Lost to time: Overgrown Durham cemetery holds centuries of history

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- A plot of land surrounded by houses in Durham is the location of more than 1,500 burials--most of them unmarked and lost to time.

"This is a community of untold stories," Jessica Thompson Eustice said. Eustice is a historian with Friends of Geer Cemetery, a group working to preserve and restore the cemetery.

It's easy to drive past Geer Cemetery. If you aren't paying attention, you'd never notice the cemetery nestled in the 800 block of Colonial Street. It is a wooded plot of land that stretches more than two acres.

A marker at the front of the cemetery dates it as starting in 1877, but that's not the full story.

According to the Museum of Durham History, that is the year Jesse Geer, a slave owner, sold the land to a group of Durham residents to be used as a graveyard for African Americans, according to. A year prior, an 11-year-old farmhand who worked for Geer died and was buried on the property.

Eustice said she believes that young boy was not the first buried on the land. She believes the area was used as a graveyard for the people Geer enslaved, but official records that could help prove that do not exist.

That's the case with a lot of things related to Geer Cemetery and Jesse Geer--there's no biography or easily searchable website filled with information. The Museum of Durham History has a small write up related to the topic in its History Beneath Our Feet section.

Therefore, if any enslaved persons were buried at the present site of Geer Cemetery--as Eustice believes there were--there are no records to document their life or final resting place.

Even after the cemetery became official, the record-keeping is filled with holes. In North Carolina, death certificates did not officially exist until 1913. According to our newsgathering partners at the News & Observer, at least 1,500 people were buried in Geer Cemetery from 1908 to 1944.

Eustice's research suggests there have been at least 3,000 people buried in Geer Cemetery.

Most of those have been lost to time.

Walking through the cemetery you'll see toppled and broken headstones, as well as casket-sized depressions in the ground that signify unmarked, sunken graves where wood coffins are decaying.

Early prominent members of the black community are buried there...somewhere. Friends of Geer Cemetery put up approximate markers to remember those like Reverend Augustus Shepard, the founder of Oxford Central Children's Orphanage and father to James Shepard, the man who would go on to establish North Carolina Central University.

This plot of land is also the final resting place to Ediam Markham.

"The organizer of Hayti Business District," Eustice said. "And he founded what is now St. Joseph's AME church. I think that time it was Union Bethel."

Friends of Geer Cemetery isn't exactly sure when Markham is buried, but a headstone signifies an approximate location.

Geer Cemetery was closed in 1944 by the Durham City Health Department for overcrowding.

Now it sits as a marker of the past, one that hides thousands of stories of human beings who were discriminated against in life and again in death.

It's that discrimination that Friends of Geer Cemetery hopes to rectify.

"I think that was discrimination against African Americans that there haven't been records kept the way that (they were at) like Maplewood (Cemetery) for example." Eustice said. "My view is that this is a community of untold stories. The stories, as much as possible, need to be told."

Friends of Geer Cemetery is always looking for volunteers to help rake and clean up the land. They're also looking for donations of materials and/or money. Email Eustice at JEustice50@gmail.com for more information.
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