Geer Cemetery languishes

By Monique Lewis
NCCU Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE

A funeral is a ceremony for celebrating, respecting and remembering a person’s life. And the place where someone is buried is traditionally a dignified setting.

Lewis_cemetary: Geer Cemetery, resting place to over 1,500 African Americans, some of whom were community leaders, is neglected and needs landscaping. Many of its tombstones are either broken or have fallen over. Staff photo by Matt Phillips.

But at Geer Cemetery in North Durham, the reality is a resting place that is in tatters.

The entire cemetery is overgrown. Trees need to be trimmed or removed. Gravestones are tipped over. Some are broken, perhaps vandalized. Some seem to be missing altogether.

“There’s so many people buried here and there’s so much covered up, literally,” said Jessica Eustice, secretary and vice president of the Friends of Geer Cemetery.

“I mean figuratively covered up — that isn’t in the history books — and literally covered up by dirt and leaves, that we don’t know.”

“Who knows how many headstones were made of wood that are gone today? To me it’s a symbol of America’s denial,” Eustice said.

Geer Cemetery, on four acres of farmland once owned by Jesse Geer, is one of the oldest African-American cemeteries in Durham.

A story told to Roberta Hughes Wright and Wilbur B. Hughes III, the authors of “Lay Down Body: Living History in African American Cemeteries,” states that before the cemetery was established, Geer used the land to bury an 11-year-old African-American boy who had been dragged and killed by a horse while working on Geer’s farm in 1876.

A year later, Geer sold the land to Willie Moore, John Daniels and Nelson Mitchell for $50 to be used as a cemetery for African Americans.

The cemetery, located at 800 Colonial Drive, is home to many prominent African Americans, including the Rev. Dr. Augustus Shepard, pastor of White Rock Baptist Church from 1901 to 1911 and father of James Edward Shepard, founder of N.C. Central University.

Also buried there are Margaret Ruffin Faucette, founder of White Rock Baptist Church, and Edian Markham, founder of Saint Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, two pillars of Durham’s African-American community.

“Many of these people built Durham, and it’s a part of Durham that should be seen as a monument,” Eustice said.

But today’s Geer Cemetery, which has over the years been called City Cemetery, Old City Cemetery, East Durham and Mason Cemetery, can hardly be described as a monument.

It has been neglected since it was closed in 1944 by the Durham County Health Department due to overcrowding.

The problem, Eustice said, is that nobody really knows who owns the land.

“I try to help take care of it,” she said. “It’s across the street from my house so I’m always going to feel a sense of responsibility for it.           “

“Even if we move I’ll feel a sense of responsibility for it,” said Eustice.

The Friends of Geer Cemetery was formed in 2003 to help clean up the cemetery, establish ownership and advocate for maintenance.

The group also has also worked to catalog the names of the burials in the cemetery.

In October 2010, a new Geer Cemetery monument that reads “Geer Cemetery 1877-1944” was installed, with stone donated by Durham Marble Works.

Triangle Brick donated bricks and Nathaniel McLaughlin and William Turner did the installation.

The new monument replaced an old metal marker that had fallen and was covered by underbrush.

There are 1,532 documented burials in the cemetery, but many are undocumented because Durham County did not begin issuing death certificates until 1908.

The cemetery has a long history of neglect.

In 1900, under the headline “Colored Burying Ground North of City Needs Attention,” a reporter wrote: “The colored burying grounds, or cemetery, just beyond Mr. F. C. Geer’s, out on the Roxboro road, is in rather bad shape. Numbers of the graves have sunken in, and in some instances not a thing can be seen to even indicate exactly where some of the graves are located.”

In 1989, a Durham city council member made a motion to have the cemetery cleaned up each year during Black History Month. This, Eustice says, has not been done lately.

The last major clean-up the cemetery received was last May when Keep Durham Beautiful, Inc. did what they could in one day.

According to Eustice, many questions remain about how to restore the cemetery.

She wonders: Can you put stones back together? Can the names be found for unmarked graves?

“These are all questions that come to my mind when I think of how it really ought to be,” Eustice said.

“The cemetery needs a serious commitment of money, energy, and equipment to clean it out. I don’t know if that will ever happen.”