In the midst of heavy rain showers on May 4, one Athens resident, Fred Smith Sr., marched across the grounds of Baldwin Hall at the University of Georgia, in silent remembrance of the 105 bodies discovered underneath the building in 2015.
In 2015, during construction at Baldwin Hall, unmarked human grave sites, believed to be slaves, were found underneath the building and were transferred to Oconee Hill Cemetery in March 2017.
Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement planned to host a vigil at 4 p.m in honor of the deceased individuals. The vigil would have been part of the “Athens Day of Jubilee” events. However, due to severe weather reports, the event was canceled.
The cancelation did not stop Smith, co-chair of Athens Area Black History Committee, from visiting the grounds and experiencing his own “intimate, silent vigil for his ancestors.”
“I decided to come to Baldwin Hall despite the rain because each of the lives once buried on this campus still matter to me,” Smith said.
Smith Sr.’s line of ancestors lived in Athens-Clarke during the 1800s, he said, when the University of Georgia began holding classes. His ancestry and upbringing in the Athens area make the vigil and all events surrounding what took place to the deceased personal to him.
“I never want to forget them,” Smith said. “The enslaved Africans buried underneath this campus, many who could be my ancestors, still deserve justice.”
Smith Sr.’s fight for answers on the lives buried underneath Baldwin Hall began in 1978 when he was pursuing his master’s degree in journalism at UGA.
“I read about the remains of African slaves buried on campus in an article by The Red & Black. Since then, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them or stop searching for answers,” Smith Sr. said.
After discovering the story, Smith contacted UGA’s administration and faculty multiple times, hoping the university would help bring answers and justice to the deceased. His frustration with the university grew as its silence continued.
“All I’ve ever wanted was to have an earnest, open conversation with UGA’s administration over the history behind what happened,” Smith said. “I’ve been waiting for that conversation since 1978.”
On March 31, Athens filmmaker Joe Lavine released Below Baldwin, a documentary detailing the events of finding bodies — most of whom are believed to be slaves — under Baldwin Hall and UGA’s history with slavery. This united activists in Athens and UGA to organize protests and rallies urging the university to respond to the claims of its history with slavery. Community groups delivered a letter to UGA President Jere Morehead demanding an official apology for slavery and reparational scholarships.
Morehead responded to the letter in an article featured on The Red & Black. Morehead defended UGA’s actions stating the university “treated the remains of the individuals at Baldwin Hall with dignity and respect.”
Between a march on April 29 and continued protests, the calls for action from Athens and UGA community activists have continued since Morehead’s response.
AADM placed a decorative wreath on the front lawn at Baldwin Hall in honor of the lives lost and buried underneath the grounds. The vigil at Baldwin Hall will be rescheduled for another date in the near future, said AADM President Mokah-Jasmine Johnson.
During his personal vigil, Smith circled the wreath for several minutes, thinking of his ancestors and the injustices they faced in the city he was raised in.
“The city of Athens, especially its youth, have not forgotten the lives of the enslaved Africans,” Smith Sr. said. “We won’t stop until the university agrees to give us the answers we deserve.”