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Judge dismisses appeal of grave-removal decision

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Since last year, Betty Bowden has led a fight against Stephens MDS' landfill, on West Lees Mill Road in northwest Clayton County, trying to prevent the relocation of a historic graveyard on the property.

A Clayton County Superior Court judge has denied Bowden's last remaining appeal to stop the relocation of graves from the site.

Superior Court Judge Albert B. Collier ruled recently to dismiss the Jan. 5 appeal filed by Bowden, opposing a Dec. 2 decision of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners to allow Stephens MDS to relocate the historic Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church Cemetery. The cemetery, slated for relocation to Carver Memorial Gardens on Upper Riverdale Road, is assumed to contain at least 311 African-American graves dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Bowden, in her 70s, is the great-granddaughter of Steve Dixon, the man who once held the original deed to the Union Bethel A.M.E. Church, which once sat on the Stephens MDS property. Michael Sheridan, Bowden's lawyer, said the judge ultimately ruled that Bowden's appeal was not filed within the 30-day limit required by state law to appeal a county commission decision.

"Unfortunately, the court ruled that it was untimely filed ... contradictory to the arguments that we presented," Sheridan said. "I respectively disagree."

According to a court order filed on June 10, Sheridan had argued that Bowden was unable to file the appeal on Thursday, Jan. 1, because the court was closed on New Year's Day. He added that Bowden filed the appeal on Friday, Jan. 2 in the presence of several people, but that the filing date that appeared on the appeal was Jan. 5 - three days after the appeal deadline.

"They were there on that Friday and for whatever reason, it seems to have been stamped on that Monday," Sheridan said. "It's pretty much the end of it, right now, until the family decides how they want to move forward."

Attempts to reach Bowden on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Between November of last year and April of this year, the topic of moving the graves was a source of controversy, sparking demonstrations and marches by local and state chapters of the NAACP. For months, citizens against the move expressed their discontent during county commission meetings.

In April, Collier declared the cemetery to be abandoned and denied the requests of Bowden and Annie Ruth Scandrett for an injunction to stop the graveyard relocation.

Shawn Davis, a spokesperson for Stephens MDS, said the company plans to move forward with the relocation in the coming weeks.

"To our knowledge, all litigation has now been resolved in our favor," Davis said. "The court found in the previous case that the BOC had all the authority to issue the permit, and that the applicant [Stephens MDS] had satisfied the law as it pertains to the relocation."

Davis said Stephens MDS plans to host a ceremony to honor the dead prior to the moving of the graves. After the ceremony, the company will proceed with the relocation, providing a public observation area adjacent to the site throughout the process.

"There were many descendants who never set foot on that ground until that process began," Davis said. "It was said that it would be helpful for those few relatives that we were able to locate to come to the gravesite one last time before any relocation activities begin."