The Archaeology of Death at a Southern Black Cemetery

The backmost section of Geer Cemetery.

Danielle Vander Horst
The backmost section of Geer Cemetery, hedged in by a commercial parking lot.
Durham, North Carolina's Geer Cemetery is sparking new conversations about what it means to care for a cemetery and how American history is being told

Durham, North Carolina's Geer Cemetery is sparking new conversations about what it means to care for a cemetery and how American history is being told.

Danielle Vander Horst

Michael Williams with student visitors from Duke University at Geer Cemetery.

“I feel like I can stand a little bit taller, that I have a connection to American history as well as my own.”

Michael Williams

Should one find themselves at the corner of Camden Avenue and Colonial Street in Durham, North Carolina they will find a block of property, quiet and unassuming, canopied under a hundred years’ worth of tree growth. A dirt and pebble path trails through a small cemetery, where stone and cement grave markers intermittently dot the landscape. An intrepid visitor could count the headstones and find them to number around 200. Yet these markers are only the tip of a much larger iceberg, one that includes more than 1,500 burials.

After emancipation, Durham’s Black community was faced with the question of where to bury and honor their dead as cemeteries were still under laws of segregation. A group of three freedmen sought a solution and purchased a plot of land in 1877 for just such a purpose.

For forty-seven years, Geer Cemetery operated as Durham’s sole Black cemetery. By 1939, Geer had been deemed overcrowded and was closed, though one last burial took place in 1944. Between then and now, Geer has miraculously managed to evade complete destruction, but the damage of neglect and outright abuse is starkly apparent with just a glance.

Overrun by destructive tree and ivy growth, vandalism, and developments that have boxed the cemetery in on every side with roads, houses, and telephone company parking lots, Geer is a far cry from what most people would assume a cemetery should be and look like—a problem endemic to countless Black cemeteries. In fact, up until a few years ago, the property was so densely overgrown that it wasn’t even recognizable as a burial place.

In 2020, the Friends of Geer Cemetery—a community volunteer group—arranged for the city of Durham to do some basic maintenance and support of the space such as clearing debris and the removal of overly zealous ivy. Despite these improvements, much of the cemetery remains covered by dense undergrowth, not to mention the annual accrual of fallen leaves and branches.

The task thus becomes a balancing act: How to pursue progress and maintenance while also paying heed to Geer’s fragile state. “We are very cautious with our work preserving the physical space,” says Friends of Geer President, Deborah Taylor-Gonzalez. “We know that there are artefacts in there that will help us to explain some of the narratives, so one of our initial goals is to have an archaeological survey.”

Surveying the entire cemetery through various means would help volunteers to know exactly where unmarked graves and bounded family plots lie, however, such work is not without its complications.

GPR (ground-penetrating radar) is a common archaeological survey method that allows one to see structures and potential areas of archaeological interest beneath the surface. Unfortunately, it requires a relatively flat surface area to be truly effective. Geer’s terrain is bumpy, to say the least. Tree growth and the dips of settled graves make matters even more complex. There is also, of course, the associated cost of equipment and enlisting knowledgeable users to do the work.

This is where the Durham Black Burial Grounds Collaboratory comes in. With funding from the Duke Endowment and spearheaded by Professors Adam Rosenblatt and Alicia Jiménez of Duke University, Professor Charles Johnson of NCCU, and Khadija McNair of the Stagville State Historic Site, the Collaboratory was formed with the intent of mobilizing scholarship and university level resources to assist in the preservation and reclamation of Black burial grounds across the wider Durham area.

Geer Cemetery
Photo by Danielle Vander Horst with permission of the Durham Black Burial Grounds Collaboratory.

The main entrance to Geer Cemetery. The sign denotes the lifespan of the cemetery, 1877-1944, and its address at 800 Colonial Street, Durham, NC.

Geer Cemetery
Photo by Danielle Vander Horst with permission of the Durham Black Burial Grounds Collaboratory.

