DeKalb County officials apologizing after bodies found buried under road

DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — DeKalb commissioners are apologizing after discovering the county paved a road over African American graves.

Channel 2 Action News uncovered the bombshell discovery during a three-year investigation after the deacon of St. Paul Baptist Church contacted Channel 2′s Sophia Choi.

For 50 years, Deacon Fred Kinnemore said no one believed him. Now, there’s finally proof.

“Just knowing that they’ve covered it up for all this time,” Kinnemore said. “Once the deceased has been disturbed, you can’t bring it back.”

The county CEO presented the facts to the full commission on Tuesday after Channel 2 broke the story on Monday, on WSB Tonight.

During the presentation, the county-hired archaeologist said they discovered evidence of a grave and likely 16 more under Wilson Road in Decatur. Nine other suspicious spots turned out to be debris.

DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond told commissioners, “The essence of African American history is to celebrate and respect your ancestors. Never to lose sight of the shoulders that you stand on.  And to worship them, quite frankly, because that’s a part of who we are.”

Already, the CEO has spent $52,000 researching the issue.

It could cost much more to move the bodies. But commissioners vowed to support the project.

Commissioner Larry Johnson said, “It just tugs at my heartstrings in terms of making sure that the folks who are buried have a peaceful. And when I say peace, you can’t rest in peace when you have paved-over roads.”

Choi obtained a video from Friday when an archaeologist led a team and dug up four suspicious areas along Wilson Road.

The county hired them after Channel 2′s investigation three years ago. The team first conducted a study using sonar. It initially showed 26 possible graves. On Friday, they found one.

“This is exactly the type of features that we associate with finding a historic gravesite,” the archaeologist said.

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The CEO plans to take his evidence to the Superior Court within 30 days to get permission to move the bodies.

Part of the process will include hiring a genealogist to track down family members connected to those buried and alert them about the graves.

Choi first met Kinnemore in 2018, more than a half-century into his fight over the buried bodies at St. Paul Baptist Church.

He talked about how the small church was one of the first to stake a spot along Wilson Road when it was just a horse and buggy dirt road.

But soon came others — white residents — who Kinnemore said did not take kindly to a Black church in their neighborhood.

The church was eventually moved to Nelms Drive in the 1930s.

“Do you feel like the church was pushed out?” Choi asked Kinnemore at the time.

“The church was run out. I don’t feel it. I know it,” Kinnemore said.

But the church never gave up the cemetery.

Kinnemore’s father, a World War II veteran, kept it up. After he returned from Vietnam, Kinnemore took on the task and realized the county had put a road right through the cemetery.

“If you are going to pay respects to your people, or anybody, you need to be able to get to them,” Kinnemore said.

Kinnemore’s family showed Choi what’s left of the cemetery — protected inside a fence.

They said what’s not protected are the bodies under the road. They say every time a car drives over them, it breaks their heart.

“Just thinking about my ancestors and how they have been mistreated,” said Christie Hines, Kinnemore’s niece.

The family believes racism led to the situation.

“They didn’t want the Blacks in the area, and the ultimate goal was to get us away by any means necessary,” Hines said. “Even paving over our ancestors.”

“Black Lives Matter, even in death,” said the Rev. Eddie Mosley with St. Paul Baptist Church.

Thurmond agrees that racism likely played a role.

He met Choi at the site on Monday, saying this is the first step to healing.

“Obviously, this is a sacrilege when you disturb human remains, mistreat them. So now, we’re about getting to the facts, understanding the significance, or at least the expanse of the problem. But more importantly, going through the process of healing for the family members of those who are buried here,” Thurmond said.

Kinnemore and his family want their ancestors’ dignity restored.

“I think the bodies need to be moved,” Kinnemore said.

But Thurmond said it’s going to take a court order to dig up the graves.

“Obviously, if our research determines that there are additional burial sites here, then the most appropriate thing to do, of course, is to exhume them and then, hopefully, reinter them in another location,” Thurmond said.

“They deserve the respect of actually uncovering it to show that there are graves here,” Kinnemore said.

The next step will happen Saturday — when Thurmond is expected to present his evidence to family members and neighbors.