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Geer Cemetary - Durham NC

Geer cemetery cleanup on the way

By BEN EVANS, The Herald-Sun
January 19, 2004 11:15 pm

DURHAM -- Geer Cemetery -- Durham's major burial ground for black residents until around 1940 -- is slated to be cleaned up for the first time since 1991 after the City Council approved nearly $14,260 to pay for the project.

The cemetery's supporters hope the maintenance will help galvanize efforts to restore and preserve the historic site.

The property has no known owner and has been unattended for decades, its headstones and gravesites overgrown with scrub trees and brush. Old wooden caskets in some of the graves have collapsed, leaving deep rectangular indentions in the ground.

A group called Friends of Geer Cemetery, which formed last year, initially had hoped to organize a community cleanup and arrange for regular maintenance. The response was good, but special concerns involved in cleaning a cemetery without disturbing the graves complicated the effort, said Kelly Bryant, a former N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co. executive and local historian who was active in Durham's civil rights movement.

The group later requested that the city pay for the cleanup, citing a state law that authorizes cities to maintain or take over cemeteries whose owners have died or are unknown.

Earlier this month, the council voted unanimously to hire the nonprofit group Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers to do the initial work. The council also agreed to spend $850 every three months for the next year to maintain the 3.8-acre property on Colonial Street near Avondale Drive in the Duke Park neighborhood.

"After that, we would have to find funding. In other words, they're giving us a year to find out how we might find more funding," said Bryant, whose grandfather, great-grandfather and other relatives are buried there.

The Friends group hopes to explore options for state or federal recognition of the cemetery as a historic site, a status that might help them win grant funding for maintenance. Bryant and Jesse Eustice, a Duke Park resident who lives across the street from the cemetery, said they also want to further explore the cemetery's history.

Eustice, a former history teacher, said she is applying to graduate programs in history at area universities and hopes to use the cemetery as a basis for her studies.

The Geer Cemetery operated from at least 1877 until 1939, when it grew overcrowded and the city closed it. Beechwood Cemetery, a city-run cemetery for black residents, opened in 1929.

Although there only 117 graves with tombstones at the Geer Cemetery, death certificate records indicate that as many as 1,500 to 2,000 people may have been buried there. The known graves include those of Edian Markham, founder of St. Joseph's African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Augustus Shepard, a pastor at White Rock Baptist Church whose son James founded what is now N.C. Central University.

In 1991, an AmeriCorps organization, Durham Service Corps, received grant funding to clean up the site and conduct research into its history. The group later published a summary of its work called "Reclaiming Yesterday."

"[The city is] going to have to be a catalyst until we can get some other group to take it on," City Councilman Howard Clement said. "That is a historic site. I'm just sorry that it's too far off the radar screen that more people don't know about it."

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18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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