Deidre Barnes knows her great-grandfather is buried somewhere in Geer Cemetery, but she does not know where. There is no headstone to tell her where the grave is, no marker. There is only the certainty, she said, that “he’s in there,” resting in the shadows of tall trees, beneath several feet of earth and layers of debris.
Barnes was one of about two dozen people who arrived on Saturday morning at the cemetery, where a small volunteer group called the Friends of Geer Cemetery hosted what they described as “a reclamation celebration.” The group, of which Barnes is a part, has for years hoped to undo more than a half-century’s worth of neglect.
The Geer Cemetery, established in the late 1870s, is the final resting place for 1,500 people, including some of Durham’s prominent African-American citizens. Among them were those born into slavery and others who established churches. Now, almost 60 years after the cemetery’s final burial, parts of it are in danger of being lost to both time and nature.
Throughout the cemetery, countless headstones have gone missing. Others poke out of the ground at sharp angles. Some have eroded to the point of illegibility. Tree branches, leaves and weeds cover much of the land. Depressions in the ground, otherwise unmarked, reveal a final resting place. There’s a sense, among the people who are trying to preserve the cemetery, that history has been lost, and that even more of it stands to disappear unless something is done.
“My hope,” said Andre Carl Whisenton, who has an ancestor buried in Geer, “is that we can get enough financial support and human capital that we can bring this cemetery back. … It’s so historical, and there are so many prominent people that were buried here that were movers and shakers.”
Whisenton, a retired librarian who worked for the Library of Congress, walked slowly through the cemetery Saturday afternoon. He carefully made his way to a commemorative marker, a new one, for Margaret Faucette, a relative who founded the White Rock Baptist Church in 1877. The church is among the oldest in Durham, and Faucette is buried here, amid the decaying leaves and poison ivy.
Even this is an improvement over what the cemetery looked like about five years ago, Whisenton said. Then, he said, walking through the grounds was not possible, due to the overgrowth. In the years since, the members of the Friends of Geer Cemetery have worked to clear some of the property, which borders the Duke Park neighborhood, near the corner of Camden and Colonial Avenues.
‘A big foundation of Durham’
One challenge in restoring the cemetery, said Tom Miller, a member of the Friends of Geer, is the lack of clarity about who owns the land. The Geer family owned the land when the cemetery was established in 1876. The family later sold the property to three men. Now, said James Stewart, another volunteer, the county lists the property’s owner as “unknown.”
“Technically, we’re trespassing,” Miller said to a small group of people who listened as he recounted the cemetery’s history.
Regular burials at the cemetery ceased in the 1940s, but continued sporadically into the 1960s. In the decades after, the land fell into disrepair. It became so unrecognizable over the years, Barnes said, that in her younger days, when she’d ride past the cemetery with her grandfather, she didn’t quite understand when he’d tell her that she had cousins there.
“We would look at the trees and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’ve got cousins living up in the woods?’” she said, laughing. “What in the world?”
When she grew a little older she began to learn the history of the place. Her great-grandfather, John W. Geer, died in 1909. His remains are somewhere among the cemetery’s 3.8 acres, but it might never be clear where, exactly. Nonetheless, now Barnes is hoping that his final resting place becomes more dignified.
“If we could just restore that and get some of the dead trees down and all of the poison ivy,” Barnes said. “If we could just get it cleaned up and restore some of the headstones that are there, so that people would know about the history … it’s a big foundation of Durham, now.
The Friends of Geer Cemetery are hoping that the city of Durham, which does not maintain the land, might get involved to help preserve it. Otherwise, the project is mostly up to volunteers, like the two men who on Saturday worked together to repair a broken headstone for a father and son, buried side by side, who died five years apart in 1925 and 1930.
Their headstone had fallen off its base and was discovered under four inches of dirt and debris. When cleaned, it revealed the name PUREFOY engraved on the bottom. Haywood Purefoy was born in the middle of the Civil War, in 1863, and his son Rufus Baxter was born in 1905. They both worked at American Tobacco, Miller said, near where the Durham Bulls Athletic Park now stands.
For years, nobody can be sure how long, their headstone was covered, hidden, after it broke off. Two volunteers, one of whom made a mixture of lime mortar, placed it back upright again Saturday. They lifted the marble stone together and placed it with care onto the pedestal, its rightful place.
“It ought to be pretty stable,” said Ron Bartholomew, a volunteer from Durham Marble Works.
About two dozen people stood around the grave and watched. Moments later everyone prayed together, and sang Amazing Grace.