In 1805, authorities founded the town of Athens, 20 years after the University of Georgia was founded in 1785. The town was named by the late governor John Milledge for Athens, Greece, known as the center of classical learning, thus giving Athens, Georgia, its nickname: the Classic City. Over the past 235 years, the university’s growth has driven the town’s development.
As the city’s population has continued to grow, local business has fluctuated. Between 1978 and 1995, more than $100 million was put into the revitalization of downtown Athens. An influx of big department stores altered the local landscape in the 1980s, but although storefronts have changed over the years as department stores moved to malls or consolidated, the bustling downtown commercial district acts as a reminder of perseverance.
The “Hot Corner”
Through the early 1900s, Washington and Hull Streets saw bountiful activity from Black middle-class community members and business owners in the “Hot Corner.” One of the lasting monuments of Athens’ Black history is the historic Morton Theatre. Built in 1910 by Monroe Bowers “Pink” Morton and now enshrined on the National Register of Historic Places, the Morton is one of the oldest vaudeville theaters in the United States. In its heyday, it hosted famous Black musicians including Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
In the 1950s, the Navy Supply Corps School moved to Athens, where it occupied the buildings that formerly housed the Normal School — a teachers training college — in Normaltown. The supply school operated for another half century, and its buildings today house the UGA Health Sciences Campus.
National music scene
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Athens emerged as a nationally acclaimed music scene, fueled by bands such as R.E.M., The B-52s and Pylon. That legacy continues in downtown’s many venues as Athens continues to fuel the growth of young bands and draw in musicians from across the country.
The Athens Music Walk of Fame, an homage to musicians who have contributed to Athens’ vibrant heritage, began installation downtown in September 2020 with 10 initial inductees.
Thirty years ago, the city merged with Clarke County to form a unified government.
Local politics and activism in Athens-Clarke County have gathered national attention in past years, attracting activists, artists and students alike to become involved in city operations.
In June 2020, Mayor Kelly Girtz and the Athens-Clarke County commission approved the removal of the Athens Confederate Monument, which stood at the intersection of Broad Street and College Avenue for 108 years and had been a subject of debate for years among local activists.
Changes in Athens are hard to ignore, although the city’s history remains vibrant and ever-influential.
This article originally was published in The Red & Black's fall 2020 Visitors Guide special publication.