burial grounds in Connecticut, Durham and Wake counties, North Carolina, and New York. Newly documented members of the Bridgeford Family interred in Oak Lawn Cemetery (Suffolk) include: James McFarland “Mack” Bridgeford (ca. 1827-1902), William McFarland Bridgeford, Sr. (ca. 1867-1934), his wife, Willie Anna Whitehead Bridgeford (ca. 1880-1956), their son, William McFarland, Jr. (1895-1981); Louisa Savage Whitehead (mother of Willie Anna Whitehead Bridgeford), Emma J. Savage (sister of Willie Anna Whitehead Bridgeford); Thomas M. Bridgeford (1874-1921), Rev. George W. Bridgeford (ca.1852-1911), his wife, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Alston Bridgeford (ca. 1855-1928), their sons, Charlie Bridgeford (1884-1917), and Paul Bridgeford (1883-1929) and his family, wife Julia Goode Bridgeford (ca.1888-1928), and infant daughter, Catherine Bridgeford (1915-1916); and daughter of Rev. George and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Alston Bridgeford, Gracie Bridgeford White (ca.1888-1917), and Gracie’s husband, Kelly Grant White (ca,1873-1962).

Current identified Bridgeford Family interments

Oak Lawn Cemetery, Suffolk, Virginia

Copyright 2021 Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.
  1. In 2018, I submitted a partial burial list of over 1, 400 documented burials in Oak Lawn Cemetery to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, to support the cemetery’s inclusion on the list of qualified African American cemeteries to receive federal maintenance funding. See HB2311 (Virginia General Assembly) for more information. Over the last three years, we’ve compiled the complete lists of interments for Oak Lawn, Rosemont, and many other African American cemeteries in Suffolk, Virginia.
  2. The Daily Press (Newport News, Virginia),15 November 1981, image copy, Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com : accessed 9 October 2020).
  3. The town of Suffolk merged with Nansemond County (City of Nansemond), Virginia, to create the indendent City of Suffolk on January 1, 1974. The Daily Press (Newport News, Virginia); 1 Jan. 1974, p. 29, c. 1; image copy, Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com : accessed 12 December 2020).

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