By Joel Hall
A Clayton County Superior Court judge has ruled that the county's Board of Commissioners was within its rights to grant Stephens MDS a permit to relocate a historic grave site.
Judge Albert B. Collier declared the cemetery to be "abandoned," and denied the requests of Betty Bowden and Annie Ruth Scandrett, two plaintiffs in the case, to stop the graves from being moved.
Collier ruled that the Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church Cemetery, which presently sits on the Stephens MDS landfill, fits the legal definition of an abandoned grave site, and thus, the BOC was within its rights to issue a relocation permit to the landfill's owner, John D. Stephens.
Georgia Code section 32-72-2 describes an abandoned cemetery as "a cemetery which shows signs of neglect including, without limitation, the unchecked growth of vegetation, repeated and unchecked acts of vandalism, or the disintegration of grave markers or boundaries and for which no person can be found who is legally responsible and financially capable of the upkeep of such cemetery."
Shawn Davis, a spokesperson for Stephens MDS, said the company is satisfied with the verdict and will move forward with its plans to relocate the 311 graves there to Carver Memorial Gardens on Upper Riverdale Road.
"We're obviously pleased that the court validated that the county commission acted in accordance with state law to issue a permit for the relocation of the cemetery," he said.
"The [plaintiff's] challenge was that the county did not have the right to issue a permit for the relocation of the cemetery," Davis said. "The judge said that, in fact, when you have an abandoned cemetery, and all the right requirements have been met, that you can relocate a cemetery."
For months, the Clayton County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as well as several other activist groups, have staged protest rallies and spoke at BOC meetings in opposition to the cemetery's relocation. Dexter Matthews, president of the Clayton County NAACP, has called the relocation an example of "environmental racism."
Bowden, 72, the great-granddaughter of Steve Dixon, the man who once held the original deed to the Union Bethel AME Church, has argued that by moving the graves, Stephens MDS is disrespecting the souls of African-American slaves who are assumed to be buried there.
Bowden's lawyer, Michael Sheridan, had no comment, as his client is still seeking a permanent injunction in the case, as well as an appeal of the BOC's right to grant the relocation permit.
Collier's ruling, however "denies the plaintiff's emergency complaint for temporary and permanent injunction," according to court documents.
Davis said Stephens MDS has yet to set a date for the relocation, but said the public would know "well in advance" before any graves are moved. He added that the company would announce the location of a public observation area, where people can observe that the graves are being transported in accordance with state law.
"The community will be informed prior to any relocation activities," Davis said.