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Airport-area cemeteries stand as last remnants of lost community

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Long before Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport occupied the land, 19th Century families from the small farming community of Flat Rock once sat on rocks by Flat Rock Creek and had picnic lunches.

Later, farmers would wash their produce in the creek before they took it into Atlanta for sale.

Eventually, a small airport was established nearby, and as the years passed, that airport grew -- and grew. That airport would eventually become the busiest airport in the world.

Known as Hartsfield-Jackson, it grew through a series of expansions in the 1960's, 70's and 90's, encroaching more and more on the Flat Rock community, until all of the land became property of the airport.

These days, sitting by itself near the corner of Airport Loop Road and Sullivan Road in College Park, the 131-year old Flat Rock Cemetery serves as one of the final resting places for several members of that community. Looking out from the cemetery, one can watch planes land on the airport's fifth runway, and then taxi their toward the terminals.

Meanwhile, the nearby Hart Family Cemetery sits in the side of a hill just off of Riverdale Road. The runway crowns the top of the hill and visitors can watch planes approach for a landing, or take off, depending on which direction traffic is moving on a particular day.

"It's very hard to go there and picture where buildings were, because there's all those embankments they built for the runways," said Tommy Jones, 49, whose grandmother, Jewel Hart, lived in the Flat Rock community. An embankment for a taxiway is now located on the spot where his grandmother's house stood. "It's very interesting how Hartsfield grew and eventually overran the community," he said.

"My attitude was they could pile mounds of dirt on top of that cemetery as long as they didn't move the graves," Jones said.

Flat Rock Cemetery was once part of Flat Rock Baptist Church, which picked up its roots, changed its name to the National Heights Baptist Church and moved to Riverdale around 1970, said Melba Dailey, whose ancestors helped establish the church. Veterans of the Civil War are buried in the cemetery, only a few feet from veterans of World War II. National Heights Baptist Church eventually relocated again, to Fayetteville.

A marker at the cemetery tells only a small part of the Flat Rock community's tale: "This cemetery, its oldest grave dating to 1877, contains the remains of many of the earliest settlers of the surrounding Flat Rock community," states part of the inscription on the marker. "Cochran, Dodson, Green, Hart, Liveoak, Stephens and Turner are but a few of the more than one hundred family names represented by the markers here."

Only a few feet above the 148-year-old Hart Family Cemetery, airplanes, a symbol of the modern era, take off and come in for landings. It was once the high ground in the area, but construction of another hill for the adjacent fifth runway left the little cemetery dwarfed.

The story of the cemetery's founding goes like this: "My great-grandfather and great-grandmother (John Jay Hart and Ellender Brown-Hart) were walking on their property one Sunday and when they got to that spot, she said, 'This is where I want to be buried some day,' and she became the first person buried there," said Daily, 84, who lived in the community all of her life until 2000, when the airport needed the land.

"There was a time when we thought we were going to lose access to the cemetery while the fifth runway was under construction, but they managed to keep it accessible to us," said Ellen O'Neill, chairperson of Flat Rock Cemetery Care, Inc., and a descendent of the Hart family.

Some of the most recent people to be buried in Flat Rock Cemetery were laid to rest in the early part of this decade, and O'Neill said several more people who once lived in the Flat Rock community plan to be buried there some day. No new person has been brought to the Hart Family Cemetery for their eternal slumber since 1969.

For those who visited the Flat Rock community as a youth, Like Jones, or who grew up in the community and hated to leave when the airport needed more land, like Dailey, Flat Rock lives on vividly in their minds. Dailey said the community was rural when she was growing up, and everyone knew their neighbors. Five generations of her family lived in the community.

"I just can't bear to look at the area now," Dailey said. "It doesn't look the same at all. When we drive to the cemetery, I just close my eyes until we get there."

Jones said it is hard to picture where things where when he visits the cemeteries, but it does not diminish his memories of the community. "Stuff like going to visit my grandmother at her house, or attending church at Flat Rock Baptist, or the dairy farm that was on Sullivan Road, north of the Hart Cemetery, I'll always remember those things," said Jones, who is now a historian for the National Park Service, in Atlanta.

"You don't forget things like that," he added.