Edward Atkins says that he just wants the county government “to do the right thing.”
Atkins, a local historian with an emotional connection and family connection to the old Georgia State Prison Farm property on Ga. 22, has been outspoken in recent years about the demolition of the old prison building, located several hundred yards away from the Walter B. Williams Jr. Park gymnasium. Now, as the county government readies for construction on its new aquatics facility/water park, Atkins is calling on the county commission “to do its due diligence and document the history.”
“All I want is for a (University of Georgia) archaeologist or some other archaeologist to be there when the bulldozer starts digging. For the sake of history, there are archaeological artifacts directly underneath (the site of the new water park),” said Atkins, whose great-grandfather was the longtime chaplain at the old prison farm and the man responsible for documenting much of the prison’s original history.
Now, years later, Atkins is picking up where his great-grandfather left off. Atkins also said that there’s “at least some chance” that unmarked graves and bodies lie underneath the new waterpark site. He said that roughly 1,400 graves currently are unaccounted for on the Walter B. property out of a total of 2,000. Atkins added that around 1889, employees of the old prison farm began burying prisoners directly behind the main prison building and continued in a direction towards Fishing Creek Golf Course and Meeks Road. The main prison building was demolished by the county in 2018 after being condemned for many decades.
However, the footprint of the water park does not touch any of the area where prisoners were buried, at least according to the historical records, and the new water park will be situated more towards Walter B.'s intersection with Ga. 22. Atkins conceded that he “has no documented proof” that any prisoners were buried along the footprint of the water park, at any point. County Manager Carlos Tobar, meanwhile, is more certain.
“There’s no cemetery there, and there was never any cemetery there,” Tobar told The Baldwin Bulletin earlier this week. “The cemetery was much further back. Before we tore down the old state prison (in 2018), we went through all of the proper channels and followed all of the state laws and guidelines to find out exactly what we needed to do.”
The eastern-most portion of the new water park will stop where the middle of the old two-story prison building once stood. None of the slides or water features or any other aspect of the park will be located “behind the building,” where historical records indicate that convicts were buried. Although he can’t substantiate that anyone was buried along the footprint of the new water park, Atkins is convinced that “there are still items of great historical and archaeological significance” underneath the ground, where contractors soon will begin digging. Wrote Atkins in a recent press release: “The County has announced that bids are being accepted beginning on April 16, 2021, for a new Aquatic Center which will be built on the site of the old prison. The disruption of the prison soil creates serious concerns about the lack of documented archaeological findings, and without State supervision, could expose graves from a century of convict deaths.”