Three years after the human remains of individuals, believed to have been slaves, were found during construction at Baldwin Hall, a small group protested a memorial dedication outside of Baldwin Hall for the deceased individuals on the morning of Nov. 16.
The protesters called for a public acknowledgement from the University of Georgia of its prior ties to slavery.
“When will the University of Georgia publicly acknowledge the history of slavery? When will the university issue an apology?,” a protester said to UGA President Jere W. Morehead while walking up to the podium at the conclusion of his speech.
Morehead continued to speak in front of a crowd of around 100 people, ignoring the protester.
“I want to thank everyone in attendance today for taking part in this special dedication at the university and in the Athens community,” Morehead said over the protester. ‘We will remember, celebrate and honor the individuals who were originally buried here.”
When Morehead concluded and walked away from the podium, the protester continued speaking.
“This is the material reality that is going on. This is the material reality,” the protester said. Morehead glanced at the protester but remained silent as he sat down.
During construction at Baldwin Hall in 2015, 105 unmarked human grave sites were found underneath the building and were transferred to Oconee Hill Cemetery in March 2017. In May 2018, plans were announced to create a memorial to honor the deceased.
The completed memorial was unveiled on Nov. 16 with speeches by Morehead, U.S. District Court Judge for the Northern District of Georgia Steve Jones and Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Strategic University Initiatives Michelle Cook.
Jones and Cook were part of an 18-person “advisory task force” consisting of university representatives and community members appointed by Morehead to design the memorial.
The final design includes a circular memorial plaza with an elevated fountain, a granite marker, two granite benches, multiple vertical granite rectangular pillars, forget-me-not flowers and dogwood trees, which represent “faith in the African-American community,” Jones said.
As Jones took the podium, six more protesters, including Athens-Clarke County District 2 Commissioner Mariah Parker, gathered silently beside the podium holding posters that included “Slaves Built UGA,” “South Campus Used To Be A Slave Plantation” and “UGA Presidents, Chancellors & Students Owned Slaves.” They remained standing as Cook took the podium.
“This project has been particularly important to me because of my own family history here in the Athens area — my history which dates back more than 150 years,” said Cook, who chaired the task force and whose ancestors were born into slavery and lived in Athens.
Cook then led the crowd in a moment of silence, and the event concluded as people walked over to observe the memorial.
The protesters soon joined the waning crowd at the memorial after the speeches.
“The university needs to acknowledge its role in slavery and the ways it continues to uphold white supremacy by not acknowledging that history or making amends for it,” Parker said. “This gesture, while nice, is not enough. It’s not going to bring justice to the descendants of the folks who are buried here.”
Zaria Hampton, a fifth year financial planning major from Sugarhill, was another one of the protesters.
“We knew that we had to come here and make some things clear — that slaves built this university, those bodies were slaves, their descendants haven’t had any type of reparation, there’s no scholarships for their descendants,” Hampton said.
Throughout the three speeches, neither Morehead, Jones nor Cook mentioned the bodies were believed to have been slaves, a fact noticed by Hampton.
“We were thinking maybe they would say, ‘These bodies were slaves, and this is something to remember them,’” Hampton said.
The granite marker at the memorial does, however, say, “The vast majority of the remains identified were those of men, women and children of African descent, most likely slaves or former slaves … The University of Georgia recognizes the contributions of these and other enslaved individuals and honors their legacy.”
About one hour after the conclusion of the dedication, Morehead issued a statement through an email on ArchNews with the subject line: “UGA Policies: Ensuring a Fair and Respectful Environment.”
The email, addressed to all faculty, staff and students, said UGA is “committed to ensuring a fair and respectful environment that promotes the safety and dignity of all members of the UGA Community.”
Morehead, in the email, said expressions of hate or hostility based on legally protected categories are prohibited and can include spoken or written language and use or display of images or symbols.
Kathryn Veale, an academic adviser in UGA’s School of Public and International affairs, said “there needs to be a marriage between” the speeches at the dedication and the protesters.
“I think you need to obviously acknowledge the history and so this is a good step, but we also need to understand the implications of the past and current socio-economic problems,” Veale said.