Cities across the U.S. are witnessing the removal of Confederate statues in the wake of nationwide protests that have forced the country to reckon with its history of racial injustice. Simultaneously, Athens community members are once again calling upon the local government and the University of Georgia to rectify their predecessors’ transgressions against the Black community. The time to listen to the survivors of racial violence is now.
75-year-old Geneva Johnson still has memories of her childhood home at 123 Lyndon Row. She lived in Linnentown, a Black neighborhood in Athens where the Russell, Creswell and Brumby residence halls now reside.
“It was a tight knit community,” says Johnson. “People cooked for each other, children were parented by each other and by each family. They all went to church together.”
According to the Linnentown Project website, the community formed “as early as 1900,” and grew to 50 families by the 1960s. In 1959, residents petitioned to have Lyndon Row, South Finley Street and Peabody Street paved. They won a series of ordinances and made plans to install plumbing, fix the roads and add street lighting. However, all of the community efforts would be for nothing after UGA wiped the town from the map in 1962.
Over the course of five years, residents lost their homes, with UGA even hiring the fire department to expedite demolition through controlled burns on empty houses. The beginnings of luxury dorms started replacing the homes of dozens of hardworking citizens.
Johnson said she remembers the horror — three months pregnant, waking up in the middle of the night to construction crews tearing down empty homes neighboring the house her father built.
The destruction of Black towns by oppressive forces has historical precedent with extremes such as the massacres of Rosewood, Florida and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Linnentown may have reached comparable levels of middle-class self-sustainability, but according to the project website, the university “erased all physical traces of this community” by 1966.
The Linnentown Project, comprised of community supporters and resident descendants like Johnson, has fought to bring awareness to the town’s destruction. The Project is working to pass the Linnentown Resolution for Recognition and Redress. According to Johnson, the Resolution is a demand for “real material and immaterial reparations” to provide scholarships for the children and grandchildren of residents, to make a valued repayment of stolen land and for UGA to acknowledge acts of “white terrorism.”
Joey Carter, who brought the Project to resident descendants, defines “institutionalized white supremacy and terrorism,” in this context as “the targeting and disposing of Black communities while simultaneously accumulating those properties and that wealth for white communities.”
As a white man, Carter has encountered anger and reluctance toward the project from both white and Black people. Despite this, he strives to “supply the benefits of his privilege” to Black residents by taking risks for them in ways they cannot for themselves, and he encourages white communities to take on that responsibility, too.
“It’s not the responsibility of Black communities to regain their power when white communities took it away,” said Carter. “It is the responsibility of white communities to give it back. This isn’t just about making sure your intention is right, it’s about taking real risks, because we can.”
Earlier this year, several commissioners opposed passing the resolution in the language outlined by the oppressed residents. Now, the Athens-Clarke County government is moving forward with the Justice and Memory Project, which would add “formal site markers to acknowledge and apologize for the removal [of Linnentown], recommendations for the creation of a Black history center and an enhancement of local efforts for housing equity,” according to The Red & Black.
The German term vergangenheitsbewältigung roughly describes a nation’s debate “with a problematic section of its recent history." It is an on-going and collective struggle to publicly deal with their history of Nazism by talking about, learning from and responsibly working through past horrors.
Acknowledging and educating about the past is a step in the right direction. A simple gesture of good faith cannot make up for any nation’s problematic history; those in power must show why the tragedy of Linnentown was wrong, and act to ensure nothing like it will ever happen again.