I learned from common sense that ignoring a problem won’t make it go away. And yet, it seems that the University of Georgia is still grappling with this notion. UGA has not officially acknowledged its relationship with slavery, despite documentation that the university benefited from slave labor.
UGA must stop avoiding its past. It must, in a meaningful and forthright way, recognize that slavery existed at the university.
UGA’s issue with slavery became apparent to me after watching Joe Lavine’s documentary “Below Baldwin,” which explored the renovation of Baldwin Hall where 27 grave sites believed to be of enslaved people. After handling the situation with clumsy secretiveness which led to major backlash from the black community, they dedicated a memorial to the people found underneath Baldwin.
I’m furious as a student of this university to have an administration blatantly refusing to acknowledge its history with slavery. But as a white student, I cannot imagine the extent of pain UGA’s stubbornness brought onto the black community.
After the screening of “Below Baldwin,” I listened to black panelists speak on the issue. Included were Fred Smith, co-chair of the Athens Area Black History Bowl; Linda E. Davis, coordinator for Friends of Brooklyn Cemetery; Mariah Parker, Athens-Clarke County District 2 commissioner; Linda Lloyd, Executive Director of Economic Justice Coalition; and Wes Bellamy, Charlottesville, Virginia City Councillor.
“This is always been very personal to me,” Smith said, describing the treatment of the bodies under Baldwin Hall. “I can trace my family back to this community in the late 1700s, 1800s. That’s the time when Athens started, so my folks may very much be buried at the Baldwin site.”
Smith describes how members of the Athens black community face difficulty tracing their family history, stating that the people buried near Baldwin could be the ancestors of Athenians today. Smith, along with all the other panelists, was rightly upset as to how the university handled the Baldwin grave sites.
“[UGA] did not have [an] earnest conversation with what to do with my ancestors. It’s just disrespectful and wrong. And each time I hear them say they treated [the bodies] with dignity and respect, I get upset again,” Smith said.
It seems as if the university never gave much dignity or respect to the people buried under Baldwin Hall. When evidence suggests that these people were treated like property when they were alive, it’s no wonder that they were continued to be treated as property while dead.
When Joe Lavine asked President Jere Morehead, “When will UGA address its history of slavery?” in his movie, Morehead responded with, “I’m here for the memorial today, thank you.”
President Morehead saying “I’m here for the memorial,” perfectly answers Lavine’s question. Morehead’s silence announces that the university will continue to side-step the issue of slavery as long as it can.
UGA cannot claim to promote diversity on campus while denying its past white supremacist and racist history. It also cannot throw bread crumbs to the Athens black community while feeding the rest of the cake to the Board of Regents in Atlanta.
This university must practice the emotional maturity to acknowledge its history with slavery. Until that day comes, I will continue to be embarrassed by the university’s cowardice toward its past and the treatment of the bodies below Baldwin Hall.