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Maplewood Cemetery Tour

Today Tom Miller of Preservation Durham, gave DEEP Collaborative community members an in-depth tour of Maplewood Cemetery emphasizing social justice issues. Tom Miller provided an extensive history of the cemetery, its historic segregation, and its growth and inclusion of historically Black cemeteries and the Hebrew cemetery. We also saw the impact of cemetery drainage on the Pauli Murray Homesite.

This tour was a small in-person event (for about 10 folks) that was part of a larger community event (for about 80 folks) and case study emphasizing the environmental injustices associated with Maplewood Cemetery and cemeteries more generally that involved advocates for and a descendent of the Henderson family (see below).

In the follow-up workshop, we reviewed two methods for considering difficult topics: visual thinking strategies to analyze images of the cemetery and the Pauli Murray Homesite and the Wise Ones dialogic approach developed by Tema Okun and Krista Robinson.

We applied these methods to an EJ Case Study on Maplewood Cemetery that incorporated multiple historic and community-member perspectives, including Aseelah Ameen, a descendent of the Henderson family.

We were also fortunate to hear from special guest speakers, including Carlos Gonzalez, Heidi Hannapel, Aseelah Ameen, and Jackie MacLeod. The shared important perspectives and experiences on the topics of green burials and Maplewood Cemetery. Moving forward, we will be updating the case study to reflect Jackie and Aseelah’s work. Check out Heidi’s work on the Bluestem Conservation Cemetery here and Jackie’s other work here.

Finally, DEEP Community members have also provided some resources to share with the group:

A case study of the site was put together in collaboration with community members, stakeholders, including a descendent of the Hendersons. The case study can be found below:

DEEP/DEC Case Study: Maplewood Cemetery

Preparing for the Case Study. As you read this case study, please consider how you are feeling as you read, the kinds of actions that might typically arise from the emotions you are experiencing, and the themes or words that elicit a response.

It is also useful to remember key definitions as you go through the case study, such as the definitions of civil rights, environmental justice, intersectional environmentalism, and queer.

  • Civil Rights: “Civil rights are personal rights guaranteed and protected by the U.S. Constitution and federal laws enacted by Congress, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Civil rights include protection from unlawful discrimination.”[i]
  • Environmental Justice: “Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. This goal will be achieved when everyone enjoys: The same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”[ii]
  • Intersectional Environmentalism: “identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected.”[iii]
  • Queer: “An adjective used by some people, particularly younger people, whose sexual orientation is not exclusively heterosexual. Queer was once used as a pejorative term and has been reclaimed by some — but not all — members of the LGBTQ community.”[iv]

History of the Land. A formerly enslaved couple plays a big role in the establishment of Maplewood Cemetery. In May 1865, Emma Turner Dempsey (1827-1912), Dempsey Henderson (1825-1912), and their two children were the first documented family enslaved by the Camerons of Durham and Hillsborough to leave their enslavers. According to Historic Stagville historian Vera Cecelski, Emma Turner Henderson left after telling a Cameron that “her skin was nearly as white as hers – that her hair was nearly as straight–[and] that she was quite as free”.[v] Like many formerly enslaved African Americans in the region, the Hendersons settled in what is now Durham, and by 1873 the Henderson family owned 93 acres of land purchased for $600.[vi] To earn a living, Emma worked as a sack stringer and Dempsey worked as a cook and then a gardener.[vii]

Maplewood Cemetery began as a 5-acre tract and was incrementally enlarged to 25 acres. Some of the land that makes up Maplewood Cemetery today was originally deeply gullied and thus less valuable.[viii] To make this gullied and cut up land functional as a cemetery, it needed to be graded and filled.[ix] Eventually, Dempsey Henderson sold 5 acres of his land directly to the City of Durham for $125[x], comprising part of what is today Maplewood Cemetery.[xi] More of what was Henderson land is now part of Maplewood Cemetery, since Dempsey Henderson sold off his property little by little, some of it going through other owners before ending up in the City of Durham’s possession.[xii] For example, the City of Durham also purchased land for the cemetery for $150 from William H. Willard (1819-1898)[xiii], a businessman from Massachusetts who came to Durham in 1866 to produce the Morris Family’s Spanish Flavored Eureka Smoking Tobacco and later owned Willard Manufacturing, an early textile mill along the Little River.[xiv]

