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 link is here: https://vimeo.com/409810044, and the password is simply “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

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