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Families argue against removal of graves

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

For weeks, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) has debated whether to allow a local landfill company to move the historic Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church Cemetery from its current location south of the airport, to a new location on Upper Riverdale Road.

While the board chose to table the decision until its next meeting, descendants of those laid to rest in the cemetery came out in numbers to protest moving the graves.

About 30 people, mostly relatives and family members, came to the meeting at the request of the Clayton County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Several of them spoke, giving emotional pleas to the board not to move the graves.

Betty Bowden, 72, the great-granddaughter of Steve Dixon, the man who once held the original deed to the Union Bethel AMC Church, expressed to commissioners that the land should be left as an historic landmark.

"We loved that land ... it was the root of our family," said Bowden. "I have a sister and a brother out there, and I do not want them to be disturbed.

"It's 311 graves out there," Bowden continued. "Who would give somebody permission to take our family and dump them just like dogs. I think we should be heard."

Ben Turner, a cousin of Melissa Miller, the great-great-granddaughter of Steve Dixon, read a letter on Miller's behalf. Miller asked that the dead, rumored to be slaves and direct descendants of slaves, be given "the respect in death that they didn't have in life."

Virginia Gray, the commissioner in whose district the cemetery lies, was not present at the meeting. The four present commissioners chose to give the decision further thought.

Dexter Matthews, president of the Clayton County NAACP, hopes the BOC will take the matter "very seriously."

"We hope they are reconsidering moving these graves," said Matthews. "The graves have already been disturbed. Since all of the families came and showed displeasure in moving these graves, we hope the BOC exerts some wisdom."

In another matter, the commissioners agreed to protest a recent decision by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) to not allot additional funding to the county for its Neighborhood Stabilization Program, an effort to combat foreclosures.

Recently, Clayton County received $9.7 million directly from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help purchase foreclosed and abandoned homes. At the same time, HUD granted the DCA $77 million to give additional funding to places where it saw a need.

Despite leading the metro Atlanta area in foreclosure rates, Clayton and DeKalb counties were both overlooked by the DCA for additional funds, according to BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell. The BOC agreed on Tuesday to write a letter of protest.

"The news media has written that Clayton County is the highest among counties in foreclosures," said Bell. "We have been the hardest hit, but other counties, Cobb and many other counties, who were not hit nearly as hard as we were, got additional funds.

"We currently have 2,800 [houses] in foreclosure," said Bell. "I intend to write to them and express our disappointment."