July 20, 2016

The African-American Geers Are Part of My Family

Pub Notes

Photo Credit: Pete McCommons

More than 60 Geers visited the farm their ancestors worked. The present owners, Ken and Marianne McCauley, were gracious hosts.


Patience Stevens

On the Sunday of July 4 weekend, Gay and I drove over to Greene County beyond Penfield to visit the old Geer farm. At the farm we rendezvoused with a large group of people who trace their ancestry back to slaves who worked on the farm. Those slaves assumed the Geer name, which now provides the connection for their descendants, many of whom claim as their common ancestors Will Geer and his wife Dollie. Dollie’s mother was a slave, Patience Stevens, and her father was a member of a white plantation family in nearby Woodville.

I am descended from Mary Helen Geer, who grew up on the farm and married my great-grandfather, James Henry McCommons. Mary Helen is buried in the Geer cemetery across the dirt road—the first dirt road many of the visiting Geer city-dwellers had experienced.

As the organizer, Charles Geer, put it: “Our origins begin from our ancestors that served as slaves from that very plantation. We had over 80 family members make the trek to the Geer family reunion; 60 percent of us met for the first time at my house in John's Creek, GA during the welcome fish fry Friday night. The event is considered historic, for that was the first African-American Geer family reunion assembling Geers from all over the country.”


Dollie Geer

Needless to say, we immediately wished we had made the effort to attend the Friday get-together, because it was impossible to meet more than a few of the Geers in the short time at the old farm house. They were all ages and occupations, friendly and welcoming toward us and delighted to be there that day, surrounded by their reunited family, whose relationships and history they had connected, much of it for the first time during their reunion.

My Geer ancestry goes back four generations to the same place as theirs. They know their descent from Will and Dollie Geer as I know mine from Helen Geer. I don’t know the circumstances on the Geer farm after Emancipation, during Reconstruction, but Greene County after the Civil War was the scene of desperate struggles between the plantation owners and their former slaves. The freedmen sought to establish themselves as independent farmers; the plantation owners fought to force them back into servitude. What they could not accomplish through the night-riding tactics of the Klan, they finally achieved through the law and the courts, depriving the freedmen of the ability to contract for their labor and reducing them to tenancy and sharecropping. Thus was the promise of Emancipation twisted into continued servitude, and thus were African Americans denied ownership, education and equality.

Jonathan Bryant wrote a book about that period in Greene County, How Curious a Land. It’s not a pretty story. I hope somebody else, perhaps my cousin Sam Geer—a meticulous genealogist—will write the story of how the African-American Geers made their way from the farm to their present farflung endeavors and apparent success.

The white South of those old days feared mixing of the races, yet felt free to cause it. And from Will and Dollie Geer we have among us this vibrant family, which has carried the Geer name forward into modern times with confidence and pride. What an exciting revelation to meet them and to learn about our common heritage.