The Legacy of John Melton
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The Legacy of John Melton

The Legacy of John Melton

Photo: Nadia K. Orton, March 28, 2020, Murfreesboro, Hertford County, North Carolina. All rights reserved.

John Melton, a negro painter, was killed under a train on the Norfolk and Western railroad today. He was getting away from a shifting engine and was struck by an express. A coroner’s jury, convened by Mayor John B. Norfleet, found that the railroad was guilty of negligence in not providing safety gates or a flagman.” The Baltimore Sun, 1908

“John Melton, a negro painter, fifty-two years old, was this morning ground to death beneath No. 16 east-bound passenger train on the Norfolk and Western Railroad.

While side-stepping a shifter at the Wellons Street crossing, Melton got on the main track. Portions of the body and limbs were carried more than 100 feet. An inquest was conducted by Mayor and Acting Coroner John B. Norfleet. The verdict holds the rail road company guilty of negligence in not having provided safety gates, as required by the town ordinances.” The Times Dispatch, 1908

In June 1909, ten months after the inquest, Sarah Lewis Melton, widow of John Melton, filed suit against the Norfolk and Western Railroad, seeking compensatory damages of $10,000. She was represented by two Suffolk attorneys, Judge Richard Henry Rawles (1850-1919) and Seth Edward Everett (1870-1952).  The following month, the jury ruled for Sarah, the plaintiff, but awarded only $1,250 in damages, just over one-tenth of the original amount claimed in the suit. Despite the major reduction in damages awarded to Sarah Melton, the Norfolk and Western Railroad Company vowed to appeal the verdict. I am still looking for additional information on the case.

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The Wellons Crossing and Norfolk and Western Railroad, Suffolk, Virginia. ca. 1907. Library of Congress
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Wellons Street Crossing and (former) Norfolk and Western Railroad line, Suffolk, Virginia. Google Earth

Per the 1910 census, the Melton Family lived in the Holy Neck district of (former) Nansemond County, Virginia. The family remained close. Sarah, a widow, aged sixty, was documented in a residence with her son George, aged nineteen, who worked as painter like his father. In Holy Neck, Sarah was surrounded by family. Her neighbors included her daughter, Mollie Melton Jennings, wife of Sandy F. Jennings (ca. 1865-1910), and her son Denzie Melton and his wife, Etta Edwards Melton.1 The family of Haywood and Tempie Taylor Edwards, Etta Edwards Melton’s parents, lived just a few doors down.2

Sarah Melton was noted as the owner of the family farm, which I first suspected may have been purchased by the proceeds of the legal case. A review of the 1900 census, however, showed the family already in possession of a farm, as owner/operators, in Nansemond County, Virginia. While most of the Melton clan lived in and around Suffolk, an exception was John and Sarah’s daughter, Amanda “Mandy” Melton, who removed to Halifax County, North Carolina shortly after her marriage to her second husband, Elias Richardson, in 1898. Elias was a descendant of free African Americans in Halifax and Warren counties, North Carolina.3

The John Melton and Sarah Lewis Melton Family Tree of Halifax, Nash, Northampton, and Warren counties, North Carolina; Lunenburg and Nottoway counties, and Suffolk, Virginia. Copyright 2021 Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.

The 1920 census provided a reference point for Sarah’s home within the Holy Neck District of Nansemond. She was documented on South Quay Road, located near Holland, Virginia, and lived with her son George, and nephew, Luke Melton. George, who never married, passed away on February 5, 1921. Sarah passed on a little over one year later, on March 7, 1922. Both were noted as interred “in the county,” which is what would have been noted on a death certificate for either a home or rural community cemetery burial. To date, their gravestones have not been located.

Though fascinating, I found the Melton’s story my usual way…completely by accident, while scanning news archives for stories on African American cemeteries in North Carolina. Two vital records examined indicated that the Melton Family, or at least, Sarah Lewis Melton, may have been from Guilford County, North Carolina, near Greensboro. The great majority of documentation, however, referenced Murfreesboro, Hertford County, North Carolina, as the point of origin for the Melton Family, prior to their move to Suffolk, Virginia. It was at this point that I paused, as I’d realized I was missing something about John Melton’s story. I soon figured it out: there was a strong possibility John Melton served with the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War.

Having strong ancestral ties to Hertford County, I have studied the lives of most of the county’s African American Civil War veterans. On January 13, 1864, a “John Melton,” of Hertford County, aged twenty-eight, enlisted with the Union Army in Norfolk, Virginia, and was assigned to Company A of the 38th Regiment, United States Colored Troops. He was described as five feet, ten inches tall, with a “light” complexion (as perceived by the white recruiter), dark eyes and black hair. By occupation, John was noted as a farmer.

About six months after his enlistment, John Melton fell ill, diagnosed with rheumatism, a common malady, and was transferred to a local hospital to recuperate. He later rejoined the ranks, and was promoted to Corporal on July 29, 1865, while the regiment was stationed in Texas. On November 5th of that year, he was charged with desertion, which was later removed, and replaced with an honorable discharge of the same date by special order. The confusion stemmed from his lingering illness, and subsequent absence from duty at Matamoros, Mexico, Just across the Rio Grande River from Brownsville, Texas, between November 5-30th, 1865. Ultimately, John Melton was discharged per a surgeon’s certificate.4

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African American soldiers of the 114th U. S. Colored Infantry on duty at Brownsville, Texas, ca. 1866. Library of Congress

The John Melton who enlisted with the 38th U. S. Colored Infantry gave his date of birth as between 1835-1836, per military records. The birth estimate documented for the John Melton who died in Suffolk, Virginia in the 1900 Census was “May 1835, North Carolina.” Far from iron-clad evidence, to be sure, but certainly promising. If the two Johns indeed turn out to be one in the same, he would be one of the over four hundred previously undocumented African American Civil War veterans that I have uncovered in North Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, and South Carolina between 2008 and 2019.

