On this day in local history, March 30, 1886, James E. Fuller, the first African American elected to the Norfolk Common Council, persuaded fellow Reconstruction Era council members to dedicate a burial area for black soldiers and sailors who fought to preserve the Union – a significant salute because Norfolk had been a strong recruiting area for the federal military to enlist African Americans.
The burial ground – known as West Point Cemetery because it is on the western point of the then all-white Elmwood Cemetery – soon came into being, However, Fuller’s vision was bigger. He wanted the site to be crowned with a prominent monument, topped by a statue of an African American soldier, to commemorate the courage of the black troops.
Thus the action of March 30, 1886, also initiated 34 years of perseverance by Norfolk’s African American community to raise money for the monument and statue. Grassroots fundraising activities included “bake sales, civil and social group meetings, dinners, raffles and concerts,” according to Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a history professor at Norfolk State University.
Fuller, a former slave and a Civil War veteran of the First U.S. Colored Calvary, lived to see his dream only partially fulfilled. The monument’s steel-framed concrete and granite base was installed in 1906, and Fuller died in 1909, and the bronze statue was not placed until 1920.
The life-sized statue also has a story. It was modeled after real-life Sgt. William H. Carney Jr., whose battlefield heroics – thrice-wounded while saving the Union flag – were somewhat portrayed by actor Denzel Washington as fictionalized “Private Silas Trip” in the movie 1989 “Glory.” Carney was among the first African Americans awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, but he did not receive his until 1900.
Born in Norfolk to an enslaved family that resettled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Carney planned to go into the ministry. But on Feb. 17, 1863, he enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the Union’s first regiment of black soldiers.
Newby-Alexander described the monument as “a perpetual reminder of the blood that was proudly and willingly shed by African Americans to ensure that their descendants would not continue as enslaved people.”
There are other bittersweet parts to the story of West Point Cemetery. It was developed along a swampy area as a potters field for paupers, and it is partly separated from the then all-white Elmwood Cemetery by a 10-foot-high brick wall that runs for more than 800 feet – a relic of Jim Crow apartheid, even in death.
West Point Cemetery contains 58 graves of Union soldiers and sailors, among dozens of other African Americans buried on the 14 acres, according to historian Tommy L. Bogger, a retired Norfolk State professor and former university archivist.
As Bogger noted in the nominating papers for West Point Cemetery’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places: “Even though the ten-foot high brick wall separating West Point from the white Elmwood Cemetery is a dramatic reminder of the Jim Crowism that blacks experienced during the aftermath of Reconstruction, West Point allowed them to bury their dead with dignity. They also used the cemetery to gather for their annual Memorial Day observances, and they took casual strolls through the park-like setting in the warm weather months.”
One of the plaques affixed to the monument proudly reads: “To The Memory of Our Heroes 1861-1865.”
To find this area, here is a handy map: