Plans for a new funeral home in southwest Atlanta have been halted after city officials learned a cemetery dating to the 1870s was on the site.
Neighbors notified the city of the plans after seeing trees with yellow tags indicating a new business was being built in the area.
Mark Walker had already purchased the property, located on 3744 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in January 2018 with the plan of relocating his funeral home there. The businessman said he was aware of about 13 graves on the land, but said they were on the back end of the property. The headstones were already damaged when he surveyed the land.
“They were down because trees fell on them,” Walker told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “So we lifted them up” and replaced them on the graves. Some of the graves were buried underneath trash thrown in the area, Walker said, and four were being used in a nearby homeless camp.
The city’s zoning office issued Walker a permit to build on the property in August, officials said.
“Following the issuance of the special use permit, the city was made aware of cemetery disturbance on the property,” Doug Young with the city’s Historic Preservation Office said in a statement. “A ‘stop work’ order was issued for all site activity and a hold was placed on all permits.”
City officials surveyed the property Nov. 8 and found many of the headstones belonged to the McDonald family and dated back to 1873, according to a site analysis. One of the graves belonged to Elizabeth McDonald, the first wife of John Walker McDonald, a white farmer who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
According to the site analysis, the most recent burial was dated 1972 and the graveyard included broken headstones, granite rocks, and fragments of granite and marble. While no African-American graves were found in the cemetery, the city said it is possible the large field stones and quartz rocks once served as markers for slave burials.
Under Georgia law, the city has the authority to preserve an abandoned cemetery or burial ground if it is not being maintained by the person legally responsible for its upkeep. It is a crime to remove or disturb headstones.
Longtime southwest Atlanta resident Terrance Smith knew of the cemetery and said he had driven by the area numerous times when he noticed the property was for sale.
“I went over and took a look and noticed all the headstones were gone,” he told the AJC. That’s when he contacted the city.
By then Walker had already obtained permits, conducted an independent land survey for the lot and cleaned up the property. Walker said he spent $9,100 cleaning up the property, which had at least 90 tires dumped onto it.
Young said the historic preservation office will not clear Walker to continue with his development until after the cemetery concerns are addressed.
For now, Walker plans to fight to build his funeral home.
“There are graves all over that area,” he said, “but it has to be developed eventually. And no one is doing anything to keep them up.”
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