DURHAM — Clarine Hyman did not even know there was a cemetery across the street when she moved into her house in Duke Park.
Then she found out she probably has ancestors buried there.
Hyman stood up from planting yellow daisies Saturday in front of the stone marker that now announces Geer Cemetery, 1877-1944, one of Durham’s oldest black cemeteries, at 800 Colonial St.
“My father pointed it out,” said Hyman, who grew up in Chapel Hill. “I’m even supposed to have relatives here, but I don’t know where they are. The grave is only marked by a rock.”
The marker, donated by Ron Bartholomew of Durham Marble Works, now tells passers-by these are burial grounds. But a few yards past it, shaded by tall pines and hardwood trees, many of the gravestones lay upended or hidden by underbrush. Time has erased the engraved names on some of the headstones. Untold hundreds more resting places are unmarked.
The oldest recording of the cemetery dates to 1877, said Jessie Eustice, a graduate student in history at N.C. Central University and member of the Friends of Geer Cemetery. The mapmaker drew a colored cemetery from memory of how it looked in 1865, and the cemetery was later sold to three men “for the colored communities of Orange County,” back when Durham was a part of Orange County, she said.
Some 1,500 people were buried in Geer Cemetery between 1908 and when it closed in 1944, according to death certificates. But it’s estimated at least another 1,500 preceded those, Eustice said.
The Friends and NCCU’s E.E. Thorpe Graduate Student Historians Society held Saturday’s clean-up. They bagged trash, planted flowers and held a closing moment of silence.
“These people buried here, each had dreams, hopes and aspirations of their own,” Eustice said. Some born into slavery did not see much improvement as Jim Crow laws took hold, she said. “As long as the great project that is America has not achieved this ideal, we must keep their dreams, hopes and aspirations alive,” she said.
Deirdre Brooks, also an NCCU history graduate student, said it will take many more work days to restore the cemetery.
The volunteers had hoped to do more, “ but it’s a lot of work, a lot of manpower,” she said. “This is gong to be an ongoing project.”
The Geer Cemetery – at times called City Cemetery, Old City Cemetery, East Durham and Mason Cemetery – came about in 1876 when an 11-year-old boy working on the farm of Jesse Geer was killed by a horse and his family asked to bury him under a tree where he was killed, according to historian Gary Kueber’s “Open Durham” online inventory of people places and the history of Durham.
Not all the headstones are damaged, and the nearly 4-acre grounds do contain larger memorials to some of Durham’s most notable black residents. Edian Markum, founder of St. Joseph’s A.M.E. Church; Margaret Faucette, founder of White Rock Baptist Church; and Augustus Shepard, father of NCCU founder James Shepard; are among those buried there.
But by the beginning of the 1900s, the cemetery was already falling into disrepair. Eustice, who also lives across the street, remembers the wisteria and poison ivy that grew everywhere.
Her goal is to see “a beautiful, serene resting place,” she said.
In a way, with the late-afternoon sun weaving through the trees on a warm, winter afternoon and the soft crunch of leaves and pine needles underfoot, it already is.
“I grew up next to a cemetery, and I thought living next to a cemetery was a wonderful thing,” Eustice said. “When I was little I thought spirits would come out of the cemetery and become part of the wind, and I thought that was really cool.”