The back of the Geer Cemetery entrance sign which details a portion of Geer’s history and some of the esteemed figures who were interred within.

Geer Cemetery
Photo by Danielle Vander Horst with permission of the Durham Black Burial Grounds Collaboratory.

Annice Glenn’s tombstone at Geer Cemetery. Born into slavery and died free, Annice’s grave is still honored today with a memento of flowers. Leaf and ivy coverage make it difficult to know the boundaries of Annice’s grave and any others near her.

Geer Cemetery
Photo by Danielle Vander Horst with permission of the Durham Black Burial Grounds Collaboratory.

Mary Sparkman’s gravestone in its current position, toppled off its base, lying amongst the leaves. Even in death she is not truly autonomous, identified to this day by her connection to the Duke family.

Geer Cemetery
Photo by Danielle Vander Horst with permission of the Durham Black Burial Grounds Collaboratory.

A headstone for one David McNeal leans against a fallen tree, the parking lot of a phone company visible in the background. Natural and developmental disruptions threaten the integrity of the property at Geer and are very common.

Geer Cemetery
Photo by Danielle Vander Horst with permission of the Durham Black Burial Grounds Collaboratory.

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The backmost section of Geer cemetery is hedged in by a parking lot for a telephone company. Fallen trees are a common disruption in this portion of the cemetery and pose threats to the preservation of headstones.
Danielle Vander Horst

The backmost section of Geer cemetery is hedged in by a parking lot for a telephone company. Fallen trees are a common disruption in this portion of the cemetery and pose threats to the preservation of headstones.

Geer Cemetery
Danielle Vander Horst

Duke Classical Studies Graduate Students Andrew Welser and Tara Wells use raking light from a flashlight to read the inscription on a weather-worn headstone at Geer.

Each with their own unique perspective and interest, the four scholars at the heart of the Collaboratory, in partnership with Friends of Geer Cemetery, have helped to flesh out the complex and varied levels of connection and intrinsic importance that Geer represents for the Durham community across an incredible length of time. Their collective efforts bring the space into new conversations about what it means to care for a cemetery and make us question how we are telling American history.

Khadija McNair’s (Stagville) focus is primarily on genealogical inquiries regarding those interred at Geer and how they intersect with the Stagville plantation, Geer, and beyond. Since Geer was established in 1877, it is of no surprise that: A) many individuals within were born into slavery, and B) that records of births, deaths, marriages, and other critical life markers are often poor to nonexistent, as was often the case for historic Black communities in this region and across the American South. When one also considers the amount of familial separation that occurred pre-emancipation, it makes record hunting all the more difficult. Stagville alone has record of 1100 freed individuals, which means hundreds of thousands of descendants today. Even so, for McNair, the payoffs of the work far exceed the challenges.

“It’s the stories of these people that really drives my work,” McNair says and, in spite of the difficulties presented by volume and documentation quality, “it’s even more fulfilling when you can piece together a story from these documents.” A born and raised Durham native, McNair’s endeavors also result in uncovering aspects of her own local history that never made it into her general education. “We lift up all these white men with money and power but we don’t talk about the people who made it happen, who made the money.”

“Black history is Durham’s history and that Durham’s history is US history.”

The Duke family, the eponymous university founders, are a prime example of this unbalanced history. A fortune made in tobacco fields, a quintessential American dream, but done so upon the labor and efforts of a predominately Black workforce. Thus, while McNair is focused on making genealogical connections for present individuals to their pasts in Geer, she is also focused on understanding the past lives of those whose stories are yet untold.

Of particular interest are Caroline Barnes and Mary Sparkman—two Black women born into slavery, known to have worked for the Duke family in intimate positions, and whom, McNair argues, played an integral role in Washington Duke’s decision to commit funding to Lincoln Hospital, the first African-American hospital in Durham. Both Barnes and Sparkman are buried in Geer.

