Hattie Thomas Whitehead steadies herself behind a podium — fixing her mask and glasses — and asks a room full of people to bear with her because she’s “really, really nervous.”
At the Athens-Clarke County Library on Oct. 10, Thomas Whitehead, a member of the Linnentown Project, and audience members gathered to celebrate the release of her memoir titled “Giving Voice to Linnentown.”
An emotional process
The book details the early life of Thomas Whitehead growing up in Linnentown, a historically Black neighborhood in Athens, before its residents were displaced by city officials and leaders at the University of Georgia to construct the dorm buildings Brumby, Creswell and Russell Halls in the early 1960s.
Within the pages of “Giving Voice to Linnentown” lies a snapshot of life in the neighborhood and the close-knit community that once existed, setting the basis for Thomas Whitehead’s eventual involvement in seeking justice for former residents as a member of the Linnentown Project, which seeks redress from UGA and the county government for the displacement of families.
As a first-time author, Thomas Whitehead said the challenge of writing a book was daunting as she didn’t know how to begin. Without paying attention to a conventional structure or word choice, she wrote in parts, focused only on purging all of her thoughts, wanting to make sure she got it all out.
It was a process that was both challenging and rewarding, Thomas Whitehead said as she recalled stories from her childhood. Some brought forth joy and reminded her of the beauty of childhood, such as playing at a nearby creek with her brother, and others were painful to write. One story about seeing her mother in tears forced Thomas Whitehead to step away from writing for a few days.
But, motivated by her desire to inform people about what took place in Linnentown, Thomas Whitehead never stopped. She ultimately unlocked a new skill that she didn’t know she had and got to tell the story of Linnentown in her words, something that she was adamant about.
“I’m a first descendant. I lived it, so I wanted to write it,” Thomas Whitehead said.
‘Something that needs to be told’
The audience, which consisted of Thomas Whitehead’s family members, former classmates, co-workers and Athenians, hung onto her messages, often laughing at her jokes and punctuating her statements with applause and “mm-hmms,” reactions that calmed Thomas Whitehead’s nerves and made her feel supported, she said.
Mirroring the nature of her book, the event fostered a comfortable atmosphere while highlighting ways to learn more about Linnentown and other “urban renewal” projects in Athens.
The room was bordered by pictures of Linnentown and two tables, one containing Thomas Whitehead’s book for sale and the other featuring archival materials, including a large book of Sanborn Fire Insurance maps spanning from 1926-1963 that showed the area where Linnentown used to be.
As attendees stood in line — once to buy the book and again to get it signed — they chatted amongst themselves, some catching up with each other and others striking up a conversation with the person next to them.
Michael Wier, one of Thomas Whitehead’s high school classmates, attended the event. He said he was proud of the event and Thomas Whitehead herself for writing a book about an important piece of local history that many, including himself, were not previously aware of.
The story of Linnentown is “something that needs to be told and needs to be taken into account,” Wier said.
Thomas Whitehead hopes that her book can be something that’s passed throughout generations, reinforcing the idea that in order to prevent history from repeating itself, people must learn from the past.