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'People didn't know there was a cemetery here:' Volunteers clean historic African-American cemetery in Durham, offer tours

Posted February 8, 2021 4:01 p.m. EST
Updated February 9, 2021 3:05 p.m. EST

— Visitors are being welcomed to tour a Durham cemetery that, until recently, some people did not realize was even there.

There are an estimated 2,000 men, women and children buried in Geer Cemetery in Durham, but only around 200 existing grave markers or headstones. Many of those markers are chipped, broken or crushed beneath fallen trees or buried beneath foliage.

"Folks who lived in the area said when they first moved here, they thought it was just forest," said Carissa Trotta, a volunteer with the Friends of Geer Cemetery. She has helped research the history of the people buried here to ensure their stories are remembered.

Geer Cemetery in a historically Black cemetery established in Durham in 1877.

According to Trotta, you couldn't see the tombstones hidden in high, overgrown shrubbery. Ivy carpeted the floor and hung like curtains from the trees, obscuring the patch of land where so many people were laid to rest.

"People didn't know there was a cemetery here," she said.

Since 2016, Trotta said the efforts of the volunteer community have made the cemetery a place where people can walk on pathways and see many of the graves.

Geer Cemetery was established in 1877.

The graves in the historically Black cemetery tell stories of individuals who were at one time enslaved on nearby plantations, as well as prominent doctors, teachers and other members of the community during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War.

In February, the Friends of Geer Cemetery launched In Plain Sight: Reflections Past & Actions Present in Durham's Geer Cemetery. They welcome respectful visitors to visit the cemetery for self-guided tours, and have put up signs along the trail full of rich history and archival photos of some of the people buried there.

Geer Cemetery was established in 1877.

While they encourage self-guided tours, they are also offering small group tours on specific days, which will be led by a member of Friends of Geer Cemetery. They are also offering virtual tours and discussions throughout the month.

Their Facebook page has each virtual tour and group tour set up as an event.

For people who want to help, donations can be made right here to help pay for future expenses in research, reports, archeology and anything else the Friends need to continue their work on cleaning up the cemetery and uncovering its history.

"We're also always looking for volunteers who want to help with historic research, or to help clean up the cemetery," said Trotta. "We are also looking for someone to help us build an improved website."

The website also includes a detailed video tour, which includes descendants of those buried there sharing the stories of their ancestors.

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