Lawsuit May Block Developer from Moving African American Cemetery
By Heath Gordon | Online Only | Sept. 24, 2009
A Georgia cemetery is at the center of a lawsuit whose outcome could determine the fate of the last link to a community of freed slaves called Macedonia.
The dispute began when Fulton County, Ga., improperly assessed taxes against the Mt. Olive Baptist Church's property in Buckhead, Ga. As nonprofit organizations, churches are exempt from paying taxes on their land. Despite this law, businessman Brandon Marshall purchased the land through his tax-lien company, Community Renewal LLC, unaware that there was a cemetery on the property.
Soon after purchasing the land, Marshall filed an application with the city of Atlanta's Urban Design Commission to have the graves, which number between 45 and 120, moved. On Sept. 3, Elon Osby, the granddaughter of a prominent member of the Mt. Olive Church and Macedonia community, filed a lawsuit to prevent the graves' relocation. Currently, a judge is evaluating whether the cemetery is on public or private land—if the cemetery is considered public property, it cannot be moved. A verdict is expected at the end of this month.
Macedonia was a collection of structures once inhabited by freed slaves. It was converted into a subdivision in 1921 and has since become a ballpark. The Mt. Olive Church cemetery, a burial ground for African Americans from all over the region, is the only remaining vestige of this community. According to Christine McCauley, executive director of the Buckhead Heritage Society, both the town of Buckhead and the settlement of Macedonia played large roles in shaping the nearby city of Atlanta.
"I try to weigh both sides of it," McCauley says. "On one hand, Marshall is in a fix and is trying to get out of a sticky situation. On the other hand, we have a little green space in the heart of a dense urban area. When it comes down to it, profitability is not as important as things on the other side of the scale."
This is not the first time a developer has unwittingly purchased a cemetery in Fulton County. In the other instances, the land was simply sold back to the county. Marshall has not yet opted to take this step.
The Mt. Olive cemetery is in a state of disrepair: Many headstones have been knocked over or misplaced, and vandals have damaged the stones. The current lawsuit has drawn attention to the site, and McCauley hopes a nonprofit can be formed to maintain and repair the burial ground.
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