The Geer Cemetery: A Lesson in Black History

More than 1,500 black people are buried in Durham’s Geer Cemetery. (Photo by William Sturkey)
More than 1,500 black people are buried in Durham’s Geer Cemetery. (Photo by William Sturkey)

In a region inundated with debates over Confederate monuments, Black History Month invites us to refocus our attention to a largely unrecognized section of Durham known as the Geer Cemetery. Tucked away in the northeast corner of the Duke Park neighborhood, the 142-year old cemetery is slowly succumbing to the encroaching forest. More than 1,500 black people are buried there. Those everyday black men and women lived and worked and died in this place long before we arrived. Their labor built much of the world in which we now move. Many of them had no choice. Some were enslaved. Others were poor black people who worked segregated jobs during Jim Crow. All of them deserve to be remembered, and their final resting place deserves better than its current state of neglect.

Our landscape is filled with the names of elite white families. Members of these elite white families fought, even killed, to ensure that white and black remain separated and stratified. As we remember their contributions, let us also acknowledge that they perpetuated slavery and Jim Crow. They used the lives of human beings, both black and white, to build their wealth. And when that fortune was earned, a lot of people in those families simply packed up and moved away. Yet, we unflinchingly celebrate the landscape of statues and named-buildings they left in their wake. Today, some people argue that we must maintain those monuments; and that we must forgive the now-unthinkable historical white supremacy of our region’s forebears because of everything else they gave us. To do otherwise, we hear, would be to erase history, or to make elite white families disappear.

These arguments that you “can’t erase history” mistakenly conflate history with the past. The past includes all the events and people that came before us. The past is inextricable. History, on the other hand, is the study of how we portray the past. As those of us who write and teach it know, the study of history also includes who we choose to forget.

As it turns out, you actually can erase history. You can do so by deeming some people less important; by restricting what is written about them; by segregating schools and professions and archives; and by allowing an urban forest to consume the graves of people who society does not value. As we spend hundreds and thousands of hours and dollars worrying about abstract Confederate monuments and the legacies of wealthy white elites, nary a nickel goes toward maintaining the graves of actual people who built our society. As important as those white families were, it was other people who did the digging, laid the bricks, raised the crops, and cared for their children. It was black people. And today, we allow a forest to silently swallow the bones and headstones of those who have truly been erased from history.

Established in 1877, the African American Geer Cemetery predates many of our region’s historical markers. The people buried there include Margaret Ruffin Faucette and Edian Markham—the founders of Durham’s White Rock Baptist Church and Saint Joseph’s AME Church—and Reverend Augustus Shepard, the father of the founder of North Carolina Central University. Most of the folks in the cemetery were just everyday people. Many were at one point enslaved or employed by the elite white families or universities whose pasts we so readily celebrate. 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. They were workers and worshipers; 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.

As we continue to wrestle with the legacies and politics of those we are expected to honor, perhaps we should move a step beyond focusing on the segregationists to more fully recognize the black men and women whose lives and labors laid the foundations of our society. It was in 1900—119 years ago—that the Durham Sun first noted that the black graves in the Geer Cemetery had gone ignored. That neglect is a fact of our past, but it does not have to remain part of how we commemorate our history. Small groups have been working to save and preserve the Geer Cemetery. They need more resources and help. And the city of Durham should take the appropriate actions to ensure that the final resting place of the black men, women, and children interred in the Geer Cemetery receives the same care and respect we give to the graves of white people.

William Sturkey is an assistant professor of History at UNC-Chapel Hill and the author of “Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White.”