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BOC ponders moving cemetery to new location

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Over time, the Stephens MDS, LP landfill and Lafarge Aggregates Quarry on West Lees Mill Road have developed around land containing 311 abandoned African-American graves. Today, the county will hold a public hearing to consider moving the graves to a more accessible location in Riverdale.

Shortly after the start of its 7 p.m., work session, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) will host an open dialogue with descendants of the dead, as well as the general public to decide on the best course of action. Stephens MDS, LP, which owns the majority of the land on which the cemetery sits, is proposing to pay to have archaeologists excavate and transport the remains to Carver Memorial Gardens on Upper Riverdale Road.

"We're having a public hearing to allow anyone who is related or possibly related, or the public at-large to have an opportunity to comment on it prior to voting on it," said Bell. "These matters are taken very seriously by our community, and obviously by our board, so we want to take every measure to make sure the community is heard."

Just south of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the old Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church Cemetery, contains more than 300 unmarked graves and several marked graves dating from the late 19th and early 20th century. Prior to 1868, the land belonged to Radford E. Morrow, a 19th century plantation owner for whom the City of Morrow is named.

The original congregation, now called Little Bethal Baptist Church at 610 Linda Way in Forest Park, as well as some of the descendants of the dead, still exist. However, access to the cemetery has become a problem, according to Jeff Gardner, an archaeologist with Brockington and Associates, in charge of the grave relocation project.

"The cemetery has not been disturbed, but the area around it has been quarried out, so you literally have to climb to get to the cemetery," said Gardner. "The cemetery sits up high related to the area around it now."

Gardner said due to years of neglect, many of the graves have developed sinkhole-like depressions as the acidic Georgia soil has eaten away the wooden caskets keeping the soil in place.

"Other graveyards where somebody maintains that, they would fill that in, but in this case, there is nobody doing it," said Gardner. He said moving the remains to Carver Memorial Gardens would provide visitors with better access, well-maintained grounds, and a mapping system showing how the graves were positioned at the original site.

Gardner added that the graveyard may have deep historical significance as some of the remains may belong to former slaves. However, locating descendants has proved difficult as only eight of the markers have names and only six of them include dates (some of which do not distinguish between death and birth).

The known headstones include: Tommy Lee Nash, son of Hubert P. Nash, died Dec. 19, 1935 as a child; D. (or O.) L. Elliott, born Jan. 4, 1886, died Oct. 6, 1908; James Thomas Glass, born Nov. 18, 1893, died Feb. 3, 1894; James Brooks, died March 7, 1901; Alex Moore, died May 2, 1936; DJ, 1888; DA, 1893; UBA; and ASSOC.

Wade Brannan, a spokesperson for Stephens MDS, LP, said the landfill is trying to handle the situation with the utmost sensitivity.

"Maintenance and access are really the issues that we are trying to deal with," said Brannan. "It's a situation where potential descendants of people may not have access. We are trying to handle this in a way that we would want it handled if it was a member of our own family.

"It's important for people who may have information about the cemetery to have a chance to participate," said Brannan. "It gives them a chance to be involved in the process and share with us information that we may not have."