Kelly Girtz used to teach Georgia history to eighth graders about 20 years ago, long before he became the mayor of Athens. In the process of teaching, Girtz learned about the removal of Athens neighborhoods during the 1960s.
On Wednesday, Girtz delivered comments during the first meeting of the Athens Justice and Memory Project. It is the city’s first resident-led group seeking to raise awareness about the destruction of Linnentown, a predominantly Black community. Girtz said the citizens of Athens should expect similar groups to follow.
“In many ways, you guys are serving as guinea pigs,” Girtz said. “My intention is to in the future replicate this process both across the geography of Athens in other places where this was happening but also across time. Things happened in earlier decades and in later decades even up to the present.”
Urban renewal projects in Athens displaced an estimated 298 families, according to the University of Richmond’s “Renewing Inequality” project. The project studied urban renewal policy across the country and determined that Black families were far more likely to be displaced than whites.
Linnentown was a neighborhood off of Baxter Street. The University of Georgia and the city of Athens used eminent domain laws to destroy the homes of about 37 families. The federally-approved removal made room for three UGA dorms — Russell, Creswell and Brumby Halls.
Hattie Thomas Whitehead led the first meeting of the Athens Justice and Memory Project, which will try to build site markers to apologize for the removal of houses.
“We’re going to be talking about race, and we’re going to talk about justice,” Thomas Whitehead said. “Sometimes it can be uncomfortable. It’s OK to be uncomfortable.… We’re in uncharted waters.”
The group is separate from the Linnentown Project, which tried to push Athens-Clarke County commissioners in February to approve the Linnentown Resolution and acknowledge the takeover as “an act of institutionalized white supremacy and terrorism.” UGA said in a January statement that it disagreed with the project’s conclusions.
UGA urban geography professor Jennifer Rice spoke at the Athens Justice and Memory Project’s meeting. She will serve as a researcher for the project. Other project members include District 2 Commissioner Mariah Parker and District 10 Commissioner Mike Hamby. Girtz is not a member but will support the group.
Some first descendants of Linnentown residents, including Christine Davis Johnson, are members of both Linnentown projects. Johnson’s family was the last one living at the top of Lyndon Road. Her mother negotiated the best price possible for the family’s home at a time when bulldozers roamed the neighborhood late at night.
“My mother was real strong,” Johnson said. “We made it out, but it wasn’t easy.”