Maplewood Cemetery is currently in the heart of Durham, but that wasn’t always the case. Today the cemetery borders Duke University within what the Durham City-County has more recently labeled a community of concern.[xv] However, when the cemetery was established by the City of Durham in 1872, it was placed at the outer edge of a growing city beyond city limits.[xvi] Historically, white neighborhoods – especially wealthy ones – occupied the high ground (e.g., Morehead Hill) [xvii]. Black neighborhoods were typically established in low-lying areas, including some of the land that the Henderson’s owned, which was in a region that Pauli Murray called “Copperhead Bottom”. [xviii] Over time, white neighborhoods from the east and north and Maplewood Cemetery from the west began to converge on the low-lying neighborhood where Black residents – including Pauli Murray – lived.[xix] Today, the cemetery comprises 120 acres and is the burial spot for some of Durham’s prominent, mainly white citizens including people in the Washington Duke family.[xx] In 1997, the City of Durham also annexed the Fitzgerald-Pauli Murray Family Cemetery, which includes the graves of some of Durham’s prominent and progressive African American citizens.[xxi]

Cemeteries and Segregation. Historically, Durham’s cemeteries have been segregated by race. Maplewood Cemetery was traditionally the cemetery for white citizens. The City of Durham established Beechwood Cemetery in 1925, consolidating African American cemeteries that hadn’t been given the public funding and support that Maplewood Cemetery received.[xxii] According to James Wahlberg, Jim Crow laws and racial segregation in Durham at this time meant that white citizens could be buried in publically funded cemeteries in Durham starting at least in 1872, but African Americans had to privately purchase and maintain cemeteries until the establishment of Beechwood Cemetery.[xxiii]

The establishment of Beechwood Cemetery shifted burial patterns among the Black community. For example, when Beechwood was first established many families chose to move family graves to Beechwood Cemetery from Geer Cemetery (i.e., the old “colored cemetery”) and Violet Park.[xxiv] These reburials, along with other forces that historians are currently investigating, led to the deterioration of Geer Cemetery and Violet Park.[xxv] Geer Cemetery “became so overgrown that people who lived across the street were not aware it was a cemetery” and Violet Park became an abandoned place known locally as the “wolf’s den”. [xxvi] Today, many of Durham’s prominent African American citizens are buried in what is now Beechwood Cemetery, including John Merrick and C. C. Spaulding who established the NC Mutual Life Insurance Company and Dr. James Shepard who founded the National Religious Training School that became North Carolina Central University.[xxvii]

Until 1964, rules and laws continued to separate Blacks and whites in death in Durham. This was true in Maplewood Cemetery as well, with few exceptions. According to Tom Miller, President of Preservation Durham, “The first known burial of an African-American at Maplewood occurred in 1932. It was against the rules and was the subject of a fight between the city and a member of a prominent white family”. Miller also explains that in 1947, “North Carolina adopted a law making it illegal for segregated public cemeteries to be desegregated” in response to the African Americans’ calls across the nation for desegregation and equal rights after World War II.

Evidence of cemetery segregation can still be seen today, although the historic artifacts are disappearing over time.  For example, the Hendersons, the family that once owned much of the land that makes up Maplewood Cemetery, had a family cemetery that has now been officially annexed by the City of Durham.[xxviii]  For years, that plot was outside the chain-linked fence boundary of the current Maplewood Cemetery.[xxix]  Today, the fences that literally separated many Black family cemeteries that were incorporated into Maplewood Cemetery have been taken down, although “the separation of these places from Maplewood is obvious to any observer”.[xxx]

