When Black History Gets Unearthed, Who Speaks for the Dead?Roundup
tags: African American history, memorials, public history
Jill Lepore, a staff writer, has been contributing to The New Yorker since 2005. Her books include The Name of War, which won the Bancroft Prize; New York Burning, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history; Book of Ages, a finalist for the National Book Award; The Secret History of Wonder Woman; and the international best-seller These Truths: A History of the United States. Most recently, she published her fourteenth book, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future, in September, 2020.
When Deidre Barnes was a kid in North Carolina, horsing around in the back seat of the car with her little brother, her grandfather drove by the woods in a white neighborhood in Durham. “You got cousins up in there,” he called back from the driver’s seat, nodding at a stand of loblolly pines in a tangle of kudzu. Barnes and her brother exchanged wide-eyed glances: they had cousins who were wild people? Only later, looking hard, did they spy a headstone: “Oh, it’s a cemetery.” A few years ago, Barnes read in the newspaper that the place was called Geer. “My grandmother’s maiden name is Geer,” she told me. “And so I asked her, ‘Do we have people buried there?’ ”
I met Barnes at the cemetery on a warm, cicada night, with Debra Gonzalez-Garcia, the president of the Friends of Geer Cemetery. “When I was growing up, I could name five African Americans in history,” Gonzalez-Garcia said. “Five. Nobody else did anything.” At least fifteen hundred people who did all sorts of things are buried in Geer Cemetery, including Deidre Barnes’s great-grandfather, a grandson of Jesse Geer, a plantation owner who sold two acres of land to three Black freedmen in 1877. Gonzalez-Garcia and her team have been painstakingly reconstructing the cemetery’s population from its two hundred surviving headstones and from burial cards recorded by the W.P.A. in the nineteen-thirties.
The movement to save Black cemeteries has been growing for decades, led by Black women like Barnes and Gonzalez-Garcia, who have families to care for and work full-time jobs but volunteer countless hours and formidable organizing skills looking after the dead and upending American history. They transcribe death certificates; they collect oral histories. They bring in community organizations—Keep Durham Beautiful helps out at Geer—and hand out rakes and shears and loppers to Scouts and college students, tackling poison ivy that’s strangling trees. They hold tours, warning everyone to wear long pants, because of the snakes. They work with churches. They work with businesses: Durham Marble Works repairs broken headstones. Eagle Scouts installed Carolina gravel along what might once have been a carriage road. An archeological survey will be done soon, to make sure that, when you walk that road, you’re not stepping on sunken graves.
“The people who started White Rock Baptist Church and St. Joseph’s A.M.E.,” Barnes told me, “they’re buried here.” She and Gonzalez-Garcia seemed to know each epitaph, telling story after story about African American families who thrived in the early years after Reconstruction—getting college degrees, starting businesses—only to lose most of their gains to segregation and swindles. “Olivia Tilley Wills,” Gonzalez-Garcia said, pointing to a stone, amid the overgrowth. “She was married twice. There was a big court case about her estate. She had investments.”
Underneath America lies an apartheid of the departed. Violence done to the living is usually done to their dead, who are dug up, mowed down, and built on. In the Jim Crow South, Black people paid taxes that went to building and erecting Confederate monuments. They buried their own dead with the help of mutual-aid societies, fraternal organizations, and insurance policies. Cemeteries work on something like a pyramid scheme: payments for new plots cover the cost of maintaining old ones. “Perpetual care” is, everywhere, notional, but that notion relies on an accumulation of capital that decades of disenfranchisement and discrimination have made impossible in many Black communities, even as racial terror also drove millions of people from the South during the Great Migration, leaving their ancestors behind. It’s amazing that Geer survived. Durham’s other Black cemeteries were run right over. “Hickstown’s part of the freeway,” Gonzalez-Garcia told me, counting them off. “Violet Park is a church parking lot.”
What would it mean for the future of the United States to mark and honor these places? In 2019, the four-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the first captive Africans in Virginia, members of Congress from North Carolina and Virginia, inspired by volunteer organizations like the Friends of Geer, introduced the African-American Burial Grounds Network Act. Last year, an amended version passed unanimously in the Senate. It doesn’t come with any money, but if it’s enacted it will authorize the National Park Service to coördinate efforts to identify, preserve, and interpret places like Geer, Hickstown, and Violet Park. Federal legislation might also provide some legal clarity. A few years ago, a Geer neighbor took down a giant tree; as it fell, it crushed a row of headstones. They’re pinned there still. There’s little the Friends can do about that: they don’t own the land. “Legally, this place is considered abandoned,” Gonzalez-Garcia explained. “The city hasn’t traced anyone who’s inherited the title.” The Friends of Geer can’t find a titleholder, either, and not for lack of trying. Their work is guided by the principle that descendants (“people with bodies in the ground”) should decide what to do with the cemetery. They’ve so far found about fifty. They’re still looking.
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