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Overgrown graveyard raises questions

By Daniel Silliman

Sometimes, surveying the neatly trimmed and evenly edged grass at Forest Hills Memorial Gardens, people see the grave stones on the other side of the fence, and are curious.

Almost lost in an unattended tangle of bramble bushes, overgrown grass and weeds, the headstones on the other side of the fence look as if they have been forgotten.

"People ask all the time," said Tina Horne, at Forest Hill, a cemetery on Conley Road, in Forest Park. "It's a private cemetery and we don't know anything about it."

Although to Horne, the question is old, and she has an official answer, there's still something sad and unanswered about the cemetery. She paused, after giving the rehearsed answer, and added her own comment. "It's very small," she said. "I don't know why people don't take care of it."

The little lot, shrouded in shade and studded with stones dating from 1905 to 1985, is actually, according to county tax records, three separate cemeteries.

The first one, near the corner of Conley Road and Jonesboro Road, is called Macedonia, and it's only about 200 feet square, with a county water tower looming over its back corner. The second one is called Lodge Cemetery, and is the widest, running along Conley Road for 321 feet. The third one, just a sliver of land, is called Rock Springs.

Tax records refer to all three cemeteries as "(colored)," and all three of them were, at one time, owned and maintained by now nonexistent social organizations: The Macedonia Charitable Association, the Forest Park Odd Fellows Lodge and the Rock Springs Church.

Annie Wilson Riggins has a lot of family members buried in these three little dilapidated lots. She's been trying to find out who owns the lots now, and who is supposed to be keeping the grave sites maintained.

She stood in the unattended graveyard Thursday afternoon, looking at the final resting place of at least three generations of her family, and saying she was embarrassed.

"The oldest people are down here," she said, pointing into the thickest brush. "They don't have stones. My daddy is over there in the briars and the debris ... If I want to see my grandmom, I have to go over to the other side, to Forest Hill, and peek over the fence."

Riggins said her sister, Helen Sutton, was buried there after her husband shot her in 1966. She was just 25 then, a recent graduate of Clark College, and in a brown-colored and faded photograph, she stands up straight, looking poised and proud.

Now, her gravestone is covered in curling vines, entwined by a scraggly, yellow flower. Riggins has to hunt for the grave, looking through weeds and watching out for snakes and poison ivy, saying, "I've got to find my sister. I'm going to find my sister."

Riggins said her great-great-great grandfather was one of the Odd Fellows who helped buy the lot back in 1886. She said everybody chipped in money and claimed a few lots. She remembers her father, before his death in 1985, spending a week in the hot summer, cutting the brush back, trimming the grass and doing the maintenance that has been, at best, intermittent and, at worst, ignored.

The social organizations, once central to their communities, seem to have faltered and then failed, with an older generation passing away and a younger generation moving on, turning to other institutions for support.

Riggins said as far as she can figure, no one has officially kept up the cemetery since her father died. "The relatives have passed away, or moved on," Riggins said. "Nobody is really taking care of it. It's all overgrown. It's like it's been abandoned."

County records confirm the three cemeteries are, officially, owned by non-existent organizations. According to county officials, cemeteries aren't taxed, so they're left in an odd legal space, never reverting back to the government, but existing without official ownership or care in perpetuity.

An official list of all the cemeteries in the county includes a note about abandoned graveyards, saying, "call State Board of Funeral Services in Macon," but the board exists to license funeral homes and funeral home directors, not appoint caretakers for old, forgotten, African-American graveyards.

There has been an effort to rediscover and reclaim the county's African-American graveyards, those abandoned and overgrown monuments to ancestors dating back to slavery, segregation and Jim Crow.

Chuck Ware, the grants and government liaison for Clayton County Transportation and Development, who is sometimes called "Cemetery Chuck," said he's identified about a dozen such cemeteries, mostly in the southern portions of the county.

With the backing of Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, Ware has been getting graveyards cleaned, pursuing grants and working to get the cemeteries declared historical sites. Eventually, Ware said, the graveyards can be mapped out into a "Heritage Trail," a phrase Bell has said he would like to use to promote the county's history.

"We're getting the living together with the dead, in a way of speaking," Ware said. "People need to see their ancestors. It lets them be proud."