Story+ Project

Geer Cemetery: Labor, Dignity, and Practices of Freedom in an African American Burial Ground

(2021)

Durham’s Geer Cemetery, just two miles from Duke’s East Campus, was founded in 1877 by African Americans who were born enslaved. In active use for over 60 years, it became the burial place of Black people who built this city and many of its most important institutions, but also a place of institutional neglect and indignity inflicted upon the dead and their descendants. It stands as an example of the broader “preservation crisis” for African American cemeteries nationwide. A diverse, community-based group of volunteers called the Friends of Geer Cemetery is working to reclaim the cemetery, addressing its physical state as well as its buried histories. The goals of this Story+ project are:

  1. Grapple together with what efforts to reclaim a neglected African American cemetery contribute to reckoning with race and white supremacy in Durham and beyond, and where digital storytelling fits into those efforts;
  2. Research the lives of specific individuals buried at Geer and their families, with an emphasis on ties to the Duke family and the university, especially through overlooked and invisible labor;
  3. Look more broadly at how these individuals, and the people who buried and mourned them in this cemetery, advanced the dignity of the dead and crafted visions of resistance and freedom;
  4. Contribute mini-essays, timelines, archival images and other materials—and new ideas!—to a website that will chronicle the histories of the cemetery and educate the public.

We are seeking to form a research team with members from both Duke and NCCU. All team members will be trained in genealogical research and other relevant methods, and will be considered co-creators not only of the content but also the thematic design, visual format, and other key aspects of this project. We welcome applications from undergraduates with some exposure to archival research, library-based or otherwise, nonfiction writing for a wide audience, and skills in web design, graphic design, or other tools of digital storytelling. That said, more than any particular skill area or prior experience, we are interested to hear about your interests in public history, genealogy, racial justice, death and burial, and/or public space. We are looking for team members who value collaboration, are willing to take initiative but also listen carefully to others, and want exposure to models of community-engaged, public scholarship. To learn more about the project, take a look at this “Histories of Dignity” event (April 2020), which includes (from about mins 20-31) an overview of the cemetery’s history, with images, delivered by Debra Taylor Gonzalez-Garcia. The video is here on vimeo, vimeo.com/409810044, and the password is 'dignity'.

Project Sponsor(s): 

Adam Rosenblatt, Associate Professor of the Practice in International Comparative Studies and board member, Friends of Geer Cemetery

Debra Taylor Gonzalez-Garcia, President of the Friends of Geer Cemetery, genealogist, and instructor at Durham Technical Community College

Nicholas Levy, PhD Candidate in History, Stanford University, and board member, Friends of Geer Cemetery

Carissa Trotta, Counselor at North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics and board member, Friends of Geer Cemetery

Graduate Mentor(s): 

Orilonise D. Yarborough, M.A. Student of Public History, North Carolina Central University

Undergraduates: 

Nyrobi Manuel, Kerry Rork, Huiyin Zhou

Outcome: 

For six weeks, our team worked to explore the history of Geer Cemetery, a historic cemetery with deep connections to the foundations of Durham. Located in the Duke Park neighborhood, Geer Cemetery was the first public non denominational cemetery for African Americans in Durham. However, even as a public cemetery, Geer Cemetery did not enjoy public funding while it was an active cemetery. The cemetery was closed in 1944 by the city due to overcrowding and it is estimated that over 3,000 people are interred in Geer. Due to being a public non denominational cemetery, this city of the dead represents not only prominent founders but everyday citizens who contributed their lives to extraordinary works. Working in partnership with the Friends of Geer Cemetery, Duke University archivists, North Carolina Central University faculty, and descendants of those interred in the cemetery, our researchers worked to study the cemetery in detail, uncover the stories of ordinary citizens and add these stories back into the historic narrative about Geer. Each researcher explored themes of invisibilized labor, Black institution building in the city of Durham, African American burial practices and the connections between Geer Cemetery and Duke University. The result was three distinct and interactive digital research projects that will contribute to the growing digital presence the Friends of Geer Cemetery is developing to showcase the history of the space. Over the six weeks, our team engaged with case studies of cemetery preservation projects, learned about the intricacies of working with community stakeholders, practiced archival research and primary source analysis, and communicated with descendants of those buried in Geer Cemetery. The first half of our time together was spent learning key context about Geer and Durham itself, and about preservation projects of cemeteries across the United States. We also practiced research skills such as conducting oral history interviews, developing life histories, and engaging with genealogy. We explored much in such a truncated time together and while engaging in research, we struggled through questions of how systems of oppression impact historic preservation of life histories, making sense of archival silence (when marginalized people are not represented, or represented only through the gaze of the powerful, in the archives), and the role of physical land as a historical actor with its own unique voice and contributions. Alongside our research on the physical place itself, we spent time analyzing our own individual lives--charting connections between burial practices and traditions at Geer and in our own cultural contexts, charting our own lineages through research, and sharing our own stories of stewarding the dead, engaging with the land and searching for hidden histories in our families and communities.Together, our team sought to explore these questions and more as they supported each other in developing their projects. Their curiosity, analytical skills, and creativity came to the forefront as they worked to develop their projects over the six-week period. Each researcher has given a brief overview of their project in our video. To explore their projects in more depth, please click the links below.

Brothers from the Groove Phi Groove Social Fellowship at a Geer Cemetery workday organized to honor their brother Congressman G. K. Butterfield. Photo taken 11/9/2020 by Adam Rosenblatt

Topic(s)

  • Oral History
  • Civil Rights
  • History
  • African American Studies