Linda Davis is more than disappointed in how the University of Georgia has handled the excavation and reinterment of likely slave remains unearthed during an expansion project at a UGA building.
It’s evidence a “plantation” mentality is still with us, she said.
But she’s hopeful that good can come out of the episode.
The university’s Division of Marketing and Communications earlier this month announced the university’s plans for the remains removed as workers renovated and expanded Baldwin Hall, at a corner of Baldwin and Jackson streets on the university’s North Campus. The university also revealed that DNA analysis showed that almost all the burials with enough human material left to run a DNA analysis — 30 out of a total 105 gravesites — were of African descent.
The remains, individually boxed, would be reinterred in nearby Oconee Hill Cemetery — where many of Athens’ most prominent citizens of the 19th and 20th centuries are buried — under a “stately granite marker” to be unveiled at a March 20 ceremony, UGA announced in a press release that didn’t include the words slave or slavery.
Construction workers unearthed the first remains in late 2015 as they prepared to renovate Baldwin Hall, built on land that was once part of Athens’ main burial ground.
UGA’s plans angered many in Athens’ black community, outraged at what they considered disrespectful treatment of people who had died as slaves. There has also been concern that nobody had bothered to ask people people who might be the descendants of those slaves what they thought should happen.
“They’re being placed close to their white masters again,” said an angry Fred Smith, co-chairman of the Athens Black History Council.
The Old Athens Cemetery on Jackson Street was officially closed in the mid-1850s, when Clarke County’s population of about 11,000 people was about equally divided between white people and slaves.
According to 1860 census figures, Clarke’s population that year was 5,539 white people, 5,660 slaves and 19 free persons of color, the late E. Merton Coulter wrote in an essay on slaves in Athens during the Civil War.
Alvin Sheats, president of Athens’ NAACP chapter, said “it’s no surprise” the remains were being disrespected in a recent news conference in which he and other black leaders called onUGA to step back.
Former state Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, an Athens native who in 1986 became the first black person elected to represent Athens in the state legislature, urged university officials to take it as an opportunity, and at least talk with people before going ahead with their plans.
UGA went ahead as planned, however, and on Tuesday had Oconee Hill closed off to the public while workers reburied the remains in a large plot near the back of the cemetery.
The episode says something about how the university interacts with the community it occupies, according to Davis.
“I have a belief in my heart that we still live on the University of Georgia plantation,” said Davis, a member of the Clarke County Board of Education and herself a former UGA student before graduating from Shorter College in LaGrange.
But she’s also hopeful that some good will come out of the controversy -- hope that it might push UGA closer to the day there’s an official acknowledgement of the role slavery has played in UGA’s history, for example, and hope that university administrators might take stock of how they interact with the Athens community.
A number of universities around the nation have recently taken steps to acknowledge and even publicize their debts to the slaves who served them.
Georgetown University President John DeGioia announced last year the university would apologize, start an institute to study slavery, put up a public memorial to slavery and offer preferential status to descendants of slaves the university once owned, for example.
Harvard University last week convened a public conference in which academics talked about the historic links between universities and slavery, which was still legal in the U.S. Southern states, including Georgia, up until the Civil War.
Students at the University of North Carolina 15 years ago raised money for an Unsung Founders Memorial, a black granite table supported by 300 bronze figurines honoring “The University’s Unsung Founders -- The People of Color Bound and Free — Who Helped Build the Carolina That We Cherish Today,” according to the inscription around the table’s edge.
Davis said “disappointed” isn’t a strong enough word for how she feels about the university’s actions.
She is just a couple of generations removed from forebears who were slaves in or near Clarke County, and on a recent visit to Oconee Hill Cemetery, she wondered if the graves of people who owned her grandfather and great-grandmother might be nearby.
Thinking about the horrors of that past no longer angers her, she said.
“You just have to get to a place of acceptance,” she said. “I have worked hard not to be angry. I have children and I don’t want to pass that on to them.”
Davis’ daughter graduated from Northwestern and has a master’s degree from UGA; her son is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy.
Davis said she’s talked to UGA faculty members who are working to organize a public symposium related to the Baldwin Hall remains, perhaps as soon as this month.
She also hoped to visit one low-profile acknowledgement of slavery in UGA history -- a student-curated exhibit on slavery at the university in UGA’s Russell Research Libraries Building, based on research by a UGA professor’s classes.
They found no evidence that the university actually owned the slaves that chopped firewood, kept the rooms of faculty and students cleaned, served meals and the like. Instead, UGA rented slaves.
The exhibit on Friday provided an ironic setting for the Confederate Constitution, laid out in a long display table in the library’s one-day annual display of the historic document, which includes the Confederacy’s rules regulating slavery
A steady stream of visitors came to see the fading document, more than 12 feet long, on Friday. Some took time to examine the slavery exhibit on the walls surrounding the table.
UGA followed state law and guidelines in moving the remains to Oconee Hill. It’s near their original resting place, and the remains are being kept together in an arrangement similar to how they were found; that way, family members aren’t separated.
But Davis is optimistic that one day the remains might be moved to what she believes would be a better place, such as the Brooklyn Cemetery off West Lake Drive that African Americans established in 1882.
“At some point Brooklyn is going to be such an appealing place that people will want to move them with their descendants,” she said.