For four years, the Athens community and the University of Georgia administration have been at odds after renovations to Baldwin Hall uncovered remains of possible former slaves.
This tension culminated at the end of last school year when activists pushed the UGA administration to confront its history with slavery in a multi-day protest, where they asked for guarantee reparational scholarships to descendants of slaves who worked for the university and more slavery research.
On the brink of the new school year, administration is now taking a step in the right direction, activists say.
UGA will put up to $100,000 into faculty research proposals into the role of slavery and contributions of slaves to the university from 1785-1865.
This controversy started before most students even stepped onto campus. If you've heard the rumors but don't know how or when the problems started, check out this guide. Click on the dates for more information.
Old Athens Cemetery, which is believed to be founded around the 1780s and actively used for burials for about a century, is located between Baldwin Hall and the Jackson Street Building. The overcrowded cemetery had no official sexton, and there is little information about the people buried there, black or white. People continued to bury loved ones there until the Oconee Hill Cemetery opened before the turn of the 19th century.
When construction on Baldwin Hall began in 1938, the university was aware of graves underneath the building site, a 1978 Red & Black interview with Dean Tate revealed.
But this fact did not stop the development, though it was about 75 years later before the bodies were uncovered again.
UGA started an $8.7 million expansion project on Baldwin Hall, the home of the School of International Affairs, to provide technologically enhanced classrooms and more space for an increase in SPIA students.
Construction workers discovered parts of a human skull and jaw. Up to 27 gravesites were uncovered, and the State Archeologist's Office recommended reburying the remains in another location. Almost one month after discovering these human remains, UGA stopped the Baldwin Hall expansion and renovation project.
The UGA Department of Anthropology and Southeastern Archaeological Services went on to uncover a total of 105 grave sites. Thirty of the remains could be identified as mostly African-Americans from the 19th century, which led researchers to believe they were probably former slaves.
The 105 human remains were buried at Oconee Hill Cemetery in a move determined by UGA administration and the state’s archeology department. Some in the black community criticized how the university handled the discovery, and discussions about UGA's history with slavery began.
“Every southern university in existence before the Civil War was built and in many ways operated by enslaved people, so UGA was no different on that score. What matters now is how we deal with that reality,” UGA professor of southern history Cindy Hahamovitch said.
The Student Government Association Senate passed a resolution to construct a memorial to the possible former slaves on North Campus, but the president vetoed the resolution because of fact errors in the copy. At this time, there was a small plaque in Baldwin Hall as a form of commemoration.
After a couple years of discussing the remains and how best to handle its implications, a memorial next to Baldwin Hall was created to further commemorate those individuals who were buried under the building. The circular plaza features an elevated fountain, a granite marker, two granite benches, multiple vertical granite rectangular pillars, forget-me-not flowers and dogwood trees.
During the dedication, protesters including students and Athens residents interrupted the speeches, calling for the university to publicly acknowledge the role it played in promoting slavery during the time of its construction. UGA had not admitted that the remains could be former slaves nor made moves to remedy its history, protesters said.
April 2019 — Franklin College committee alleges intimidation of faculty and President Jere Morehead defends UGA
The Franklin College Faculty Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Baldwin Hall released a 31-page report condemning UGA's response to the Athens and UGA communities’ concerns regarding the human remains found near Baldwin Hall. UGA administrators allegedly intimidated faculty who have conducted slavery research, the report said.
President Jere Morehead wrote a letter to the editor in The Red & Black about the "wildly inaccurate claims" of some activists.
"The University of Georgia handled the Baldwin Hall matter appropriately, and our response actually went far beyond what is required by the law," he wrote. "However, it is clear that a few individuals, obviously driven by a personal agenda, continue to try to leverage this issue and expand it to promote their own causes."
The Office of University Architects released a 826-page report that included an analysis of the remains as well as a history of the area. This report was sent to the Office of the State Archaeologist as part of a 2016 plan and in accordance with state law.
These research proposals have a deadline of Sept. 30 and are set to be completed in June 2021. While activists are seeing this move as an olive branch between themselves and the university, it does not address all their demands from the spring.
Check back with redandblack.com for updates on this issue.