Company gets permit to move graves

By Joel Hall


Despite local efforts to convince the Clayton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) to reverse a decision to allow a local landfill to relocate a controversial grave site, the transfer of the graves will go forward unabated, landfill officials said on Wednesday.

Shawn Davis, a spokesperson for Stephens MDS, LP, said the rock-and-recycling landfill would go forward with its plans to transfer the historic Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church Cemetery to Carver Memorial Gardens on Upper Riverdale Road.

The church cemetery, assumed to contain at least 311 African-American graves dating from the late 19th, and early 20th, centuries, presently sits off Lees Mill Road, in the middle of landfill property.

Davis said the time for appeals has passed.

"There is a 30-day period in which a vote can be reconsidered and appeals can be filed," he said. "The period ended on Jan. 2, and the permit was issued Jan. 6. With the permit being issued by the county, we are now focused on making sure the interment process moves smoothly.

"We are not interested in rehashing the argument," he continued. "Stephens MDS will work with the community on an interment plan and ceremony as promised."

Family members of the deceased, as well as several local activist groups, have been inconsolable about the BOC's Dec. 2 decision to approve the transfer of the grave site. The cemetery is presumed to contain the bodies of former slaves.

On Tuesday, the state and local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and local chapters of the RainbowPUSH Coalition and National Action Network, joined Union Bethel descendants to ask the board to reconsider.

"We would like the pleasure to move our ancestors where we want them, not where somebody else wants them moved," said Betty Bowden, 72, the great-granddaughter of Steve Dixon, the man who once held the original deed to the Union Bethel AME Church. "These are our ancestors and this is our blood."

Opponents of the grave site transfer urged the board's newest member, Commissioner Gail Hambrick, to call for a resolution to have the matter reconsidered. Some speakers had choice words for certain commissioners, one speaker choosing to bring BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell's recently-deceased mother, Ruth Glass, 93, into the argument.

"How would she feel, if three generations from now, somebody said we are going to move her mausoleum so we can have a landfill?" Gwen Mathis, Bowden's daughter, asked Bell. "You're looking at me now right? How would you feel about that?

"How can [the county] be called a place where we can all be proud, when we of African-American descent have to sit here and watch a person of European descent, yes a white man, dig up African-American graves," Mathis continued. "Remember, even though you have been bought by [John Stephens, owner of the landfill], God has his eye on every last one of you, and I pray to God that when your mother died, Eldrin Bell, she was not ashamed of the decision you made."

Tonya Lee Willis, a concerned citizen from College Park, informed the board she would be taking the matter to Clayton County Superior Court. During Tuesday's board meeting, she presented District Attorney Tracy Lawson with what she said was "evidence" and a statement calling for a grand jury investigation.

Dexter Matthews, president of the Clayton County NAACP, called on the board to conduct an investigation to see if Stephens MDS, LP moved any of the graves prior to the board's approval.

Edward DuBois, president of the Georgia NAACP, promised a march on Clayton County during black history month, if the decision to move the graves is not reconsidered.

The commissioners made no comments on the subject Tuesday, and the board chairman, Bell, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Davis said that as of Wednesday, Stephens, MDS, LP had not disturbed any of the 311 graves in the Union Bethel cemetery, and that no graves will be moved without the close supervision of archaeologists.

"We made a commitment that we stand by," said Davis. "This cemetery will now be relocated to a regulated, perpetual-care cemetery, new grave markers will be placed, and the old graves and maps will be transferred for future reference.

"[The current grave site] is surrounded by an industrial zone with no safe access to visitors," Davis added. "We're just glad that these people will now be placed in a fitting environment and given the dignity they deserve."

Matthews said the situation is a product of "environmental racism," and said the NAACP would take the case to Superior Court, if the county doesn't change its mind.

"They are resting in peace, and now, somebody who wants to get rich off the county is trying to dig them up," he said. "This is very important. It's more important than moving some graves."