Photo by Heather Middleton
By Joel Hall
After months of excavation, the Stephens MDS landfill in northwest Clayton County has relocated more than 300 graves belonging to the historic Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church Cemetery.
According to company officials, all of the remains on the property have been reburied at Carver Memorial Gardens on Upper Riverdale Road, to rest in perpetuity.
According to Stephens MDS Spokesperson Shawn Davis, it was originally believed that 270 abandoned graves sat on Stephens MDS' property, and 41 graves sat on adjoining property owned by Lafarge Aggregates Quarry, for a total of 311 graves. In the process of disinterment, archeologists with Brockington & Associates, Inc., discovered more than 340 bodies on the Stephens MDS property alone.
"The disinterment was started Sept. 21," Davis said. "The reinterment [at Carver Memorial Gardens] was completed today. The only abnormality in the project was that the approximately 270 graves anticipated on the Stephens MDS property, based on previous probing ... was 343, due primarily to encountering smaller adults and smaller children alongside each other. The archeologists seemed to think it was atypical to have as many children as they encountered, even though children died at a higher rate during that time period."
A representative from Brockington & Associates, Inc., could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
In January, Stephens MDS obtained a permit from Clayton County to relocate the abandoned graveyard, more than two-thirds of which existed on Stephens MDS' property. That decision was met with sharp disapproval by local descendants, as well as civil rights groups, who protested the board's decision and filed injunctive lawsuits in Clayton County Superior Court.
Descendants and activists insisted that the graves belonged to African Americans buried at the turn of the 20th Century, who were likely slaves or the direct descendants of slaves. In June, Superior Court Judge Albert B. Collier dismissed the last of several appeals to stop the relocation of the grave site.
The last of the remains on Stephens MDS' property were reintered at Carver Memorial Gardens on Upper Riverdale Road Tuesday morning. According to Ray Seaton, owner of the cemetery, Carver Memorial Gardens has existed since 1951, and was the first public cemetery in metro Atlanta open to African Americans.
"Back then, everything was segregated," said Seaton, who is Caucasian. "[Carver Memorial Gardens] was the first black, perpetual care cemetery in Atlanta. Prior to perpetual care, people were buried at churches [or] they may be buried in a plot in their backyard. It was a huge deal back then, because it was the first place they could go and not [have to] maintain the ground themselves."
Seaton said that among those buried on the seven-acre plot are Clayton County's first black policeman, the first black man from Georgia drafted into the National Football League, Atlanta's first black radio disc jockey, and the first black man to run for public office in Clayton County. The first person to be buried at the cemetery in 1952 was Jerry Redding, a sharecropper who once worked the land there, which was previously a farm.
"There is a lot of history here," said Seaton. When I knew about it [the relocation of the Union Bethel A.M.E. Church Cemetery] ... I wanted it to be here. I thought it was appropriate."
Seaton said that within the next week, the cemetery will resurface a road leading into Carver Memorial Gardens from Upper Riverdale Road. In December, or as soon as the land is dry, the cemetery will smooth over plots of land dedicated to Union Bethel A.M.E., and put down temporary grass seeds.
Toward the spring, the Union Bethel A.M.E. site will be re-sodded with centipede grass and a memorial statue, with two memorial benches, will be placed at the entrance of site. Markers will be placed at each grave site and maps will be kept at Carver Memorial Gardens, Stephens MDS, and the Georgia Archives in Morrow, illustrating where each grave is located, Seaton said.
At least 41 of the graves remain on the property of Lafarge Aggregates Quarry, according to Stephens MDS officials. Richard Tyler, director of land management for Lafarge, said the quarry has no plans to encroach on the cemetery site and no immediate plans to relocate the graves.
"Without some other plan that would come to fruition, we would not plan to disturb it at all," Tyler said. The company would be willing to discuss moving the graves with the appropriate county or community groups -- if they were interested, he added.
Seaton said that the 343 graves from Stephens MDS' site are currently on a plot of land that is approximately 60 feet by 40 feet in area. He said Stephens MDS has purchased an 80 feet-by-40 feet space to accommodate the remainder of the Union Bethel A.M.E. Church Cemetery, if Lafarge chooses to relocate its graves.
"His [John D. Stephens, owner of Stephens MDS] intention is to keep the whole cemetery together," Seaton said. "He is securing enough spaces so that if Lafarge wants to come over, they won't be separated."
Representatives from the Clayton County and Georgia chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who protested the grave site's relocation, could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.