The effort to preserve Black cemeteries in Durham continues today. The Friends of Geer Cemetery has received a federal grant, administered by the state, to perform an archaeological survey of Geer Cemetery that can be used in service to restoring and reclaiming the cemetery. The undertaking to maintain Black cemeteries is made more difficult because many burial sites of enslaved people, including all the burial sites for people enslaved by the Bennehan and Cameron families of Stagville Plantation, are privately owned. Only one of these sites, Harris Hill Cemetery (100 Rodolphe Drive, Durham NC) in the Treyburn development, is publicly accessible. In 2021, the developers added an interpretive sign and path to the 3.1 acre cemetery used by African American families until the early 1900s.[xxxi]

Figure 1.  A view of Harris Cemetery, a 3.1-acre burial site for some of the enslaved people at the Bennehan-Cameron Plantation complex and a burial ground through the early 1900s, Durham, North Carolina, August 15, 2021 ©Nicolette Cagle

Social and Environmental Impacts of Maplewood Cemetery. Maplewood Cemetery historically and currently imposes upon the Pauli Murray Family Home. The Pauli Murray Family Home was built in 1898 by Murray’s grandparents, Robert and Cornelia Fitzgerald.[xxxii] Pauli Murray lived there between the ages of 3 and 16[xxxiii], and the house was associated with Murray’s life from 1914 until 1948.[xxxiv] According to the National Park Service, “As [they]/she did not maintain a long-term residence or office, this home is the only extant building closely associated with [their]/her life.” Today the home serves as the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice. Pauli Murray (1910-1985) was a queer and Black lawyer, civil rights activist, Episcopal priest, and writer.[xxxv] Murray’s 1956 memoir, Proud Shoes, features their Durham home.

The Pauli Murray Family Home site has experienced environmental impacts from Maplewood Cemetery. When the Fitzgeralds and Pauli Murray lived at the Family Home, Maplewood Cemetery was an all-white cemetery where Pauli Murray and their/her family would never be buried themselves. Alexis Pauline Gumbs (2020) described the historic social and environmental impacts of Maplewood Cemetery on the Pauli Murray home site:

“[a]s Pauli Murray writes in Proud Shoes, the rifle of a Confederate memorial pointed directly out of that cemetery toward the back of her grandfather’s house, where she grew up. But again, we can’t only look above ground. More than a hundred years ago, Murray’s grandfather, a Union Civil War veteran, started complaining to the city that drainage pipes flowed directly onto his property, eroding the foundation of his house. The city ignored him. The water flowing through the decomposed remains of the Confederate dead threatened Black housing.”[xxxvi]

It’s important to note that modern investigations of Maplewood Cemetery do not reveal any Confederate memorials of the kind that Murray described. A naval cannon in Maplewood Cemetery does point at the Pauli Murray Family Home; this cannon was added in the 1890s, shortly after the Fitzgerald’s built their home, and was a relic of the Spanish American War.[xxxvii] More recently, the United Confederate Veterans placed a commemorative stone in one of the cemetery sections containing confederate graves.

Dr. Anna Agbe-Davies has investigated the impact of Maplewood Cemetery on the Pauli Murray Family Home from an archaeological perspective, noting that “the cemetery is upslope from the house and ever since its establishment it has been shedding water into and under and through the home of the Fitzgeralds and Pauli Murray”.[xxxviii]  Furthermore, a Duke University project has examined the Pauli Murray house site, with one doctoral student, Giulia Ricco, describing the experience:

“Students visited the house and were able to reimagine, through Pauli Murray’s words, what the garden must have looked like while she was living there, and, most importantly, they saw the dreaded [imposition] of Maplewood Cemetery onto the Murrays’ property[xxxix]. For many of the students this was the first time ever hearing of Pauli Murray, and I suspect that it opened their eyes to the environmental injustices that our project aims to reveal.”[xl]

Environmental Benefits, Access, and Cemeteries. Land use and access to green space is also a key environmental justice issue in many communities, particularly due to the historic practice of red-lining. Evidence of this is perhaps provided by modern recommendations for enhanced connections between Maplewood Cemetery and the surrounding neighborhood. For example, the 2017 Durham City-County Urban Open Space Plan suggested that the City “create better walking connections to the Pauli Murray site on Carroll Street and preserve and restore land on the east side of the Maplewood Cemetery for additional open space access”.[xli] The Urban Open Space Plan also notes that 230.59 acres of Durham’s open space is cemetery or memorial gardens.[xlii]

