The story goes that the Geer Cemetery - at times also called City Cemetery, Old City Cemetery, East Durham and Mason Cemetery - originated with the 1876 burial of an 11 year old boy working on the farm of Jesse Geer; he had been accidentally killed by a horse, and his family requested that he be buried under a tree near where he was killed.
Per Allen Dew's excellent Cemetery Census site:
On March 28, 1877 a deed was written selling two acres of land for fifty dollars to three men, the land to be used as a burial ground. The three men were Willie Moore, John Daniel and Nelson Mitchell. The deed was signed by Jesse Geer and his wife Polly. The deed stated that the land was to be used for burials and that the heirs of Moore, Daniel and Mitchell were to be responsible for the property. The cemetery was closed in 1939 after the health department inspected the cemetery and found that the cemetery was overcrowded.
Canvassed by Denise Lawson and the Durham Service Corps in 1992, they listed about 100 markers. In 2003, Carrie McNair and several volunteers extracted burials from the death records located in the Vital Records office. Durham County began issuing death certificates in 1908 and North Carolina law has required death certificates only since 1913. Thus, there were over 35 or more years of additional burials that were unrecorded except for whatever tombstones have survived.
Dew lists 1530 names associated with the cemetery; the cemetery was already in poor condition by the beginning of the 20th century, as noted by the Durham Sun:
The Durham Sun - January 15, 1900
Colored Burying Ground North of City Need Attention.
The colored burying grounds, or cemetery, just beyond Mr. F. C. Geer's, out on the Roxboro road, is in rather bad shape. Numbers of the graves have sunken in, and in some instances not a thing can be seen to even indicate exactly where some of the graves are located. There are traces of where fire has recently burned the grass and straw over a portion of the burying ground, and several of the pine boards at the head and foot of the graves were burned, destroying all mark to show where the graves were.
A gentleman tells us that not very long ago, on one of the head boards he noticed that some vandal had written some very unbecoming words. As soon as the gentleman saw it, he very properly set about to erase them and succeeded in doing so. A person, be he white or colored, that would stoop to such a despicable act, is mean enough to do anything and is not entitled to the respect of decent people.
The burying ground certainly needs attention. Interments are still being made there, some having taken place during the month of December. A year or so ago we mentioned the fact that this burying ground should be attended to, but nothing has been done, and in consequence it is rapidly going to ruin.
Things didn't get much better after that; part of the issue has been that, after the original Orange County deed, there was no conveyance of the property to heirs or others - so the property is listed with the County as "Unknown Owner."
The Friends of Geer Cemetery was formed in 2003 to help clean up the abandoned and overgrown cemetery, establish title, and provide for maintenance - they erected the new sign at the top of this post. Several projects have worked to catalog the names of the burials in the cemetery over the years.
It's a beautiful spot, even if the multiple unmarked rectangular depressions in the soil can make one (ok, made me) feel like one is intruding upon a spot best-undisturbed. Yet the gravestones mark the resting places of many of the earliest generations of African Americans in Durham - including leaders such as Augustus Shepard, Edian Markham, and Margaret Ruffin Faucette; while many of the headstones are damaged or missing, the ones that remain are fascinating and affecting.
I was particularly moved by the epitaph above - I'm not sure I've ever seen one so eloquently imbued with the sorrow of the living:
I thought that I could give him up.
For God knows what is best.
And Heaven has neither care or pain.
But only blissful rest.
Dear saviour, come with tender love and comfort my sad heart.
Help me to say, Thy will be done.
Help me to bear my part.
Find this spot on a Google Map.