COVINGTON, Ga. – In a split vote, the Covington City Council approved the relocation of an abandoned cemetery at 5377 Eagle Drive after plans for a memorial garden and limitations were added to the application.
Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams, who previously voted against the cemetery’s relocation, said she had a change of heart during the work session prior to the meeting.
“Had not they come before us to let us know that there had been an unearthing of this many persons or graves then we would not know about them,” she said. “Even if they were slaves or whomever, either way, they would have been out in a field somewhere. Sometimes we need to think about how people need a decent burial, one of integrity, so that’s what I began to look at in terms of maybe changing my mind in reference to that because we would have not have known about these graves had they not come forward.”
Mayor Ronnie Johnston said during the work session he viewed the graves as “lost souls” and is looking forward to putting them in a place where they can be memorialized properly.
The applicant, Guardian Angel Assisted Living and Memory Care, LLC, is a seven-acre project with a total cost of $15 million and 55 full-time job opportunities.
Rohim Patel, of Guardian Angel, said during the meeting he is happy to have his business be a part of the Covington community.
Forrest Sawyer, a member of the African American Historical Association of Newton County, spoke out against the relocation of the cemetery during the meeting.
“We’re going to be known as ‘Covington: a city that’s going to disturb the dead,’” he said.
Sawyer said he has visited the property and has concerns that there may be more than 14 graves at the location.
“These people here have bought the wrong property, they’ve bought a cemetery,” he said.
George Lanier, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Covington, said the graves are people who are connected to Covington and they deserve honor.
“Just as our nation takes the opportunity when we honor our dead lost in battle who defend our nation we have a station guarded 24/7 for the unknown soldiers, there are many unknown graves all over this country, all over the world,” he said. “I think how much better fitting it would be – I understand how emotions get into moving our loved ones – but at this point, if I’m understanding correctly, we don’t know who they are or who they’re connected to, but yes we do. They’re connected to Covington.”
Lanier said if there are more than 14 graves, he wants to find them and pay them the respect they deserve.
“This is our opportunity as a community to remind folks that from the cradle to the grave we take care of our own,” he said.
With Councilmembers Chris Smith and Kenneth Morgan voting against the relocation application a majority of the council carried the vote. Councilwoman Ocie Franklin was absent from Monday night’s meeting and therefore did not vote.
In recent history
Initially, the council denied the application at its April 3 meeting. With that denial, the city had 30 days to provide the applicant a written explanation for the denial.
Just three days later, the application was withdrawn which meant the city no longer had to provide the written explanation. The application was then resubmitted with changes that included plans for a memorial garden and a limit of 20 grave relocations.
The city approved its first cemetery relocation in December of last year. That approval was based on the information that about a dozen graves were in need of relocation. Once the project was started, however, a total of 75 graves were found and relocated.