In Plain Sight

Geer Cemetery, Durham | Through March 7

More than a few of the grave markers at an old Black cemetery in North Durham are inscribed with the words, “Gone but not forgotten,” or “In loving remembrance.”

Nestled in the Duke Park neighborhood, on Colonial Street between Camden Avenue and McGill Place, Geer Cemetery sits on about four acres of raised land. Many of the people who were buried at the cemetery were born during slavery, and for nearly 80 years, they were forgotten, or, at best, barely remembered.

Two granite monuments attest to the importance of Geer Cemetery in the lives of African Americans in Durham at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. These markers honor two of the city’s Black Christian pioneers, whose churches still stand along the Fayetteville Street corridor in south Durham: Margaret Faucette, who started the White Rock Baptist Church in a rented room used for worship, and Edian Markham, who started the St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Church at a brush arbor in the woods.

Faucette and Markham’s graves have not yet been located at the cemetery.

“We don’t know where they’re buried unless we find a headstone,” says Debra Taylor Gonzalez-Garcia, president of the Friends of Geer Cemetery. “Their death certificates say they are buried there. We know they’re buried there. Right now, we don’t know where.”

After a years-long effort to restore and renovate the cemetery, and remember, and revere some of the city’s earliest African American residents, In Plain Sight, an outdoor educational exhibit at the cemetery, opened this Saturday. It will continue through early March.

The exhibit, according to its website, “will challenge us to confront the persistence of long-standing inequity—in death as well as in life.” The website notes that more than 1,500 men, women, and children were buried in Geer Cemetery from 1877 to 1944—“many of them experiencing slavery, rural-to-urban-migration, and the inhumanity of Jim Crow firsthand.”

As part of the exhibit, William Sturkey, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is scheduled to participate in a February 20 virtual panel discussion. In 2019—during Black History Month, and at the height of the Confederate monument debate—Sturkey wrote an essay for the News & Observer on the impact of the cemetery.

“Those black people, ranging in age from less than a day to over a hundred years, lie interned in the northeast corner of Duke Park,” Sturkey wrote. “They were workers and worshippers; dreamers and builders; and mothers and fathers and sons and daughters. They were people who lived diverse, complex lives in this place. They were black people whose legacies and memories our society should value. They were black lives that mattered.”

North Carolina Central University historian and archivist Andre Vann will also take part in the panel.

“Finding a cemetery is a form of activism, because it gives us an opportunity to reveal people who deserve our attention and who should be a part of the public memory,” Vann told the INDY. “It’s giving dignity to those who are interred, and it offers us the opportunity to write them into history.”

Vann added that the law did not allow Black people and white people to be buried side by side, and that the City’s gravest sin was making African Americans pay taxes “for other people to be buried,” prior to the City opening the Beechwood Cemetery for Durham’s Black residents.

“In essence, that’s taxation without representation,” Vann said. “These are invisible pioneers, and they are so deserving to be recognized.”

The exhibit also highlights individuals whose history is still alive. According to Vann, Maggie Bryant, the 105-year-old great-great-granddaughter of White Rock Baptist founder Margaret Faucette, will supply photos for the exhibit.

On a recent walk through the cemetery, on a cold and wet January afternoon, the grounds were matted with brown leaves and fallen branches from the stand of tall deciduous trees that dot the cemetery. Some of the grave markers are without birth dates; more than a few are chipped, cracked, or even broken in half. Some contain only the initials of the deceased. Others have no name at all. Yet they stand. The entire setting is an invaluable antique—a Bull City family heirloom.

The first known deed for the property, Gonzalez-Garcia told the INDY, shows that the land was sold in 1877 to three African Americans: Nelson Mitchell, Willie Moore, and John O’Daniel, who was rumored to be the half-brother of wealthy industrialist and prominent racist Julian Carr. The three men purchased the rural farmland to create an African American burial ground in what was then Orange County, from Jesse and Polly Geer.

“It was created because there were no public cemeteries for African Americans to be buried,” Gonzalez-Garcia said. “Today, the community is predominantly white, but at the time of the land purchase, there were no neighbors.”

The cemetery was known by various names over the decades before it closed: the City Cemetery, Old City Cemetery, East Durham and Mason Cemetery, City Colored Cemetery, Old Colored Cemetery, Geer Cemetery, Ferrell Cemetery, and East Cemetery.

“I’m not sure why it was called the City Cemetery, because it was not managed by the City at all,” Gonzalez-Garcia said. “Right now, it’s listed as abandoned.”

The Herald-Sun reported in 2015 that the cemetery was closed in 1939 by the health department because it was overcrowded, although there was a burial in 1944.

“There are oral stories of people being buried on top of each other,” Gonzalez-Garcia said. “Some of the graves had wooden [markers] that have long since deteriorated.”

She says a list of deceased buried in the cemetery was compiled in the 1930s by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, and is currently available on the Cemetery Census website. She also has a list of the names of people who were buried, though it’s unclear where. In 1924, Durham City officials created Beechwood Cemetery to, according to the city’s website, “consolidate overfilling and neglected black cemeteries in the city” at the Geer, Violet Park, Geer Fitzgerald, and Hickstown burial grounds.

“There were burials [at the Geer Cemetery] after that, but it was with families who had plots,” Gonzalez-Garcia said. “Even before Beechwood opened, there are records of Black leaders approaching the city for another burial ground. Beechwood was the answer to ‘equal but separate.’”

Many of those buried were moved to Beechwood Cemetery, including O’Daniel and Augustus Shepard, the father of James E. Shepard, who was the founder of N.C. Central. Decades before it closed, the cemetery was in worrisome condition. In early 1900, The Durham Sun published a story with the headline, “Colored Burying Ground North of City Need Attention.”

In the early 2000s, the group now known as Friends of Geer Cemetery began to clean up the area. The group received a big boost last year, when the City started to assist with maintenance. Supporters visit the cemetery quarterly to lend a hand.

“We come out to help get rid of the poison ivy,” Gonzalez-Garcia said. “It’s lots of poison ivy out there.”

In recent months, the organization has focused on preserving the historical legacy of the burial grounds. That work includes collaborating with Duke University students who research the histories of the deceased. Volunteers turn those individual histories into literary celebrations of the deceased, by posting their stories on social media on their birthdays.

On January 18, for example, as a group of high school students worked to clean the cemetery, the Friends of Geer Cemetery Facebook page honored William Bullock, whose grave marker indicates that he was born that day in 1852 and, according to the tribute, was a “tobacco hand and a tobacco picker, with his family living east of the city limits and then on Proctor Street, in the emerging Hayti neighborhood.”

The Geer and Beechwood cemeteries, Gonzalez-Garcia says, “are remnants of Jim Crow,” and evidence of Black American resiliency and triumph.

“We were good at taking care of ourselves while fighting the good fight,” she told the INDY. “This exhibit is incomplete until all their stories are told.”

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