NCCU students encouraged to join Geer Cemetery cleanups

March 29, 2023

Geer Cemetery, now in a dilapidated state, was the initial resting place of the Rev. Augustus
Shepard, father of N.C. Central University founder James E. Shepard. The Rev. Augustus Shepard was born into slavery in 1842. After studying theology at Shaw University, he pastored Durham’s White Rock Baptist Church from 1901 until his death in 1911. His remains were later moved to Beechwood Cemetery.

Other notable members of the Black community buried at Geer Cemetery include Edian Markum, founder of St. Joseph’s A.M.E. Church and Margaret Faucette, founder of White Rock Baptist Church.

The 4-acre cemetery, located in northeast Durham at 800 Colonial Street, was the first African-American cemetery in Durham. In fact, it was the only cemetery for the city’s African-Americans from 1876, when it opened, to 1924. Over 3,000 people, many of whom are former slaves, were buried in the space before it was closed in 1934 by the health department due to
overcrowding.

“Out of the 3 largest African-American cemeteries that were established in the 1800s, this is the only one still standing,” said Debra Gonzalez-Garcia, Board President of Friends of Geer Cemetery. “It contains the life stories of people who helped to establish Durham and make it what it is today.” The Friends of Geer Cemetery have identified 1,500 of the initial 3,000 individual buried in the cemetery.

The Friends of Geer Cemetery is a group that was formed in 2003 to clean up and restore the space. Currently, four descendants of people buried in Geer cemetery are on the board of directors of the organization.

“We need to preserve Black cemeteries because they are these sacred locations, they’re full of history, and the people [buried] here haven’t gotten the respect they deserve if they’re covered in ivy,” said Parkwood high school student and volunteer for Friends of Geer Cemetery Kamilah Mayer.

According to OpenDurham.org Geer Cemetery – at times also called City Cemetery, Old City Cemetery, East Durham and Mason Cemetery – originated with the 1876 burial of an 11-year-old boy working on the farm of Jesse Geer. The boy had been killed after being dragged by a horse, and his family requested that he be buried under a tree near where he was killed.

A year later, three men bought the land for $50 and turned the area into the first Black burial ground in the city.

“Geer Cemetery was established in 1877 by three men who wanted a place to bury their kin,” said Carissa Trotta, Friends of Geer Cemetery board member.

“Many of the folks here came out of slavery, and they moved into Durham for tobacco and to create their own livelihoods. There wasn’t a place to bury kin. There was the lovely white cemetery Maplewood, but there wasn’t a place for Black members to bury family.”

“So they purchased the land from a man named Jesse Geer. They bought half of his property, and individuals of the Durham community could buy individual lots and bury their loved ones here.”

Geer Cemetery is open to the public, but it isn’t the prettiest sight: it began to fall into disarray in the mid-1900s. When you arrive, you’ll see overturned trees, broken tombstones, overgrown vegetation, unmarked graves, and massive pits on the ground where the graves are.

“The thing about this place was the Black members of the community were paying their taxes, but their tax money went to Maplewood. This was not city-owned, so their tax dollars weren’t coming here. They were responsible for caretaking their own plots,” said Trotta. “We found newspaper articles [from the 1900s] asking for more money from the city.”

“There’s a headstone here for Samuel Barbie who was an undertaker for the Black community,” said Trotta.

“He buried many of the folks here and he himself is buried here. There’s tremendous history in this space that has unfortunately over the years been disrupted by misuse and abuse.”

Friends of Geer Cemetery and another organization called Keep Durham Beautiful are organizing weekly cleanups of the site that happen every Saturday from 10 a.m.to noon. Prior registration is not required to participate. There are also occasional events hosted at the cemetery.

You can contact Friends of Geer Cemetery at [email protected]. If you are curious to see if you have an ancestor buried at Geer, you can check the Friends of Geer Cemetery’s burial search on their website friendsofgeercemetery.org.

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