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Agbai Kalu, a 22-year-old from Lithonia, Georgia and a senior chemistry major at the University of Georgia, sings at a vigil held by the Student Government Association (SGA) in front of Baldwin Hall on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, in Athens, Ga. The SGA held the vigil in honor of the African American bodies found under Baldwin Hall. (Photo/Sidhartha C. Wakade, wakade98@gmail.com)

More than four years after the remains of enslaved African Americans were unearthed at Baldwin Hall, the University of Georgia has selected a team to study the lives of slaves at the university over an 80-year period.

The selected research proposal represents the first major interdisciplinary collaboration to study slavery at UGA.

Enslaved people completed a variety of tasks across campus, working under UGA presidents, professors and students, according to the research project proposal. They supported the majority of “UGA’s daily operations.”

“Yet they were their own inventions,” the proposal says. “They shaped communities and culture in a system designed to efface their histories and mute their voices.”

The 22-member research team is being led by Chana Kai Lee, an associate professor of history and African American studies at UGA. The team plans to uncover stories about the lives of enslaved people who lived and died in Athens from 1785-1865. The researchers hope to shed light on the contributions that “these uncompensated laborers” made to UGA and give them a voice nearly 160 years after the end of the Civil War.

Prior to writing the research proposal, Chana Kai Lee has been working on a biography of a black Athenian whose family had been enslaved.

“It just felt like a natural progression for me to open up what I had already done with my own research and to share that with the group, as well as build on my knowledge of black Athens history,” Chana Kai Lee said.

Faculty and student researchers will study university records and public records, such as slave censuses. Additionally, the team will examine narratives from former enslaved black men and women who “mention Athens and the enslaved community’s relationship to the University, particularly as the [Civil War] approached,” according to the proposal.

Response to controversy

In addition to public records, the team will collaborate with members of the descendant community to gather family histories. In April, the Franklin College Faculty Senate approved a report asking UGA to consult with the descendant community regarding any future research of the remains found at Baldwin.

The university was criticized after it relocated the remains uncovered at Baldwin to Oconee Hill Cemetery two years ago without consulting the descendant community.

For research team member Jennifer Birch, an associate professor and undergraduate coordinator in the department of anthropology, the series of events surrounding Baldwin Hall sparked her interest in the research project. 

“I hope that we can elevate these individuals who lived and died and labored on the university campus and tell their stories,” Birch said. “You hear the stories about Abraham Baldwin and other leading figures in the university’s history, but there is all this hidden labor.”

While the Baldwin unearthing was a “catalyst” for the new project, other faculty “have been working for a long time to try to get UGA to acknowledge its relationship with enslaved persons,” Birch said.

In May 2017, vice president for research David Lee asked research faculty searching for research suggestions “aimed at better understanding the lives of these individuals and how they came to be buried at the Baldwin Hall site.”

The request for research proposals eventually resulted in an 826-page report released to the public this May, which provided details about the Old Athens Cemetery and included information about slaves’ roles at the university and in Athens. The report “demonstrated the need for additional research to fill a void,” David Lee said in an Aug. 7 UGA news release.

David Lee said while UGA has information about the institution around the time it was founded, the contributions of enslaved people have not been examined. Due to the lack of research, he encouraged faculty to submit proposals to “advance this important component of the institution’s history.”

Around the time of Lee’s initial request, “a lot of people were really upset because of the university’s initial reaction … disturbing the remains and then reinterring those remains in another cemetery,” Chana Kai Lee said.

The team only asked for $89,500 out of the allocated $100,000, Chana Kai Lee said, but can pursue the remaining funds if necessary, according to David Lee’s response letter.

Searching for resources

To assist with research, UGA will join the Universities Studying Slavery consortium, UGA spokesperson Greg Trevor said in a Nov. 20 statement. The USS includes the University of South Carolina and Clemson University.

The consortium of 56 universities will allow UGA to learn “best practices” in studying slavery and will provide an outlet for collaboration with other universities, Chana Kai Lee said. To her, UGA’s decision to join the consortium shows that the university supports the team’s research.

“I can’t say that was something I truly believed prior to this year,” Chana Kai Lee said.

Multiple faculty members have asked UGA to join the USS, but their requests were denied until recently.

“We’re researchers and scholars and we simply want to know more about the past,” Chana Kai Lee said. 

Although she sees the grant as a step in the right drection for the university, Chana Kai Lee is still “uneasy” about UGA’s lack of community consultation during the Baldwin Hall controversy.

Despite the lack of complete access to these sources, faculty and graduate students plan to work with undergraduate classes. The team is comprised of research, education, student supervision, outreach and publications units, a project board and an advisory board. 

Advisory board member Fred Smith Sr. is also co-president of the Athens Area Black History Committee. A UGA alumnus, Smith has been interested in the topic of slavery at the university for many years. He said he’s glad the research team is working with the black community to look into the topic. 

Smith said that although he isn’t certain, he speculates that he may be part of the descendant community because of his family’s long history in Athens. Smith said he is “excited about the prospects of what will be discovered.”

He hopes the scope of the project can be expanded in the future. While currently extending to the end of the Civil War, “perhaps sometime at a later date there may be research done on the era beyond 1865,” Smith said. 

The team will publish its findings as a print and electronic collection of essays with the UGA Press. It will also be available in The Public Historian, an academic journal that covers public history. Students involved in the initiative can present their research papers as a public conversation in a “town-and-gown symposium” in Spring 2021. The research is expected to be completed by June 30, 2021.

Spencer Donovan contributed to this article.