baldwin hall event

Local figures and University of Georgia professors joined at the Richard B. Russell Special Collections Library on Saturday to discuss the effects of the human remains discovered during Baldwin Hall renovations. Photo: Parker Jamieson

Saturday, March 25, University of Georgia professors of anthropology, environment and design, religion and history, as well as local figures and scholars discussed the history of slavery at UGA at the Richard B. Russell Special Collection Library.

On Nov. 17, 2015, crew workers discovered remains of a human skull and jaw during renovations of Baldwin Hall, according to a University of Georgia police report. The next month, the uncovering of 27 African American remains, speculated to have been the remains of slaves, sparked conversation about the past of slavery on campus as well as in the city of Athens.

Laurie Reitsema, an assistant professor of anthropology and one of the key contributors in the DNA research of the human remains, summarized the findings of the Baldwin Hall remains.

“A study would enable us to find out who these people are, first, from genetic ancestry and DNA analysis, second, their health and third, some aspects of their lifestyles,” Reitsema said.

One of the common examples seen in the majority of bodies found were symptoms of arthritis Reitsema said.

“A simple example I would like to give of how skeletal analysis of how an individual lived is simply arthritis. Arthritis is something that manifests in a skeleton, and even though the skeletal remains are highly fragmented, this is one of the things we sometimes observed,” Reitsema said. “Arthritis is sometimes related to genes and age but also related in part by what you do to your body. If your occupation requires you to use your hands, you are more likely to develop it in your hands.”

Reitsema said the more information concerning the possible sex, lifestyles, diseases and other information of the bodies found will be released to the public in a lecture this spring.

Scott Nesbit, College of Environment and Design professor, continued the discussion but focused in on the history of slavery on campus and in Athens.

Nesbit said he found the news about the Baldwin Hall remains as a good opportunity for both his undergraduate and graduate students in historic preservation courses to learn about the history of slavery in the area.

Nesbit said the university did not "own" slaves but rather contracted them from local slave owners. Common responsibilities of contracted slaves were dealing with maintenance and meeting students’ needs.

“The University of Georgia, in as far as I can see, did not own any human beings. Instead, it was engaged in a practice that was common in most urban sites in the Antebellum South which is the hire of enslaved people,” Nesbit said.

Nesbit said roughly half the population of Clarke County consisted of enslaved people, meaning the majority of labor was conducted by slaves. Each year, UGA would allocate around $200 on average to hire two slaves to maintain campus.

Charlotte Thomas Marshall, an Oconee Hill Cemetery historian, spoke about the history of both the Old Athens Cemetery and Oconee Cemetery, now known as Oconee Hill.

“As far as the origins of Old Athens Cemetery, we don’t know when it began, who the first person buried there, partially because no one kept records,” Marshall said. “This was just a community burial ground. There was no sexton.”

Marshall said the earliest Old Athens Cemetery could have been founded was 1784 when Franklin County was created. Later that year, the Georgia Assembly would set aside 40,000 acres for UGA to be built in the future.

Fred Smith Sr., co-chair of Athens Black History Bowl Committee, continued the lecture by focusing on the generality of race in Athens.

Smith said the area that is known as Old Athens Cemetery today was where white individuals were buried, and the area beyond the fence, where Baldwin Hall stands today, is where slaves were buried.

“I feel a kinship to those folks,” Smith said. “If we don’t get outraged about someone destroying our great-grandparents’ graves, then what can we get outraged about. Something good is gonna come out of this.”