Speaking to a completely full banquet hall at the Lyndon House Arts Center around lunchtime on Sept. 12, Hattie Thomas Whitehead’s recount of growing up in Linnentown, a historically black Athens neighborhood, was more sermon than history lesson.
University of Georgia dormitories Brumby Hall, Creswell Hall and Russell Hall now stand where nearly 40 African American families lived in 1960, according to the research from the Linnentown Project. The history-focused and community-led project co-hosted the lunchtime talk with Historic Athens.
During her talk, Thomas Whitehead’s voice did not waver as she spoke about dozens of black families that were displaced through the Federal Urban Renewal Program. By 1967, construction was finished on the UGA high-rise dormitories, and there was nothing left of Linnentown.
The Federal Urban Renewal Program was created to beautify and stimulate urban areas by removing blighted or “slum” neighborhoods and replace them with new development. Linnentown was classified as a slum and demolished as a part of “slum clearance,” according to the Linnentown Project.
“[Urban Renewal] was supposed to be for the betterment of Athens,” Thomas Whitehead said. “It depends on what side of the street you are on.”
As Thomas Whitehead told stories about the tight-knit community within one of Athens’ former African American neighborhoods, attendees of the talk responded as they felt inclined with “mhmm”’s and claps.
Thomas Whitehead spoke about neighbors in Linnentown building each others’ houses and raising each others’ children, emphasizing the autonomy of the neighborhood.
The lunchtime talk was meant as a starting point for the work to come from the Linnentown Project, Historic Athens and the mayor and Athens-Clarke County Commissioners. The Mayor’s Office is helping fund the research and record collection about Linnentown through a research grant. The program is working to find historical records of the community and digitize those records for public viewing. Several commissioners, along with Mayor Kelly Girtz, attended the talk.
“These neighborhoods that used to have strong footholds and be supportive places for the community were wiped out,” Girtz said. “Now as mayor, I want to make sure that these things that are hidden in plain sight are understood and available to everyone.”
Helping this move toward making these documents accessible and telling this story is Charlene Marsh, a student in the UGA’s Masters of Public Administration program. Marsh served as UGA Student Government Association Vice President for the 2018-2019 school year.
Marsh interned in the mayor’s office this summer and has been working to archive documents related to the urban renewal efforts, and she led the discussion with Thomas Whitehead and other former Linnentown residents.
As part of her graduate studies, Marsh is focusing on the oral histories from former Linnentown residents, as well as the economic and social impacts the removal of the community had on residents. After the meeting, Marsh expressed excitement from seeing over 50 people show up at a midweek lunchtime talk about a forgotten part of Athens.
“I’m just excited to hear that people are interested in this,” Marsh said. “I love that everyone was here to hear [the former residents’] stories because they should be the center of all of this.”
Correction: An original version of this article misidentified Hattie Thomas Whitehead as Geneva Johnson Blasingame. The Red & Black has since corrected this mistake and regrets the error.