While cemeteries can provide some of the ecosystem service functions of open space, the term “open space” is often associated with public recreation and is used to describe parks and trails as well. However, cemeteries are “places of memory” and “living history – artifacts of the past functioning in the present”.[xliii] In fact, significant controversy has arisen in other cities over attempts to treat large African-American cemeteries as recreational areas.[xliv]

Figure 2. A view of the Pauli Murray Family Home and the Spanish American War Cannon from Maplewood Cemetery, Durham, North Carolina, August 5, 2021 ©Nicolette Cagle

Moreover, some organizations have advocated for alternatives to conventional burials, including green burials and conservation cemeteries. Conventional burial typically relies on lawn care using herbicides and fertilizers, non-biodegradable burial materials, and hazardous embalming chemicals. According to Smithsonian Magazine, “a traditional ten-acre cemetery holds enough embalming fluid to fill a small swimming pool”.[xlv] These chemicals can then leach into the ground water. Other conventional practices, like cremation, can release greenhouse gases and mercury into the air.  By contrast, green burials bury loved ones without embalming fluids and use biodegradable materials, such as quilts or pine boxes.[xlvi] Conservation burial grounds take this a step further, permanently protecting green burial sites with the potential benefit of maintaining wildlife and stream corridors, natural habitats, and a bevy of ecosystem services (e.g., improved air quality, erosion control, nutrient cycling, photosynthesis, clean water, and natural medicines).

Community & Cemeteries. Today, Maplewood Cemetery and its complex history are becoming more widely understood. Organizations like Preservation Durham work to uplift this history and offer tours to Durham Community members that tell “[s]tories of tender love and bitter prejudice”.[xlvii] Preservation Durham is also working to create a program to share the nuanced story of the cemetery with the public in preparation for its 150th anniversary in 2022.[xlviii]

In addition, community organizations are working to maintain other local cemeteries. For example, Keep Durham Beautiful volunteers, sometimes with the help of corporate partners, have managed brush and removed trash regularly at Geer Cemetery, Harris Hill, and Erwin Mills (Cedar Hill) Cemetery.[xlix] Erwin Mills Cemetery, established in 1893, was a burial ground for Durham mill workers, both white and Black. It contains over 200 burials, including children’s graves made from locally quarried stone, with the last burials being from the 1970s.[l] This cemetery has been cared for over the years by the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association[li], although the site might be under threat of development.

Other groups have also been formed to document and preserve Durham’s Black burial grounds. For example, a project entitled Reckoning with the Dead: The Durham Black Burial Grounds Collaboratory, has grown from a Duke University supported and funded initiative called Reckoning with Race, Racism, and the History of the American South. The Reckoning with the Dead project involves at least three local project partners – Historic Stagville, North Carolina Central University (NCCU), and Duke University.  NCCU professor Charles Johnson has said that there are at least 30 Black burial grounds in the Durham area that were established during slavery and the post-Emancipation period.[lii] Johnson reminds us that “these cemeteries give us an opportunity to honor our ancestors and treat them in death in ways they were not treated in life”.[liii]

Key Questions.

  1. Does the Maplewood Cemetery Case Study present an environmental justice issue? If so, why? If not, why not?
  2. Does the Maplewood Cemetery Case Study illustrate intersectional environmentalism? If so, why? If not, why not?
  3. What more do you need to know? Whose voices are presented in the case study? Whose voices are absent?
  4. What actions, if any, should be undertaken in regards to this case study?


[i] Office for Civil Rights (OCR), “101-What Are Civil Rights,” Text,, September 17, 2015,

[ii] OP US EPA, “Environmental Justice,” Collections and Lists, November 3, 2014,

[iii] “How To Be An Intersectional Environmentalist,” accessed July 28, 2021,

[iv] “LGBTQ Definitions, Terms & Concepts,” The Annie E. Casey Foundation, accessed August 6, 2021,

[v] “(7) Historic Stagville – Posts | Facebook,” accessed July 28, 2021,

[vi] Jean Bradley Anderson, Durham County: A History of Durham County, North Carolina (Duke University Press, 2011).

