The Geer Cemetery

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					The Geer Cemetery
by Jessie Thompson Sponsored by the Hillsborough Historical Society This is one of a series of short articles on historic topics sponsored by the Hillsborough Historical Society. We thank the author, Jessie Thompson, for letting us publish this work. To read other articles in this series, go to the Historical Society’s page on the Alliance web site at Send comments to
The Geer Cemetery is a quiet monument to the African American history of the Durham, NC area. During the early spring of 2002, Hillsborough resident Bird Stasz and a few others sought documents and oral history to help rejuvenate the cemetery. This site, which lies on the eastern edge of the Duke Park neighborhood, is named for a family descended from a man named John Geer, of German descent. According to the research of Public Historian Rosetta Thorpe of Granville County, John Geer was firmly situated here by 1758. By 1769 John Geer deeded cattle, land, slaves and furniture to his offspring, including his son Frederick. This first Frederick hired Thomas Ross to fight for him in the Revolutionary war. For this area, and at that time, the Geers must have been well-to-do. This Frederick’s will is recorded in Orange County in 1849. He passed some of his land and slaves to Jesse B. Geer and a younger Frederick Geer, men who resided on land that today lies in Durham. At the time the Geer Family settled here, it was Granville County, and then Orange County. This information is confirmed by a will provided by volunteer genealogist Nat Clark, who located this will in the North Carolina Collection in the Orange County Library. Today, the famous African American painter Eddie Barnes turns out to be a descendant of Priscilla Geer, who is named (Sillir) in Frederick Geer’s 1840 will: "Five Negroes named as follows: Aggy [unintelligible] and her [increase] Sillir and her [increase] Peter Sam and Solomon also one feather bed...Then all the balance of my negroes [sic] which may remain at my death I wish to be equally divided between David Geer, William Geer, Jesse B. Geer, Elizabeth Sutherland, Sarah Alston, Lucy Patterson, and the lawful heirs of Patsy Bot[?]." According to the Blount map in the Durham County Library, Jesse and Frederick Geer were neighbors in 1868. Some of the land on which they lived lies in the bounds of today’s Duke Park and Old North Durham neighborhoods, after Brodie Duke and others developed it for the burgeoning population in the early 1900’s. The 1912 will of F.C. Geer designates that much of the land was to go to members of the Cheek, Tatum, Markham, and Geer family. It was to be subdivided into lots and sold. Interestingly, today Cheek Road, Markham Avenue, and Geer Street run through the area. The Geer cemetery was located on Jesse Geer’s land. The site, while now overgrown, holds many a curious tale of intertwining African American and European American lives. Tradition says that the cemetery holds more than the recorded 1500 burials, and may go back to antebellum times. The mystery of this place lies deep in the heart of Piedmont, NC history, and questions about its origin spawned the 2002 investigation under the supervision of Barbara Lau at the Duke Center for Documentary Studies. A neighbor of the cemetery, Clarine, who has relatives buried in the Stagville Cemetery, also speaks of relatives buried here in the Geer Cemetery. Clarine says that Nathaniel Davis, the son of a slave master living in the Snow Camp area, is buried in the Geer Cemetery. His gravesite is said to be marked by two rocks. There is a legend about the origin of this cemetery. An 11-year-old boy working a mule on Geer’s farm is said to have been dragged and killed. Jesse Geer is said to have given permission for the boy to be buried under a tree on the site. By tradition this became an African American burying ground. In 1877, after the ending of Reconstruction, Jesse Geer sold the 2 acres to the African American community for a cemetery. A deed to this property turns out to have been signed for Jesse B. Geer by his

wife Polly in 1877 (marked really, not signed), selling two acres to the following three men as trustees of the land for [then] Orange County in the State of North Carolina: Willis Moore, John Daniels (possibly John O’Daniels, Julian Carr’s half brother), Nelson Mitchell (Nelson Mitchell married Mattie Moore in 1878), and their heirs for a sum of $50, and designating that it was to be used as a cemetery for the "colored people." By the early part of the twentieth century, prominent African American citizens of Durham were being buried in the Geer Cemetery. It turns out that African American leaders such as Margaret Ruffin Faucette, founder of the White Rock Baptist Church; Augustus Shepard, a founder of the Colored Children's’ Orphanage in Oxford and a former minister at the White Rock Baptist Church (not to mention his connection to NCCU); and Edian Markham, founder of St Joseph’s AME Church and the Hayti District, are known to have been buried here. In addition, a large headstone, dedicated to Mary Sparkman, servant to the B. N. Duke family, is found on the site. Because it is referred to as “City Cemetery” on many death certificates of African Americans, it appears to have been taken over by the city of Durham before the opening of the Beechwood Cemetery. According to public record, the Geer cemetery was closed by the health department between 1939 and 1944 due to overcrowding. Jean Bradley Anderson has been a long-time advocate of the Geer Cemetery, having written to the Herald-Sun newspaper about it in the nineteen eighties. It turns out the city fathers worried about overcrowding in the “Negro Cemetery” as early as 1869 and an article was published decrying the neglect of the Geer Cemetery in the Durham Sun in 1900. Community Historian and member of the White Rock Baptist Church, R. Kelly Bryant, Jr. arranged for it to be cleared of underbrush in 1992. With the support of Americorps funds and a Chamber of Commerce Public-Private Ventures demonstration grant, it was cleared by an organization called the “Durham Service Corps.” A map of the cemetery; a list 117 names on headstones; a drawing of how the cemetery must have looked in the 1920’s, and a booklet with lesson plans for high school students were drawn up. Unfortunately, the “Durham Service Corps” went out of business shortly thereafter, and the Geer Cemetery maintenance project was abandoned. As offices changed hands the map and the drawing disappeared. The booklet went out of print though there are a few scattered copies around. One can be found at the downtown branch of the Durham County Library. R. Kelly Bryant, Jr. estimates as many as 3000 people might actually be buried here. After the 2002 investigation, Mr. R. Kelly Bryant, Jr. and others worked together to reconstitute a group (under the auspices of the Historic Preservation Society of Durham) called The Friends of the Geer Cemetery. A reporter, civic leaders, genealogists, historians, media specialists, a web site designer, and interested neighbors have come out to help create a new Geer Cemetery restoration and maintenance project. It is hoped by the Friends of the Geer Cemetery that a documentary video will be produced to promote the project for fundraising and educational purposes. The Historic Preservation Society of Durham agreed to set up a fund to receive contributions for the Friends of the Geer Cemetery. Researcher, genealogist and web site designer Allen Dew offered to maintain a Geer Cemetery web site, and working with Carrie McNair of the research committee, 1500-some names from death certificates have been added to the original list of 117. Interestingly, some headstones located in the cemetery are not identified by death certificates. Others have volunteered to help with the project in other ways. It is exciting that this project has brought neighbors together, giving them a common bond. It is a treasure, and an important part of North Carolina history and, therefore, American history.