On Aug. 7, the University of Georgia made a welcome announcement: President Jere Morehead’s office will sponsor a special fund to support research on the history of slavery in the establishment of UGA. It has taken nearly four frustrating years to arrive at this point, after the issue exploded into view when the remains of enslaved people were disinterred during the 2015 excavations around Baldwin Hall.
While welcome, this response is far from adequate. Above all, it fails to recognize the ongoing economic and social effects of our history. These require direct economic and social redress, most prominently in the form of decent wages for all university employees.
The university has still refused to join the Consortium of Universities Studying Slavery, and the call for proposals requires no community consultation, a glaring gap in the university's response to the discovery of remains. Equally importantly, the new fund focuses narrowly on the years before formal emancipation in 1865. But the poisonous legacy of slavery was far from over even at the end of the Civil War. The failure of the subsequent Reconstruction effort has been well documented, instead ushering in the Jim Crow period of legally-enforced segregation that persisted into the 1960s. Racial injustice still persists today in economic form, especially in former slave states like Georgia. A 2019 study from Mehrsa Baradaran, a law professor who moved from UGA to the University of California, describes this thoroughly. The historical chain of events from slavery to the present may be long, but it is clear.
For those of us who live in Athens, these hardships lie close at hand. The Census Bureau estimates that the poverty rate for people who are black or African Americans alone in 2017 was 24.4% in Athens, much higher than the poverty rate for people who are white alone of 12.6%. As the largest employer and main driver of the labor market in the Athens area for centuries, UGA must take responsibility for this situation.
Last year, President Morehead proudly announced wage increases for UGA staff, that in particular brought the bottom annual pay rung for a full time worker to $24,500 in July 2018. Accounting for inflation, however, this simply means that workers’ wages continue to stagnate. In the early 1970s, the lowest annual pay was around $5000 — but this comes to around $30,000 in today’s dollars. Black workers are disproportionately disadvantaged. As of February 2019, the ceiling on service/maintenance workers’ wages — that is, the highest wage that such workers can earn even after many decades of service — is $32,454, or $15.60/hour. According to the 2018 UGA Fact Book, black people make up 44.1% of workers in this category. From a different angle, 46.5% of all full-time black workers at UGA are classified as service/maintenance.
United Campus Workers of Georgia proposes a simple and fair partial remedy: that UGA pay all its workers a decent wage. This means both a minimum of $15 per hour and a fair system of regular cost of living raises for all workers.
UGA and Athens grew up together. The conditions that prevail today are the product of generations of unfair treatment. As a public institution that pays no taxes whatsoever, UGA carries a civic obligation to treat the community that has long been its partner with respect. As a major university embedded first in a slave-holding, and then segregationist, state, UGA carries an obligation to show our students — through words and actions — that it is possible not only to understand the world, but also to act on that understanding in the service of our society and of the world at large.