In four days, Barbara Newport of England plans to embark on her first trip to the United States to explore Lincolnton, the native town of her now-deceased father, to search for long-lost family members and clues to her past.
“I might find some closure to a corner of ‘who I am’ whilst I am still able to travel,” she told the Times-News earlier this month. “I need to act now.”
Recovering from cancer, Newport, 70, fears she will soon be unable to put forth much effort into uncovering her family history, particularly information about her father, Blair Chapman, a man she barely knew.
The only picture she has of him was taken of her and her parents when she was six months old.
“I remember sitting with a man in the garden, whose gaze told me he thought I was the most wonderful thing he had ever seen,” she said.
With the three little facts she had on Chapman — his birth date, military number and knowledge of his native state being North Carolina — she searched for more information without much success from 1990 to the mid 2000s.
Newport said her mother, who moved from Ireland to England at age 16 to join the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF), met Newport’s American military father while the two were stationed in England during World War II. Shortly after, her mother became pregnant out of wedlock, a taboo topic Newport said people didn’t discuss openly at the time.
“My mother never spoke about my father, and I never asked,” she said.
However, her mother eventually unlocked the door to her past and talked about Chapman after Newport got engaged in the 1960s, but even still, the inquisitive young woman didn’t begin truly searching for her father until after her mother died.
Newport gave up her search roughly five years ago after writing to multiple military veterans and centers containing U.S. Army records.
“I felt I had reached a dead-end,” she said.
Her quest picked up again suddenly last year after a man who operates a American war museum near in England located an online photo of her father’s headstone at Asbury United Methodist Church in Lincolnton.
“I gave him the details I had of Blair, and 24 hours later on my laptop screen came the photo,” Newport said.
The photo had a link to findagrave.com, where she stumbled upon Lincolnton resident Sue Bradley, the woman who had taken the photo.
Newport clarified that while numerous photos had been taken over the years of Chapman family headstones, Bradley “was the one who offered to go the extra mile” for her.
“I clicked the ‘thank’ button, and that was the beginning of our friendship,” Newport said.
From there, the two started emailing each other quite frequently about the British-born woman’s family history.
Bradley told the Times-News she has been grave hunting and researching genealogies since 1999.
“I would go to cemeteries reading headstones, looking for my ancestors, taking pictures,” she said.
Her hobby turned into a passion after she lost a brother to bone marrow cancer before he had the chance to learn more about his past.
“I swore not another (sibling) would die without knowing who their ancestors were,” Bradley said.
Her hunt for Chapman’s history took an interesting turn when she discovered the State Bureau of Investigation had assisted Lincoln County deputies in investigating his untimely death, reports of which filled the Times-News’ predecessor, The Lincoln County News in June 1949.
According to one archived article, Chapman, 30, was located “near the Carolina and North Western Railroad line” water tank “in a decomposed condition;” an article in the Gaston Gazette described the body as “battered.”
More than one suspect was jailed in the case, but the men were later released and Chapman’s death ruled the result of natural causes. However, according to a copy of Chapman’s death certificate issued in August 1949 by the North Carolina State Board of Health’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, the coroner’s jury verdict was worded quite differently, stating natural causes was “not definitely determined.”
Bradley was hooked with her find, and with every new detail she uncovered about Chapman, she contacted Newport.
“She was like a sponge,” Bradley said, “absorbing every drop I gave her. It was a euphoria I have never experienced in my researches.”
She even got her hands on journal entries that former Lincoln County Sheriff George Rudisill, who served from 1936 to 1950, wrote during the perplexing case.
Bradley said a friend of hers who was familiar with several Sheriff’s Office employees procured the journal from one of Rudisill’s relatives who works for the local agency.
Bradley also provided the Times-News with copies of the entries. In them, Rudisill confirmed that SBI investigators were called in to assist with the death investigation but were unable to find “evidence substantiating a murder.”
After doing extensive research at various county libraries along with calling and corresponding with multiple funeral homes and the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, Bradley was unsuccessful in closing the door on what she and Newport still suspected was an unsolved murder case.
Newport even took it upon herself to email SBI officials in August, asking them for any case information they had on her father. In reply, the agency told her that while their records date back to 1938, they could not locate Chapman’s case or any other Lincolnton death investigation during that time. She then contacted the agency a second time but said she never heard back.
While Newport was unsettled to know that additional information couldn’t be unearthed about her father’s mysterious passing, and because Bradley had already tracked down all the other Chapman family graves in the area, Newport set her sights on learning more about his life.
“There was only one thing left to do — come and see for myself where they (family) had lived, visit my father’s grave and see … a little of the place where he had lived,” she said.
Newport looks forward this month to discovering Lincolnton and the places Chapman lived during the 1920 and 30s, making sure to “leave no stone unturned.”
“So that when I return home, I can say to myself, ‘I have done all I can to find a small part of him,’” she said.
Newport is set to visit the area through March 19. She has also encouraged living relatives or anyone else with information on her father’s side of the family to contact her at email@example.com.
“When you have never known a parent, there are always questions regarding who you are and where you might have come from,” she said.