[vii] Anderson.

[viii] T. Miller, pers. comm. 4 Aug 2021

[ix] T. Miller, pers. comm. 4 Aug 2021

[x] Anderson, Durham County.

[xi] Vera Cecelski, pers. comm. 28 Jul 2021

[xii] Anderson, Durham County.

[xiii] Anderson.

[xiv] “History Beneath Our Feet,” accessed July 28, 2021,

[xv] Durham City-County Planning Department, “Urban Open Space Plan,” March 2017,

[xvi] T. Miller, pers. comm. 4 Aug 2021

[xvii] T. Miller, pers. comm. 4 Aug 2021

[xviii] T. Miller, pers. comm. 4 Aug 2021

[xix] T. Miller, pers. comm. 6 Aug 2021

[xx] “Cemeteries Management | Durham, NC,” accessed July 28, 2021,

[xxi] “048 FITZGERALD, PAULI MURRAY Durham County North Carolina Cemeteries,” accessed July 28, 2021,

[xxii] “Cemeteries Management | Durham, NC.”

[xxiii] Wahlberg James, “A Tale of Two Cemeteries,” The Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University (blog), February 15, 2021,

[xxiv] T. Miller, pers. comm. 4 Aug 2021

[xxv] T. Miller, pers. comm. 4 Aug 2021

[xxvi] T. Miller, pers. comm. 4 Aug 2021

[xxvii] “Cemeteries Management | Durham, NC.”

[xxviii] “288 HENDERSON FAMILY Durham County North Carolina Cemeteries,” accessed July 28, 2021,

[xxix] “288 HENDERSON FAMILY Durham County North Carolina Cemeteries.”

[xxx] T. Miller, pers. comm. 4 Aug 2021

[xxxi] “HARRIS HILL CEMETERY | Open Durham,” accessed July 28, 2021,

[xxxii] “Childhood Home of Civil Rights Pioneer Pauli Murray Now a National Treasure | National Trust for Historic Preservation,” accessed July 28, 2021,

[xxxiii] “Pauli Murray,” in Wikipedia, July 27, 2021,

[xxxiv] “Pauli Murray Family Home (U.S. National Park Service),” accessed August 5, 2021,

[xxxv] “Pauli Murray.”

[xxxvi] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Even in the Grave, Black People Can’t Rest in Durham,” INDY Week, February 25, 2020,

[xxxvii] T. Miller, pers. comm. 4 Aug 2021

[xxxviii] N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Dr. Anna Agbe-Davies, Associate Professor of Anthropology, UNC-CH, accessed August 2, 2021,

[xxxix] The original text read “encroachment”, but it has been pointed out that encroachment is a legal term and that legally the cemetery does not encroach on what once the Fitzgerald’s property. The word has been changed to avoid confusion.

[xl] “Sowers and Reapers: Gardening in an Era of Change – Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute,” accessed July 28, 2021,

[xli] Durham City-County Planning Department, “Urban Open Space Plan.”

[xlii] Durham City-County Planning Department.

[xliii] T. Miller, pers. comm. 4 Aug 2021

[xliv] “The Fight to Save America’s Historic Black Cemeteries,” Travel, August 19, 2020,

[xlv] Erin Blakemore, “Could the Funeral of the Future Help Heal the Environment?,” Smithsonian Magazine, accessed July 28, 2021,

[xlvi] “Definitions,” LANDMATTERS, accessed September 2, 2021,

[xlvii] April Johnson, “Historic Maplewood Cemetery Tour | 2020 | Preservation Durham – Preservation for All,” accessed August 4, 2021,

[xlviii] T. Miller, pers. comm. 4 Aug 2021

[xlix] T. Dautlick, pers. comm. 3 Aug 2021

[l] “CEDAR HILL CEMETERY Aka ERWIN MILLS CEMETERY | Open Durham,” accessed August 4, 2021,


[lii] Thomasi McDonald, “Durham Residents Uncover Their Ancestral Legacies in the County’s Old Black Cemeteries,” INDY Week, September 1, 2021,

[liii] McDonald.

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