An unmarked grave turned up a surprise recently for utility workers in Pendergrass.
Workers installing sewer lines along Mountain Creek Dr. in Pendergrass found a human skull, along with other bones, while back filling a hole along the road.
Work stopped immediately and the Pendergrass Police Department was called. The county coroner also came to the scene and reportedly told workers the skull belonged to an African-American male.
Unsure about what to do with the skull, the crew told Pendergrass police major Robert Larocque they would put it back with the other bones and rebury the remains.
Unearthing the skull was a surprise to the workers, but the homeowners at the site said it shouldn’t have been.
Donald and Vickie Underwoord said they warned the city that an old graveyard existed in their front yard and that they hadn’t been notified by the workers, or city officials, when the skull was unearthed.
"What upset me about the situation is that we had been telling them there was a graveyard there," said Vickie Underwood. "When I talked to (city manager) Rob (Russell) and (Mayor) Monk Tolbert, they said they weren't aware of it. But the skull, when they unearthed it, they didn't even bother to knock on our door to tell us. It's been very upsetting, especially to my husband because of his background. I had to find out through a third-person and that's why I wanted to make a report.”
The Underwoods also said the city now denies being told about the graves before the digging began and that they were told to keep the situation quiet. They said Officer LaRocque had been telling people the site was an old slave graveyard.
But Larocque said there hadn’t been a conspiracy to keep it quiet and he denied saying the graves were of slaves.
Mayor Tolbert said he wasn't told about graves being on the property until after the incident.
"I never spoke to them," Tolbert said. "The first I knew of it was when LaRocque called me several hours later when he said they found a skeleton. I never met with them or anything else. They never told me."
A MYSTERY FOR OVER A HALF CENTURY
Donald Underwood moved to the area as a child with his father, Henry Underwood. He returned to the property several years ago to help his aging father.
Donald said he remembers being aware of the graves in the yard and that at one time, they were marked with stones.
At some point, he said the stones were hauled away, but he doesn't know where they are at now. He also said names were carved into the stones and believes there were around 25 graves on the site.
"What his daddy [Henry Underwood] had told us is there is a combination of Indians, blacks and whites," Underwood said of those buried in the front yard. "How he knew that, I don't know. We knew they were there; we don't know exactly who they are. I do know there were some rock markers. Apparently they [construction crew] got close enough to our yard that it (the skull) rolled out."
The presence of the graveyard is obvious. The front yard of the property features a large mound not seen on neighboring properties.
Once the mound could be dismissed as just natural geography. Now, it's clear the mound is the site of at least one body, an African American male, but possibly many more burials as well.
"That's the reason why he [Henry Underwood] didn't grade it level," Vicki Underwood said. "He didn't want to disturb the grave site."
The Underwoods have contacted two anthropology departments, one from Atlanta and one from the University of Georgia. Neither department has confirmed with the family if, or when, they might travel to the site to take a closer look.
Until an expert arrives, the Underwoods just want the graveyard to be left alone.
"It was very disturbing that the grave was disturbed and I didn't know if it was treated properly," Vickie Underwood said. "I don't want to move them ... I just don't think they should be disturbed. Progress is one thing, but being respectful to the dead is something else."
OLD CHURCH GRAVEYARD?
Looking at the history of the property perhaps sheds some light on the possible origins of the graveyard.
The previous owner of the land was Julie Demaris Cronan, formerly Julie Demaris Love. The property had been owned by the Love and Gilbert families since the great depression.
Q.S. Gilbert acquired the land in November 1929 from a R.E. Appleby.
The Appleby family was one of the most prominent families in Pendergrass in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The family included former Pendergrass mayors and the founder of Pendergrass Baptist/Methodist Church, Scott Appleby.
At the time, the street the current residence and graveyard are on wasn't called Mountain Creek Dr. Instead, according to land records, the property was on Academy St.
Today, Academy St. is only two-tenths of a mile in length, starting on Old Gainesville Hwy. and ending with a dead end just a short walk through the woods to U.S. Hwy. 129.
Records suggest Academy St. was much longer, but was shrunk when Hwy. 332 was paved.
Academy St. was also the home of an old black church and school in the early 1900s. An early map of Pendergrass from 1907 places the church at the very end of Academy St., not far from the residence of Mayor Tolbert. No remnants of the building remain.
The map also shows the church to have a very small lot, not large enough for both a church building and a graveyard. That suggests the graveyard where the skull was found have have belonged to the black church, possibly on land lent to it by the Appleby family.
The site is only a quarter-mile away from the Pendergrass cemetery, where African Americans likely weren't allowed to be buried a century ago.
That's just one theory and until an anthropologist or some other expert visits the site, the graveyard's origins can't be fully determined.