Black cemeteries and burial grounds in North Carolina and across the U.S. have historically been neglected and poorly documented. But local community organizations and state government partners are paving the way toward more recognition and resources for Black cemeteries.
The Friends of Geer Cemetery hosted a virtual panel discussion Saturday to discuss the long-standing inequality that surrounds historical Black spaces, like that of Durham's historic Geer Cemetery. The panel was moderated by James Stewart, the vice president of Friends of Geer Cemetery.
The panelists for the event were UNC history professor William Sturkey, N.C. African American Heritage Commission director Angela Thorpe, N.C. Central University head archivist and public historian Andre Vann and Stagville Memorial Project director Vanessa Hines.
At the start of the discussion, Sturkey discussed the historical context of Geer Cemetery, which is almost as old as the city of Durham and was built at the end of Reconstruction in 1877. The people buried in Geer, he said, predate the city of Durham itself.
“Many of the people who actually built Durham itself were Black people,” Sturkey said. “These were the people that actually put their shovels into the dirt, that stacked the bricks, that hammered the nails, that unloaded the lumber, that drove the wagons, that raised the children, that rolled the tobacco."
The cemetery was ignored over multiple decades, Sturkey said, which is part of a larger history of injustice and inequitable distribution of resources.
“Geer is still right there looking at us,” he said. “The Black mothers and sons and daughters of Old Durham are still watching us from their resting places.”
Thorpe said the preservation of Black cemeteries is a national issue, not just one that is specific to North Carolina or Durham.
She said two years ago, the African American Heritage Commission and the State Office of Archaeology launched an initiative to preserve Black cemeteries and burial grounds. Thorpe said one of the initiative’s pilot projects is a push for Milton, North Carolina, to steward a Black cemetery.
She said the initiative has also created a form that will allow individuals to input information about Black cemeteries. The goal of this form is twofold: to document Black cemeteries, which have often not been well-documented, at the state level and to distribute resources to Black cemeteries more equitably.
“This is equity work, right?" Thorpe said. "And doing this equity work actually pushes communities towards justice work."
Vann discussed how communities can document and preserve cemeteries and the histories of the individuals buried in those cemeteries. He said understanding personal histories and narratives can help reconstruct a new narrative about African American life.
Vann recommended looking at historical receipts, documentation that includes census records, marriage certificates, death certificates and funeral programs, among others. He said this documented evidence provides more insight into the lives of the individuals who are buried in a cemetery.
“Every scrap of paper is important,” Vann said.
Hines said public spaces offer an environment to have difficult conversations about the past with community members. The minimal barriers to information and opportunities to engage all five senses when learning provide a chance for people to engage with their local history.
Hines said positive contributions to the community, such as activism and community organizing, should be celebrated in those public spaces. She said public spaces can also provide insight about who communities should elect, particularly leaders who truly understand the local history.
It’s important for people to recognize that they are a part of history, Hines said. Creating space for reflection about the past’s impact on the present can help build agency and support for driving change, she said.
“Everyone who is on this call today is a history-maker in some way,” she said.
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