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Finding the Lives beneath the Ground
Geer Cemetery, Durham, North Carolina

Finding the Lives beneath the Ground

Helping to tend a historic Black cemetery restores a sense of the lives it holds.

Carolyn Stewart

I love cemeteries. I know that sounds strange, but I come by my enthusiasm honestly. The family story is that a matriarch of ours, generations ago, used to collect “gypsy” tombstones and use them to decorate her living room mantelpiece. The idea grabbed my seven-year-old imagination. I envisioned slabs of indigo stone, engraved with roses and embedded with crystals, glinting in the light of a stoked fire. How exciting to live with things so beautiful and exotic, I thought. I didn’t think about the desecration that entailed.

Though I abandoned many—most, I hope—of my ancestors’ questionable habits, I’m still fascinated by cemeteries and the lives contained within them. A child’s name, scratched onto a worn slate shingle in the Great Smoky Mountains, speaks of the tragedy and weariness of Appalachian pioneer life. A tombstone in Brooklyn shares a recipe for spritz cookies—butter, sugar, flour, vanilla, other good things—and hints at laughter-filled afternoons and a giving spirit. These past lives seem to notice ours as well. Gravestones are content to share a companionable silence, like a good friend, or offer a new perspective that gently lifts the weight of everyday burdens. Grave markers, whether made of granite, wood, or metal, testify to what we all have in common: a date of birth and a date of death. They speak of shared human experience, hear our anxieties, and seem to say, It’s all right: That, too, is a part of life.

Many cemeteries suffer from extreme neglect. Throughout the East Coast and deep South, in particular, historic Black cemeteries and the burial grounds of the enslaved face circumstances that few of us can imagine. Many of these graveyards were created in the decades after emancipation by communities of people who were building free lives from the ground up. Underfunding, municipal neglect, race-motivated vandalism, and the destructive tendencies of nature are just a few of the factors that have led to the widespread erasure of gravesite markers.

Fortunately, a number of citizen efforts have now been dedicated to finding and restoring lost graves. Cemetery volunteer work offers a chance to restore some of what has been erased. When we take up this cause, it offers us, in return, a chance to connect and grow.

The destruction or removal of a grave marker is a tragedy comprised of more than the actions themselves (a point lost on my gravestone-lifting ancestors). When a gravesite marker is destroyed, it can take the identity of the interred person with it—particularly when cemeteries and churches have incomplete burial records. If no family members or interested parties maintain that knowledge, the grave’s connection to the past and future is severed. On a national scale, we lose irreplaceable information about historic communities and the opportunity for a fuller understanding of American life.

This loss is even more acute for communities that are already under-documented in American history. For underprivileged communities in the early 20th century, a funeral program may be one of the only written records of an individual’s existence. Today, countless interred men, women, and children are waiting to be discovered—or not—under shopping centers, backyards, farmland, and public parks.

I learned this lesson when I started doing volunteer work with the Find a Grave website—a kind of Facebook for the afterlife. Volunteers maintain more than 190 million grave records for individuals ranging from William Shakespeare to Walt Disney. Each gravesite has its own dedicated page for photos, cyber-bouquets, and condolence messages. The website also connects volunteers across the world who are willing to help identify and photograph the gravesites of strangers’ loved ones. Users submit geotagged requests for gravesite photos that the website distributes to nearby volunteers, who can claim the requests and set off to photograph the identified gravesite.

In last fall’s Covid-constrained environment, grave-site-hunting seemed like a pleasant way to bring a little good into the world while getting some socially distanced fresh air. But tracking down gravesites, I soon learned, is no walk in the park. My first attempt took place in Arlington County, Virginia, at Calloway Cemetery, which was founded in 1866 on former plantation land by freedmen. During a visit one afternoon, I nearly mistook the small, sunny cemetery for part of the lawn of the nearby United Methodist church.

Clutching a list of gravesite names printed from my home computer, I walked slowly around the small plot, squinting at tombstones that were broken, worn away, tucked into brambles, or nowhere to be seen. While a few gravestones were visible, they marked just a small fraction of the estimated one hundred bodies buried in the quarter-acre cemetery. An accordion player performed outside a nearby Bavarian bakery, providing a sprightly soundtrack to my efforts—which were futile.

Calloway Cemetery

I made some discoveries that afternoon. First, absence is a tangible thing, an obstacle in and of itself. The absence of grave markers thwarted my efforts to identify burial sites at Calloway. But absence, in the cemetery context, is often elusive. When a work of art is stolen off the walls of the Louvre or our favorite deodorant is sold out at the grocery store, contextual clues reveal its absence. But when a grave marker is missing, there is often only an unmarked field in its place, with no visible indication of a buried grave. The implications of this fact saddened me as I walked through Calloway. Dozens of men and women were buried there, unable to receive visits from their descendants. Dozens of families were being deprived of places to mourn and feel the presence of a loved one. More often than not, the erasure of the grave marker is the erasure of a person.

Down at Geer Cemetery in Durham, North Carolina, absence has a different nature. When visiting Geer, don’t wander off the footpath unless you’re looking for a twisted ankle. Like the beaches of Normandy after D-Day, the cemetery’s grounds are pockmarked by deep divots. Fallen leaves collect in these hollow pits, emphasizing their human-sized proportions: roughly two feet wide by six feet long. The pits bear the imprints of wooden coffins that have collapsed under the weight of heavy earth.