However, one salient point remains, just where was John Melton interred? The Wellons Street crossing is a few blocks from historic Oak Lawn Cemetery, but I currently have no way to verify John’s burial information. It is possible that he rests there in an unmarked grave. The great majority of African American cemeteries contain a total number of burials that usually far outweighs the number of extant gravestones, and Oak Lawn, Rosemont, and other African American cemeteries in Suffolk are no different. In addition, I’ve yet to find a pension application for the John Melton who served with the 38th U. S. Colored Infantry, an absence of that may have occurred for a variety of reasons. Some African American veterans simply never filed an application for a pension. And although John’s death occurred close to Oak Lawn, the rest of his family were interred in other African American cemeteries in Suffolk/Nansemond County, including Rosemont, Carver Memorial, and whichever cemetery is referenced by the “in the county,” notations in Melton Family documentation.

Still, it is very possible that John Melton does rest in Oak Lawn Cemetery, and if so, he rests among some of his descendants. After constructing the family tree, I realized I’d already visited the graves of several of John and Sarah’s descendants. Located in the rear northeastern corner of Oak Lawn Cemetery is the Jennings Family plot, photographed in 2012. The plot holds the graves of Joshua Jennings, his wife, Rosa Jordan Jennings, their daughter, Dorothy E. Jennings, and Korean War veteran, Leon Thomas Jennings, son of Dorothy. Joshua Jennings was John Melton’s grandson, while Dorothy E. Jennings, and Leon Thomas Jennings, were Joshua Melton’s great-granddaughter, and great-great-grandson, respectively.

Grave of Joshua Jennings, Oak Lawn Cemetery. Photo: January 7, 2012, Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.
Grave of Rosa Jordan Jennings, Oak Lawn Cemetery. Photo: January 7, 2012, Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.
Grave of Dorothy E. Jennings, Oak Lawn Cemetery. Photo: January 7, 2012, Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.
Grave of Leon Thomas Jennings, Oak Lawn Cemetery. Photo: January 7, 2012, Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.
Jennings Family Plot, Oak Lawn Cemetery. Photo: January 7, 2012, Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.

Joshua Jennings, Rosa Jordan Jennings, Dorothy E. Jennings, and Leon Thomas Jennings, in relation to their ancestor, John Melton.

Copyright 2021 Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.

The family posted lovely tributes to its recently departed members. Below, I share just a few found in the local news.

In Memoriam

Jennings, Bell – Today recalls sad memories, O loved ones gone to rest,

For those that think of them

today are those who loved them best.

No one knows how much we loved them.

We miss them day by day.

And it fills our hearts with sadness to think they leave to stay.

Righteous and faithful In all their ways, they were loving

Characters to the end of their days.

A loving father, Joshua Jennings, who departed this life July 8, 1945.

A loving grandmother, Mrs. Alberta Bell, who departed July 13, 1945.5

A devoted mother and grandmother, Mrs. Rosa Jennings, who departed

This life July 18, 1945.

Mrs. Dorothy E. Jennings, Daughter.

Leon T. Jennings, Grandson.


Two years ago, Joshua Jennings, Rosa Jennings, and Alberta Bell fell asleep like tired children at the close of day, to wake in the everlasting arms of Him, who never forsakes us on our journey as we cross the valley of the shadows, one by one.

Dorothy Jennings, daughter and granddaughter.

Leon Jennings grandson and great-grandson.


  1. Per the marriage records, Mollie Melton wed Sandy F. Jennings on December 27, 1888, in Nansemond County. Sandy was a native of Lunenburg County, Virginia, and the son of Asa Jennings (b. ca. 1819-1891) and Mary Jennings (b. ca. 1836), of Nottoway County, Virginia. He passed away sometime before 1910, Suffolk, Virginia. Denzie Melton married Miss Etta Edwards, daughter of Haywood Edwards and Temperance “Tempie” Taylor Edwards, on May 6, 1907. Nansemond County. Etta Edwards Melton’s family roots extended to Nash County, North Carolina.
  2. “1910 U. S. Census,” database online, Ancestry ( : accessed 1 January 2021); Virginia, Nansemond, Holy Neck, Dist. 0011, p. 30, citing “Year: 1910; Census Place: Holy Neck, Nansemond, Virginia; Roll: T624_1636; Page: 15B; Enumeration District: 0011; FHL microfilm: 1375649.”
  3. Elias Richardson and Amanda “Mandy” Melton Richardson made Halifax County, North Carolina their permanent home. Elias, Amanda, and most of their children and grandchildren are interred in various cemeteries in Halifax County, North Carolina.
  4. National Archives and Records Administration, “38th U. S. Colored infantry,” Civil War Service Records (CMSR) – Union – Colored Troops 36th-40th Infantry, database with images, Fold3 ( : accessed 2 January 2021); entry for John Melton, Cpl., Co. A, 38th U. S. Cold. Inf., Union.
  5. Mrs. Alberta Jordan Bell was the daughter of Robert “Bob” Woodard Jordan and Annie Martin Jordan. The family was from the Margarettsville community of Northampton County, North Carolina. She too, is interred in Oak Lawn Cemetery.
Nadia Orton

Professional genealogist and public historian. Graduate of Duke University. President of the Sacred Grounds Project, Inc. Studying historic African American cemeteries and communities.

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