Sunday, November 20, 2011

SCV Members Win Fight for Cemetery With Georgia Power

Brothers win -- for now --fight over cemetery at Georgia Power's Plant Wansley
Flag removal highlights long-standing dispute with Georgia Power

By Rhonda Cook

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia Power Co. had its lawyers and a public relations office. The Rev. Wayne Webb and his brother, Walter, were armed only with determination when they challenged the utility -- again -- over ownership of a two-acre church cemetery in the middle of the massive Plant Wansley property.

Enlarge photo Johnny Crawford, Billy Bearden pushes a confederate flag in the ground at the Yellow Dirt Baptist Church grave yard on Wednesday, Nov 3,2011.

The Webbs won on Wednesday -- at least for now -- when Georgia Power acknowledged that the Yellow Dirt Baptist Church, and the Webbs as trustees, owned the cemetery that was established just after the Civil War. Indeed, it was a question of Confederate flags that highlighted the dispute this time.

The dispute over the property that is far off a main road in Heard County has continued off and on almost since the land for the coal power plant was bought in 1971. There would be an agreement but then management would change at the plant and the Webbs would again argue over the ownership of the two acres of graves and hardwood trees.

It became news in recent weeks when plant security officers removed flags placed on the graves of seven Civil War veterans. The Sons of Confederate Veterans protested. That attention only helped the brothers with their decades-long fight, said Wayne Webb.

“It’s not just a Confederate issue. It was ownership of the cemetery,” said Wayne Webb, whose great-grandparents and several aunts, uncles and cousins are buried in the cemetery.

The brothers and plant officials met Wednesday in the old Yellow Dirt Baptist Church building a few yards from the cemetery, and the utility again conceded that the graveyard was not part of the sale.

“It will not be 100 percent concluded until we get that documentation,” Wayne Webb said.

The Webbs were given a copy of a report on the title search. They also has asked for a survey and a statement on letterhead of the Southern Co., Georgia Power’s parent, stating that “Yellow Dirt church and the trustees own that property and they would never try to claim that two-acre cemetery again.”

Walter Webb also asked for an apology to the families of those in the cemetery, especially for removing the flags.

“If we get that survey and that statement from the Southern Co.... that would resolve the cemetery issue,” Wayne Webb said

The Webb brothers say this may or may not be the last time they have to fight the utility over ownership.

“This thing has been settled on two different occasions,” said Walter Webb, 66. “But every so often, they change management or security and something always comes up...”

According to court records, Georgia Power bought the land for $22,000 in 1971 as it gathered up 2,500 acres in Heard and Carroll Counties for Plant Wansley. The special stipulations were that the congregation could remove the piano, pews and chairs from inside the white clapboard Yellow Dirt Baptist Church, built in 1872, and the congregation would maintain ownership of two acres, including the cemetery. The deed said visitors to the graveyard were to have access.

The first problem was in 1972 when a fence to protect the graveyard from constructions crews and equipment was erected around only one of the two acres. Six days later the Webbs’ father, R.J. Webb, wrote the utility’s superintendent of land and acquisitions, and got a response that the entire two acres would be fenced.

The next year, however, Georgia Power locked the fence. Wayne Webb, now 60, has a picture of his father using a ladder to climb inside.

At the end of 1990, Walter Webb was confronted on the two acres while cutting wood. The Webbs and Georgia Power had another discussion about ownership. It was eventually determined that Georgia Power did not own those two acres.

In September, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans placed flags on six graves, one of them at the tombstone of the Webb brothers’ great-grandfather, J.P. Shelnutt.

Georgia Power had an employee remove them, the utility and the Webbs said.

“I do understand that Georgia Power has a rule of no Confederate flags are allowed on the property, however it is public knowledge that Georgia Power does not own my grandfather nor any of the other deceased in the Old Yellow Dirt Cemetery,” Walter Webb wrote in a letter to an area newspaper.

Less than a decade ago, the utility was defending itself against allegations of racial discrimination and complaints that nooses, a potent symbol of racism, were found in Georgia Power job sites.

“We have a company policy that prohibits the display of certain materials that may be offensive to people,” said Georgia Power spokesman Mark Williams. He said the flags were removed by people who thought the cemetery was utility property. After talks with Georgia Power, Confederate flags were put back on the six graves.

“We left on Oct. 8 thinking everything was back the way it used to be,” said William “Billy” Bearden, a member of the SCV. “We found out on Oct. 12 the flags had been pulled again. At that point it was war... They have been alerted to the fact you can’t just go around snatching veterans graves willy-nilly.”

After more negotiations with the Webbs, Georgia Power allowed flags to be put on the graves yet again, contingent on the company’s lawyers’ check of court records.

In the meanwhile, the Sons of Confederate Veterans staged protests. On Tuesday they were outside a plant entrance, wearing uniforms and holding flags.

On Wednesday the brothers got a call that Georgia Power’s title search was done.

They met with the plant manager -- but no lawyers -- for about an hour. It was friendly, according to Wayne Webb.

“Maybe I can get some sleep now,” Wayne Webb said.