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Racial tensions over grave site escalate

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Racial tension and raw emotion flared Tuesday night as protesters, lead by the Clayton County NAACP, demanded that the Clayton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) reverse a recent to discussion to move some historic graves.

On Dec. 2, the BOC approved the removal of the historic Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church Cemetery from the property of local developer John D. Stephens, who has a landfill on the property. The site of the graves, assumed to contain at least 311 African-American graves dating from the late 19th, and early 20th, centuries, is slated to be relocated to Carver Memorial Gardens on Upper Riverdale Road.

On Tuesday, the local NAACP branch held a news conference in front of the Clayton County Administration Building, demanding a stop work order on the transfer, and that what remains of the grave site be designated as a historic landmark. Betty Bowden, 72, the great-granddaughter of Steve Dixon, the man who once held the original deed to the Union Bethel AME Church, also made a plea that the board reverse its decision.

"Half of us are already gone, but the rest of us, we want them to remain there as a historical site," said Bowden. "We're really hurt to see how they have moved our people. A whole side of them have been dug up and where they are, we don't know. The only guess we have is that they're under the fifth runway [at Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport].

"We know that we can't get the ones back that are already gone, but they could have enough care for our descendants to leave the rest there," she said.

Operation LEAD (Leadership to End All Discrimination), a Lithonia-based advocacy group, joined in the protest. John Evans, president and CEO of the group, noted that all of the current members of the BOC had received campaign contributions from Stephens and that the transfer of the grave site is, in his words, "a scam and a disgrace."

"Something ought to be done in favor of the families ... to fix [the grave site] up the way it is and let it be known that people care," said Evans. "Some of the developers will put cement over their mama. We need to stop this corruption."

During the public comment portion of the BOC regular business meeting, the discussion became more emotional and racially charged, as some opponents of the grave site removal accused the board of being unsympathetic to the black community.

"The world is watching you and you are putting us to shame," said Gwen Mathis, Bowden's daughter. "Why did you disturb the grave site? I can only see one member of the board, who probably would not understand the African-American way," she said, referring to Commissioner Michael Edmondson, the only white member on the board.

"You ask for an explanation for everything ... give us an explanation as to why you voted to move this cemetery," Mathis demanded, her words accented by fist pounds on the speaker's podium. "We do not have that much here. Why would you move our loved ones?"

Dexter Matthews, Clayton County NAACP president, criticized the county for having a well-kept Confederate cemetery in Jonesboro, while being willing to displace an African-American grave site.

"You all should be ashamed," said Matthews. "In walking distance from here, there is a Confederate grave site ... perfect condition, not a [blade of] grass out of place. We can't have one good African-American anything in this county."

Eldrin Bell, BOC chairman, said the process of moving grave sites is "highly regulated" and defended the board's decision.

"I'm really hurt by it, when they say another grave site down the street is our enemies," said Bell. "The person who wants to move these graves has met the standards of the state, as well as the board. They have done virtually everything we have asked them to.

"I have invited the families, and still do, invite them to monitor [the transfer of the grave sites] as it takes place," he said.

Bowden, who made an emotional appeal before commissioners, hopes that the board will reconsider their decision. "I've seen my daddy dig many graves back there," said Bowden. "He hand dug those graves, so I know where they are.

"I wouldn't care if the trees grew as high as Stone Mountain, as long as I knew my grandfather, my sisters, my brothers, were still there," she said.