Geer Cemetary in Durham is one of many burial grounds in America that hold the remains of thousands of Black Americans from the 19th century. There are no records of the people buried there. The process of researching grounds like these as a form of reparations to descendent communities was pioneered by Michael Blakey in the African Burial Ground Project in Lower Manhattan, New York. He is currently the Director of the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of William and Mary.
On April 4, Blakey visited Duke as a guest of the Franklin Institute of Humanities, the Department of Classical Studies, the Department of International Comparative Studies, and Trinity College. In attendance to his lecture were students of Classical Studies 144: Principles of Archaeology with Alicia Jimenez, International Comparative Studies 283: Death, Burial, and Justice in the Americas with Adam Rosenblatt, and several graduate students by invitation (and me). His presence was clearly highly anticipated.
I initially approached Dr. Jimenez with my interest in bioarchaeology in January as I was planning my Program II application. She invited me to this seminar, and to lunch with Blakey and the graduate students beforehand. I came prepped with questions on osteopenia and hypertrophy, as well as a map of Brightleaf Square so I wouldn’t get lost (I still got lost) and a few dollars cash for parking (they only took card).
For those of you who have ever loved the detective fiction heroine Temperance Brennan, Blakey’s work is for you. He is co-chair of the Commission for the Ethical Treatment of Human Remains through the American Anthropological Association. He was claiming the title of bioanthropologist before it was cool. He wrote a guide for the profession called Engaging Descendant Communities, or, more lovingly, The Rubric. Blakey encourages allowing those descendant communities to guide scientists’ research on human remains. He calls us Homo reminiscens, because what makes us “human” may be our affinity for memorializing our dead as much as it may be our large brains (á la Homo sapiens). “Burial is human dignity,” Blakey announced during the seminar, “Dignity is what we do.”
“Ethical code is not law. It is our greatest responsibility.”Michael Blakey
After all, science has historically been used to justify the unjust. Bioarchaeology is a famous contributor to the field; the pseudoscience of phrenology was upheld until well into the 20th century, and was originally used as “scientific proof” that people of African descent were lesser than Europeans. It was also cited as a justification for displacing Native Americans from their lands.
During lunch, I was struck by Blakey’s cadence. He had a deep, slow voice and spoke with intention. He ordered the giant pretzel. I never asked my questions; instead, I was swept away by the group’s discussion on ethics–a topic I had no open Safari tabs on. I asked instead why a scientist would choose to guide themselves entirely by a non-expert opinion rather than scientific inquiry; would that not hinder discovery?
The scientific method, as you may recall, starts with asking a question. Rather than gracefully including descendent communities after the paper has been written, Blakey urges scientists to only pursue questions about remains that the descendants wish to answer. The science of death should never be self-serving, he noted. There is no purpose to publishing a paper if it is not in the service of the community that provided the subject. A critical reader may notice that The Rubric is not called The Gospel or The Constitution. Rather than a rule of law, it is a guideline. That’s because ethics is based on the respect of self, of craft, and of others. “Ethical code is not law,” Blakey reminds scientists. “It is our greatest responsibility.”
Geer Cemetary has been the subject of Duke research for years now, from a Story+ program to class field trips. Members of ICS, CLST, and FHHI have been in cooperation with Friends of Geer Cemetary to answer such questions about burial conditions–the attempt at dignity granted to Black residents of Durham by their descendants.
Edit: a previous version of this article had incorrectly stated that the Department of African and African American Studies sponsored Michael Blakey’s lecture.
Post by Olivia Ares, Class of 2025