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Sacred Grounds Project

In 1884, seven African-American veterans and businessmen of Suffolk, Virginia,  purchased a plot of land for a cemetery for the local African-American community.


The Sacred Grounds Project, Inc., an all-volunteer, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, assists community initiatives to document, protect, and preserve historic African American burial grounds and cemeteries and their rich history through conservation, advocacy, and educational initiatives.

Interment Database0%
Community Outreach0%


Uncover the lost narratives of early African American citizens of Suffolk (Nansemond County), Virginia


Document lost interments and stories of Suffolk's African American community.


Assist descendants and families connected to Oak Lawn in search of their ancestors.


Creation of official interment database and map of Oak Lawn Cemetery.


Locate and repair unmarked and damaged graves, and continue advocacy of Oak Lawn Cemetery, through community outreach and educational initiatives.


Nadia K. Orton is President of the Sacred Grounds Project, a professional genealogist, and family historian. She is a graduate of Duke University, with a double major in Political Science and African/African American Studies. While at Duke University, she helped establish the Student Disability Access Office. Her study in the field of genealogy began in 2001, and she has researched her maternal family roots to 1770 in North Carolina, and her paternal roots to 1690 in Tidewater, Virginia (Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Suffolk), and North Carolina. In Suffolk, Virginia, she descends from formerly enslaved and free born African Americans, the Copeland, Elliott, and Orton families of Chuckatuck, Suffolk, Belleville, and Sleepy Hole areas of (former) Nansemond County.


In 2010, she served as a volunteer archivist for Grove Baptist Church (est. 1840) and Emanuel A.M.E. Church (est. 1772), in Portsmouth, Virginia. She has been a member of the online community Find-a-Grave for eleven years, and has contributed thousands of memorials, interments, and photographs. Since 2007, she has visited and studied over four hundred African American cemeteries in Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, and authored three articles for the National Trust for Historic Preservation on the subject. She maintains five websites, and five Facebook pages devoted to the study of African American cemeteries.

Replacement gravestone for African American Civil War veteran 1st Sgt. Ashley Lewis, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry, 2018.

Replacement gravestone for African American Civil War veteran 1st Sgt. Ashley Lewis, 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry, 2018.

Nadia has researched and written historical highway markers for the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (est. 1879), Portsmouth, Virginia, and Oak Lawn Cemetery (est. 1885), Suffolk, Virginia. For Oak Lawn Cemetery, she successfully compiled the list of eligible burials in the cemetery approved for Virginia state funding repair and maintenance of gravestones and monuments.


Over the last ten years, she has identified and documented the lost graves of over seven hundred United States Colored Troops in four states. She is currently involved in several cemetery preservation projects, including (1) Oak Lawn Cemetery (Suffolk, Virginia); (2) Unity Cemetery – Lead Genealogist/Historian (Rocky Mount, North Carolina); (3) historical African American cemeteries in Portsmouth and Suffolk, Virginia, and North Carolina.


Her affiliations include the Phoenix Historical Society of Edgecombe County, North Carolina, the Durham-Orange Genealogical Society (NC), the National Genealogical Society, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, the Association of Professional Genealogists, the Association for Gravestone Studies, and the Duke Alumni Association.

In 2019, Nadia K. Orton, then existing Secretary and Historian of the Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Foundation, gained Virginia state funding (HB 2311) for headstone repair/maintenance, and a historical highway marker for Oak Lawn Cemetery. Unfortunately, she had to part ways with the existing members of the Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Foundation in June, 2019, due to disrespectful treatment, and the lack of priority placed on the urgent need for gravestone repair and grounds maintenance.


We believe preservation efforts for Oak Lawn Cemetery should include the following: (1) general and continuous maintenance (inclusive of all issues that may lead to further deterioration of the graves of Oak Lawn, and may constitute dangerous conditions for descendants and visitors), removal of dead and fallen trees, poisonous plants, and treat open holes and depressions; (2) regular outreach to descendant communities and the general public, through publicly advertised meetings and other communications, as originally developed for the cemetery in 2011, and (3) open and respectful support for all cemetery volunteers, and their cumulative work on Oak Lawn Cemetery. Our advocacy for maintenance of the grounds, removal of hazardous plants, dead and diseased trees, and gravestone maintenance for Oak Lawn Cemetery began with the Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Foundation in 2018, as first priority, and is thoroughly documented. We remain committed to these goals.


Oak Lawn Cemetery (est. 1885) is located within Virginia’s Fourth Congressional District