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Genealogists on the trail of hidden cemeteries

By Diane Wagner

In the middle of Greenwood Industrial Park is a fenced-off plot of fieldstones marking the old Amis family cemetery.

"Some of the original graves were moved to the McDonough Cemetery," said Thomas McConnell of The Genealogical Society of Henry & Clayton Counties. "There are only fieldstones left, and only one has an inscription. It's for a black preacher who was buried in the 1930s."

As more of Henry County's old rural acreage is opened to development, it sometimes seems as if you can't scoop a bulldozer full of dirt without hitting a tombstone.

Killearn Properties Inc. discovered 10 unmarked graves last year on a tract in Stockbridge it had owned for 20 years. After advertising failed to produce any living relatives, the company paid to have the graves relocated to Eastlawn Memorial Cemetery.

"In the old days, most families buried their deceased on their own property," McConnell said. "Then the plantations broke up and things started getting lost."

Clayton County history buffs banded together over a decade ago to track down and record all the unregistered gravesites in their county. Now their partners in Henry County want to publish the same kind of book?with a twofold goal of preserving the past and creating a reference tool for people researching their family histories.

Roy Swann, president of the society, said research he began eight years ago helped save a 130-year-old cemetery on the grounds of the Atlanta Motor Speedway. But much of that research is gone.

"Somebody broke into my house," he said. "I kept a lot of the work in an old milk crate and they took the whole thing."

McConnell is leading a group of volunteers in the new cemetery project. They're asking for local help in rooting out all the small, abandoned gravesites.

"If they didn't have money for a tombstone, they'd mark the grave with a flat fieldstone," McConnell said. "But a lot of people who live here still remember who's buried there. That's why we need help from the public."

Swann recalled the day when a hunter called him about a vandalized grave in the woods. It turned out to belong to a Civil War soldier who had died in 1873. Swann called the Sons of Confederate veterans for help.

"The old looking glass from the lid and the handles of the casket were still there," he said. "We refilled the grave and had a ceremony. The waterworks are all around it now."

McConnell and the other members are relying heavily on earlier surveys for their project, but the last one was done in the 1970s and black cemeteries were never included.

McDonough resident Linda Sanders started her own survey in 1999, including cemeteries at 11 black churches. Her work, posted on the Internet at ftp://ftp.rootsweb.com/pub/usgenweb/ga/henry/cemeteries/, has been invaluable, McConnell said.

Still, cross-checking and updating is necessary, even at the 183 confirmed cemeteries in the county.

"The McDonough Cemetery went through a lot?depressions, floods, neglect?until the city took it over," McConnell said. "They don't know where everyone is buried and they're very interested in the map we're making."

Barring rain, the group will be back at the McDonough Cemetery this weekend, painstakingly copying information from each headstone.

"It's kind of like detective work," Ginny McConnell said, pointing to a weather-worn stone on which the date 1884 was barely legible. "You might have to use a chalk-rubbing or shaving cream to bring out the inscription. One lady uses a bag of flour."

The McConnells' enthusiasm for the project was sparked by their research into their own family histories, although Tom comes from South Carolina and Ginny is Ohio-born.

"We're mainly interested in preserving family records for genealogy," Ginny McConnell said.

Swann, a native Henry Countian, said old cemeteries also provide clues about the culture of a place or a period in time.

"You see a dove on a headstone with a sheaf of wheat in its mouth, it plucked a soul on its way to heaven," he said. "If there's a tree that's not very tall, it's probably a sign of a life cut short."