Sunken grave, Geer Cemetery

On the spring day when I visited Geer, a damp mist cloaked the cemetery’s remaining tombstones; tall trees shrouded the grounds. Forest environments like this one can be harmful to cemeteries: The thick canopies of leaves ensure that paths stay perpetually muddy, while falling trees pose a threat to standing gravestones.

While Arlington National Cemetery offers comfort with pristine gravestones that promise eternal remembrance, there are no manicured expanses of Kentucky bluegrass at Geer. Even Calloway Cemetery radiated the cheerfulness of a manicured, sun-drenched lawn, but Geer has few of the artificial features that mark well-kept cemeteries. With its mournful and muddied field, Geer offered only a stark reminder of earth-bound corporality.

Geer Cemetery was born out of an untenable situation faced by many African Americans after emancipation: They had nowhere to bury their dead. Racialized laws prohibited non-White burials in many public cemeteries, while private burial grounds, like family graveyards, required long-term land ownership unavailable to newly freed men and women. Thus, Geer was founded in 1877, twelve years after the Civil War, when three African-American men came together in Durham to buy two acres of land from a former slaveholder.

The gravestones at Geer form a stone inventory of civic character at the turn of the 19th century. The grave markers memorialize Civil War and World War I veterans, along with the early bankers and entrepreneurs who established Black Durham’s financial district. It was proudly known at the time as “Black Wall Street,” not unlike the thriving Black business community in Tulsa that was destroyed during the 1921 massacre. Geer’s gravesites speak of formerly enslaved men and women who were determined to give their children better lives than their own.

Durham’s Black-owned businesses created an enclave of economic opportunity for the community, offering some shelter from the broader climate of racial injustice. Durham’s Black families not only invested in educating their children, losing the children’s labor in the short term; they also built institutions to train Black teachers to serve other communities. For W.E.B. Du Bois, whose university tuition was funded by his hometown church, education was the key to a community’s salvation. Du Bois was so impressed by Durham’s African-American community that in 1912 he wrote an essay about its success:

The first thing I saw in black Durham was its new training school—four neat white buildings suddenly set on the sides of a ravine, where a summer Chautauqua for colored teachers was being held. The whole thing had been built in four months by colored contractors, after plans made by a colored architect, out of lumber from the colored planning mill and ironwork largely from the colored foundry.

While Geer Cemetery is a resting place for examples of the best of American character, it has also been targeted by some of the worst. Like many historic Black cemeteries, Geer faced years of neglect and race-motivated vandalism in the years after the Civil War and into the 20th century. A 1900 article in the Durham Sun described the cemetery as being in “rather bad shape,” with burned grave markers and “unbecoming words” scrawled onto gravestones. The scars of these racist acts persist. Over fifteen hundred African-American men, women, and children are buried at Geer, yet only two hundred grave markers survive today.

Even so, Geer Cemetery is a success story that testifies to the power of elbow grease. The Friends of Geer Cemetery volunteer group is working to reclaim its gravesites, restore its walking paths, and recover the lost identities of its inhabitants. With support from the North Carolina Humanities Council, its members produced “In Plain Sight: Reflections Past & Actions Present in Durham’s Geer Cemetery,” an outdoor exhibition of panels that flank the cemetery’s old carriage path and restore to public memory the founders of Black Durham. At a virtual symposium, scholars and historians convened to discuss the ways in which inequality persists beyond the grave.

“When you think about the work of reconstructing the lives of those who are interred at Geer Cemetery, it teaches one to possess the very important and very soft skill of patience,” noted André Vann, head archivist of North Carolina Central University, during Geer’s virtual symposium. “You must have ‘stick-to-it-iveness.’ If you don’t have that, the journey becomes more difficult.”

The absence of grave markers and burial records can pose a daunting challenge. But a remarkable difference can be made by dirt-under-the-fingernails volunteer work. Federal, state, and municipal initiatives are beginning to recover these historic sites. Volunteer groups like Friends of Geer Cemetery, and Friends of East End and the Woodland Restoration Foundation, both in Richmond, Virginia, are playing a critical role in the cemeteries’ day-to-day survival, by organizing hundreds if not thousands of workdays to maintain the grounds.

At Richmond’s East End Cemetery, volunteers cleared over a thousand discarded tires left from the time when the graveyard was used as a “chop shop” for stolen vehicles. At Geer, overgrown wooded shrubs need to be cleared from gravesites; church records and obituaries need to be searched for the names of the interred, and relationships need to be built between cemetery volunteers and municipal partners. Remote help is also needed to research the lives of interred men and women, write their biographies, and restore them to community remembrance.

Cemetery volunteering is humble but transformative work. The simple tedium of pulling weeds from a gravesite can restore its role as a sanctuary and make the grave discoverable by family descendants and researchers. Clearing weeds for several hours is not glamorous, but it might be all that is needed to restore mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons to our shared memory.

Those who roll up their sleeves will reap rich rewards. Volunteer work reacquaints us with the full spectrum of human communication and can even strengthen our potentially atrophied ability to find common ground with others. Even the less glamorous moments can shape us into better people by increasing our empathy and patience while affirming our role in the world.

Someone who, like me, is not a person of color is limited in writing about historic Black cemeteries. But, as with the missing gravestones, absence can speak volumes; and there is much we can do to fill the void of our awareness. For those interested in work on behalf of racial equity and justice—and even for those who are not oriented so—volunteering at historic Black cemeteries offers a meaningful opportunity to protect American history and honor the past.

We can perpetuate the absence of grave markers or, in André Vann’s words, we can “remember the names, say the names, and research the names so that these souls will be remembered for generations to come.”

Carolyn Stewart, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is the director of publications at a Washington think tank.

United States