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VIA: AJC.com

Jeff Gardner delicately scrapes away a century of red clay and scoops the remains of a child into a casket.

The archaeologist has spent the past two months carefully sifting through dirt, trying to preserve the remains of generations of Clayton County families.

Gardner thought he was looking for 270 historic African American graves buried behind Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

He found more than 340 – and is still digging.

Gardner and his crew are moving the graves — which date back to the mid-1800s — from the middle of a landfill in College Park to a public cemetery in Riverdale.

“We’re now finding graves that are smaller. Many of the graves I thought were adults are actually two children buried side by side,” Gardner said last week.

Workers with Stephens MDS, a rock and dirt recycling company, rediscovered the abandoned Union Bethel AME Church  Cemetery while expanding its 200-acre landfill.

The cemetery had not been visited in decades. Not only was it overgrown, but it was surrounded by the landfill on one side and a rock quarry on the other.

In December, the Clayton County Commission approved the cemetery’s relocation.

“The cemetery was totally abandoned,” said Shawn Davis, a spokesman for Stephens MDS. “We wanted it placed in a permanent, protected and public cemetery.”

After news of the approval in last December, several family members and dozens of civil rights activists complained. They filed lawsuits and marched in protest.

But after judges dismissed the suits and preachers blessed the move in July, the families quieted down.

“We decided to let it go ahead and be moved,” said 72-year-old Betty Bowden whose grandfather is buried in the cemetery. “Regardless of what’s right or wrong, the law said they can move it and I’m satisfied.”

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