DeKalb finds evidence of paved over graves near Black church cemetery

For half a century, Fred Kinnemore has told anyone who will listen that DeKalb County paved over part of his church’s cemetery while no one was looking. An untold number of loved ones and ancestors, he kept saying, were resting under Wilson Road.

New findings suggest he’s right — and have county officials both apologizing and preparing for the next step.

Late last week, archaeologists from New South Associates dug four large trenches in the right-of-way along Wilson Road, a residential street near Tucker. They were investigating a handful of the 26 below-surface “anomalies” they’d previously detected via ground-penetrating radar.

The anomalies looked like arches on the black-and-white images the radar produces, and often signify something buried in the dirt.

Due to laws regulating the disinterment of human remains, crews can, quite literally, only dig so deep right now. But the closest examination yet showed at least one of the targets had strong signs of being a grave, New South’s Matt Matternes told county commissioners during a Tuesday morning meeting.

Matternes was there at the request of DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond, who asked for the commission’s blessing to help right “a decades-old wrong perpetrated by officials of the DeKalb County government.” County attorneys will soon file a court petition that, if granted, would allow further excavation in the area — and the removal of any remains that are found.

Thurmond has discretion to authorize expenditures of up to $100,000 but will need the commission’s approval if costs pass that threshold. About $52,000 has been spent thus far.

“Now that there is evidence that there is at least one burial site,” Thurmond said, “it’s incumbent upon on us, not just as elected officials but I think as human beings, to do everything we can to determine the number of graves that are there and if they are there, to take the next steps.”

Thurmond got involved nearly three years ago, when Kinnemore and the pastor of St. Paul Baptist Church presented him with historical documents and an emotional story.

The church opened on Wilson Road in 1919 and Black congregants worshipped there for 30 years. Long subjected to threats and vandalism by their white neighbors, church leaders decided to move out in 1949 — after they found a pipe bomb that hadn’t detonated in the building’s basement.

St. Paul Baptist Church reestablished itself about a mile-and-a-half further south on Nelms Drive. But their cemetery was left behind.

A map showing possible grave sites (in blue) that were part of the St. Paul Baptist Church cemetery but paved over by DeKalb County in the 1960s. VIA NEW SOUTH ASSOCIATES

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Kinnemore’s father watched over the graves for years, and Kinnemore eventually assumed the responsibility. But when the younger Kinnemore returned from the Vietnam War, he found a road where the northernmost portion of the cemetery had been.

“The cemetery was somewhat abandoned, and the county went over and started fooling with it,” Kinnemore, now 71 years old and in declining health, told the AJC on Tuesday.

After Kinnemore approached Thurmond — and Channel 2 Action News started covering the controversy — the county hired New South Associates to take a closer look. In addition to recent excavation efforts, the firm has produced a 98-page assessment of the church’s history, the cemetery and what may lie underground.

Thurmond said the county’s petition to continue digging will be filed in DeKalb Superior Court “within the next several days.” But the ongoing pandemic and its impact on court proceedings make it hard to predict when the case might be considered.

Rev. Eddie Mosley, who has led St. Paul’s since 2001, said the church is “starting to find resolution in a fight that’s been going on for over 50 years.”

And Deacon Fred Kinnemore is starting to find peace.

“I’ve seen the tears, I’ve seen the pain,” Mosley said. “He’s been preaching the same sermon and nobody would hear him.”