Lord knows how many times in the 113-year-old history of the University of West Georgia that students have picnicked, played Frisbee or casually walked across a small, grassy plot of land in the middle of the campus.
The school, 50 miles west of Atlanta, was once the home of Thomas Bonner, one of the 19th century’s largest Carroll County slaveholders. In 1906, the former Bonner Plantation was turned over to the state where it eventually became the core of what today is the university.
Few visible remnants of the plantation remain, most notably the Bonner House, which serves as the university’s welcome center. But recent archaeological tests suggest the long-forgotten remains of Bonner’s slaves might be buried here.
» MAP | Buckhead’s historic cemeteries
If true, UWG will be added to a long list of colleges and communities who find themselves challenged with questions on how to deal with newly discovered remains of former slaves and Reconstruction-era African Americans.
There had always been whispers that there may have been a slave cemetery on campus near Melson Hall, the oldest building on campus. As far back as the 1940s, Abe Bonner, a former slave who died in 1947 at the age of 107, pointed to a spot near Melson Hall and said slaves were buried there.
“When you have been here a while you hear stories,” said Ann McCleary, who has taught history at the school for 22 years. “But you don’t know unless you look. The idea of doing an archaeological study and trying to figure it out was a good one.”
Last fall, at a community meeting, the possibility of the cemetery came up again so the school commissioned a study. In December, tests revealed something in the ground on a plot of land the size of an average backyard next to Melson Hall.
“It is actually really exciting for a lot of different reasons, particularly the possibility of knowing a little bit more about what is there and doing more with the information,” said Yves-Rose Porcena, the university’s chief diversity officer. “When we found out, the leadership was very clear that we wanted to do this the right way. No matter the process.”
UWG is still in the early stages of figuring out what they have in the ground and what to do with it.
Ya’Ron Brown, who graduated from the university in 2007 with a master’s degree, said he hopes UWG, Carrollton and the county make a concerted effort to honor any slaves buried on campus and look at restitution for any families who worked the land.
“It is not surprising that slaves would be buried unmarked because they were seen as property, not people,” said Brown, who now lives in the Atlanta area.
In April, students at Georgetown University voted to increase their tuition by $27.20 per semester to set up a fund to pay reparations to the descendants of 272 slaves sold by the Washington, D.C. school in 1832 to pay off college debts.
Students and graduates of the University of Georgia also are exploring ways to address a 2015 discovery of 100 remains in an area on campus known to be a former slave burial site.
Barometers of black communities
It may never be known how many hidden or paved-over slave burial sites and black cemeteries are scattered across the South. But they keep getting discovered.
“After Reconstruction, there were thousands of black communities that sprung up and they all had cemeteries,” said Nadia K Orton, a genealogist and public historian who has studied and written extensively about the subject. “There is always a black cemetery somewhere. But they were never protected. So, this will continue to happen.”
Orton, who began writing about cemeteries as an extension of a family genealogical project, sees them as a barometer of the local black community. She said through decades of neglect, African American burial grounds have become endangered sites as thousands of them have been destroyed by development, while many others are overgrown, abandoned and forgotten.
In 2015, for example, in tony Buckhead, the forgotten and overgrown Piney Grove Cemetery was on the verge of being paved over to build a new set of townhomes. Plotted in 1826, when Buckhead was wilderness, most of the 300 people buried there were former slaves or later members of the Piney Grove Missionary Baptist Church.
The church was condemned in 1948, and members met under the trees or in friends’ homes until a new church was built in 1950. That church partially collapsed in a storm in the 1990s and the Buckhead Coalition helped pay for its demolition. The townhomes were eventually built, but the burial sites were preserved.
“With these cemeteries, the people have been removed, displaced and died off,” Orton said. “Where did the communities go?”
Who was Thomas Bonner?
Thomas Bonner was the scion of a prominent family that owned hundreds of acres across Carroll County with plenty of slaves to tend to the land.
In 1860 Bonner was the county’s fourth-largest slave owner with 24 on 350 acres, according to documents provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by the Georgia Historical Society. His brother Zadock was third with 32. Three other Bonner men had a total of 39 slaves.
After the Civil War, McCleary, who is also UWG’s co-director of the Center for Public History, said Bonner moved to Alabama and his former slaves were disbursed across the county.
The university also is researching if the plot was used after the war as a burial site for free blacks.
“It is not a huge site right now and we don’t know how large it is,” McCleary said. “I don’t expect it to be huge. With the number of slaves Bonner had, I don’t think that is going to translate into a lot of burials.”
By the early 20th century, Bonner’s land had been sold to the state as the site of the Fourth District Agricultural and Mechanical School.
In 1955 and 1956, every senior at Carrollton’s all-black George Washington Carver High School applied to what was then West Georgia College. All were rejected because of the color of their skin.
The first black students didn’t arrive on campus until the fall of 1965, but by 1994, the school became the first predominately white college in Georgia to hire a person of color as its president. In 2002, as a form of reparations, the university apologized to the Carver students and set up a scholarship fund for their descendants.
“The school has a great history of leading and closing the achievement gap on issues of diversity,” said Porcena, who also runs the campus-wide Center for Diversity and Inclusion.
Of the 13,733 students on campus today, 35% are black. That’s lower than schools like Georgia State and Clayton State, but higher than the statewide average of 26%.
“The black community and the black students are very tight,” said Jaylin Evans, a 22-year-old senior from Detroit, who is the president of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity chapter on campus. “But the campus is very segregated. It is like we don’t pay attention to white students and they don’t pay attention to us. We both exist in our own worlds and that is cool.”
Of honor and respect
Under advice from the Georgia Office of the State Archaeologist, the school hired Southern Research, Historical Preservation Consultants Inc. to do the archaeological survey. After several rounds of ground and soil strata testing, including the use of ground-penetrating radar, they found anomalies in the soil suggesting possible graves.
Archaeologists carefully removed the top 12-18 inches of soil from the plot until the tops of possible grave shafts were recognized through the variance in soil type. The university says no remains have been disturbed.
After the discovery, the university began contacting descendants of people enslaved by Bonner who could possibly be buried there, including relatives of Abe Bonner. While there are several white Bonners still in the Carrollton area, the school says it has not identified any direct descendants of Thomas Bonner.
“The school will want to honor and respect those who are buried there,” Porcena said. “This is a topic that could have been very divisive. But we have captured something. We are on the right path.”
Porcena said it is still too early to figure out what that will look like, but Orton, the genealogist, is hopeful that UWG will do the right thing in recognizing and honoring those buried at the site.
“Even though it wasn’t seen as sacred, because someone knew they were there when they built over it, they have an opportunity to redress that wrong by making it a memorial park or putting up a monument,” Orton said. “And by finding out who they are. Honor them by who they were.”
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