On Sept. 12, local Athens residents discussed the Linnentown Project at an event hosted by the project and Historic Athens at the Lyndon House Arts Center. Linnentown was an African American community in Athens that the Federal Urban Renewal Program designated as a “slum” and destroyed to improve the city during the 1960's, forcing many people to find a new place to live. The project seeks to study the history of Linnentown and the effects the community's removal had on residents.
The Linnentown Project should serve as a reminder for the Athens community of its past and as a warning that the county must adopt equitable housing and land policies in the future.
It’s eerie reading about the government taking land from poor African American families fewer than 60 years ago. As a freshman, I lived in Creswell Hall, which along with Brumby Hall and Russell Hall are on land that once belonged to almost 40 families. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was a direct beneficiary of the Federal Urban Renewal Project’s policies. It’s hard to describe my feelings about this revelation. Although I had nothing to do with the decision nor did I have any knowledge of the land's history while living in Creswell, there’s a distinct sense that I occupied space I should not have, which makes me queasy.
The government has the right to take land under eminent domain, but I worry that, in its attempts to make cities more prosperous, the government will hurt those least able to defend themselves. When invoking eminent domain, the government must by law give just compensation to the owners of the land. However, the government can make mistakes when determining how much compensation is "just," leading to economic hardship. For example, according to The Red & Black, Hattie Thomas Whitehead, a speaker at the Linnentown Project event, said her family had been among those the government forced to leave, and her family received only $2000 to find a new home. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s CPI Inflation calculator, $2000 in January 1960 is worth $17,512.49 in August 2019 dollars. It is difficult for me to imagine the fear and hardship that comes with being uprooted from your home and forced to find a new place to stay with only $17,512.49 in compensation.
Further, there is some evidence that eminent domain has unfairly targeted minority and lower-income communities. A study by Dick M. Carpenter and Jack K. Ross in "Urban Studies" found that people hurt by eminent domain are more likely to be a member of an ethnic or racial minority, have completed less education and have smaller incomes on average. The displacement from their homes also inflicts large economic, emotional and health costs on those affeected, demonstrating how eminent domain can devastate families.
We can’t change history, but we can at least learn from it and remember the decisions that shaped our community. The Linnentown Project should teach Athenians about the sacrifices many families were forced to make, and the county should learn from the project and the debate surrounding it to inform future policy decisions so that the interests of all Athens residents are carefully considered.