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She Promised To Honor Her Ancestors. First She Had To Find Them.

When Nadia Orton’s kidneys were failing, she sent letters to friends and relatives in the hopes that someone could be a donor or help defray the cost. Orton’s great-aunt Philgradore responded with money from her church. So a few years later, when Aunt Phil asked on her deathbed that her family not be forgotten, Orton knew she had to find a way to honor her ancestors. The problem was that she didn’t know who they were, or where to find them.

Meet public historian and professional genealogist Nadia Orton.

As she started tracing her lineage and locating her ancestors’ final resting places in North Carolina and Virginia, Orton began to notice the state of black cemeteries. Many were overgrown, unprotected and unmapped. Seeing the condition of these sacred spaces sparked a passion for protecting them.

Orton has since visited hundreds of cemeteries, and helps other families identify their ancestors’ plots. Host Frank Stasio talks with Nadia Orton, a public historian and professional genealogist, about how she uncovers the past and how it feels to find who came before you.

Mayflower Rosenwald School, Inez, Warren County, North Carolina (ca. 1924)
Courtesy of Nadia Orton /
Mayflower Rosenwald School, Inez, Warren County, North Carolina (ca. 1924)
The gravestone of Cherry Williams Sutton (1860-1911); Nadia Orton's maternal great-great grandmother, located in a slave cemetery, Inez, Warren County, North Carolina
Courtesy of Nadia Orton /
The gravestone of Cherry Williams Sutton (1860-1911); Nadia Orton's maternal great-great grandmother, located in a slave cemetery, Inez, Warren County, North Carolina

Copyright 2019 North Carolina Public Radio

Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
Jennifer Brookland is a temporary producer for The State of Things.