Further afield in Durham, Professor Charles Johnson’s (NCCU) work focuses on the historic Bragtown and Hayti communities of Durham and the roles that their members played in building up legacies of Black excellence and success. Many of the movers and shakers from these communities are directly tied to Geer through individual burials, family plots, and records from Black-owned funeral homes, and many of their legacies live on today. For example, the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company was founded in 1868 by James Shepard, among others, who is tied to the land at Geer.

Danielle Vander Horst

Duke Lecturing Fellow, Ed Triplett (Art, Art History and Visual Studies) takes a georeferenced data point as a part of the archaeological survey work at Geer.

Surveying the entire cemetery through various means would help volunteers to know exactly where unmarked graves and bounded family plots lie, however, such work is not without its complications.

 

These modern-day connections bring home to Professor Johnson the cruciality of “descendants always having a say,” in what goes on at Geer. Thus, the importance of reclaiming the physical space at Geer is also about reclaiming unwritten histories and lives lost to the steamrollering power of traditional hegemonic and racist narratives. For descendants of both Geer and Stagville such as Michael Williams then, a New York state adoptee in reunion, the journey of reconnecting his present ties to past roots in Geer is also about finding himself represented in the story of his country. “I feel like I can stand a little bit taller,” says Williams, “that I have a connection to American history as well as my own.”

But, the work does not stop there. In fact, these factors bring a wide array of moral, ethical, and justice-related issues to the surface. Professor Adam Rosenblatt (Duke) studies care for the dead in the wake of human rights violations and structural injustices based on race, disability, and other forms of marginalization. For him, Geer is much more than something to be fixed or a lesson to be learned. He sees an opportunity to bring to light a crucial aspect of American social history that is so often neglected and silenced in our narratives.

Geer is what Professor Rosenblatt calls a case of “care disruption,” wherein there are generations of people who wanted to care for their dead but were stopped from doing so through various interventions. Of those interred in Geer, the Great Migration cut ties for many and some family links were lost entirely. The latter was the case for Michael Williams’ family. It is in the reforging of these historic ties that Professor Rosenblatt sees Geer as “becoming about justice but also becoming about care.” He recognizes that the institution he is employed by played a significant role in the racial and social stratification of Durham’s historical and burial landscapes. Thus, Professor Rosenblatt sees the work with Friends of Geer Cemetery as a modest chance to “help Duke reconfigure its relationship with Durham” through the support of a community-led project centered around care and respect. Additionally, this work has created a space where his students can forge deep and meaningful ties with the Durham community, a place they will call home for at least four years of their lives.

Professor Alicia Jiménez (Duke) sees the situation similarly and takes care to introduce her own students to the importance of engaging with their local histories. Though her academic research lies in the ancient Roman world, Professor Jiménez brings a nuanced post-colonial approach to Geer, particularly in terms of how we understand burial spaces and customs. It is through “insights from the anthropology of death that classical archaeologists” can contribute to the conversation on “race, racism and collective memories in the US.”

A Spaniard by birth, Jiménez is keenly aware of how “care disruption” can impact one’s ties to their personal histories and an understanding of their place within society. For example, mass graves from the Spanish Civil Wars are still being discovered across Spain. Thus, she sees contributing to the work at Geer as a way to continue her “fight for social justice in [her] adoptive home country,” while also reflecting with her students on the fact that “Black history is Durham’s history and that Durham’s history is US history.”

Fundamentally, Geer is about care and respect–about making and re-making space for the honoring of a community’s dearly departed. And, while the aim of combatting harmful and racist narratives from the past is central to what Geer can do, it remains just as important to give voice back to the silenced and to repeople our past in a way that reflects the realities of those who lived through it.

Friends of Geer and the Durham Black Burials Ground Collaboratory are also indebted to the work of Andrew Tharler (Duke University) and Ed Triplett (Duke University) on the ongoing archaeological surveying and digital recording of Geer Cemetery.

About the Author

Danielle Vander Horst

Dani is a Ph.D. student in Classical Archaeology at Duke University. She has excavated with multiple projects in Italy and predominately researches ancient identities in the northwestern Roman provinces.

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