Clergy to hold service prior to grave site relocation

By Joel Hall


What remains of the Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church Cemetery will soon be moved from the Stephens MDS landfill to Carver Memorial Gardens in Riverdale. This Saturday, The Coalition of Clayton County Clergy will host a grave-side service on the landfill property prior to the disinterment and relocation of the graves.

The service will start at 10 a.m., at 5401 West Lees Mill Road in Atlanta. Harry Riley, a spokesperson for the coalition, hopes the service will bring peace to those touched by the expected relocation of the grave site.

"We didn't want to get involved in the political debate," Riley said. "The coalition does not endorse or support one side or the other. Our only objective is to pray ... we have to believe that God is still in control."

Since November of last year, the topic of relocating the Union Bethel AME Church Cemetery has evoked cries of environmental racism among descendants of those buried at the cemetery and by local civil rights groups. The cemetery, which contains graves dating back to the early 19th Century, is believed to contain the remains of 311 African Americans, some presumed to be former slaves.

In January, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners accepted a permit application from Stephens MDS to relocate the cemetery, which currently sits on the landfill. In response, descendants of those buried at the Union Bethel AME Church Cemetery filed lawsuits and the local and state chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) staged protest marches.

In June, a Clayton County Superior Court judge dismissed the last of the appeals filed by Betty Bowden, a descendant of the former owner of Union Bethel AME Church, to stop the relocation of the grave site.

Bowden could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. Dexter Matthews, president of the Clayton County NAACP, declined comment.

Shawn Davis, a spokesperson for Stephens MDS, said the company approached the coalition of clergy members to officiate the grave-side service, in order to give descendants a chance to view the grave site before it is relocated.

"When the relocation permit was making its way through the county commission, it was asked that there [be] some kind of relocation ceremony to take place before any relocation took place," he said. "This is not our ceremony. It is their ceremony for the community.

"Most of the parties concerned have never actually set foot on the grave site," Davis continued. "We feel it is important for the community to see the grave site undisturbed before it is relocated."

Davis said relocation activities will begin in late August, staring with the clearing of vegetation, the re-marking of graves, followed by excavation of the graves, which is expected to take several weeks.