Last spring, as student leaders at the University of Georgia prepared a resolution urging school officials to honor slaves who helped sustain the campus, they met with a senior member of President Jere Morehead’s staff.
Jessica Douglas, one of the students, said the message from the administration was clear: What you’re doing could harm the university’s reputation.
The proposed resolution pressed the university to acknowledge the institution’s ties to slavery and called for the placement of a permanent campus monument that honored the slaves and their contributions to the university. The resolution also called for a separate memorial to be installed at Baldwin Hall, which had been constructed in 1938 on top of a slave burial site.
Douglas, a junior from Kennesaw, said the administration’s effort to sway Student Government Association leaders failed to stop the senate from adopting the resolution last March after a contentious debate. But weeks later, in the final days of the school year, the outgoing student president vetoed the measure. Behind-the-scenes pressure from Morehead’s administration laid the groundwork for the veto on procedural grounds, Douglas said, a charge Morehead’s office denies.
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“They are so timid to talk about slavery,” Douglas said last month. “When you never address it, it just sits there. It continues to lurk if you don’t own it and acknowledge it.”
Now, after nearly three years of missteps that led to criticism from faculty, students, the Athens community and academics across the country, the state’s flagship institution is set to do something later this fall that just months ago seemed far off, if not altogether unlikely:
The school, chartered by the state in 1785, plans to publicly recognize the contributions of slaves in the early decades of the university. The acknowledgement will be part of a granite memorial to honor individuals whose remains were removed from the Baldwin Hall site and reburied in a cemetery near campus in 2017.
The memorial on the front lawn of Baldwin Hall, near one of the busiest intersections on campus, is the university’s most direct acknowledgement of slavery’s role in its 19th century expansion. It marks the latest turn in a saga that began in November 2015 when construction crews unearthed more than 100 remains in an area that was known to be a former slave burial site. The discovery led to discomforting questions about the college’s past that school officials seemed unprepared to answer.
Initial public statements from the university suggested the remains appeared to be from persons of European descent. It took more than a year for the university to acknowledge the vast majority were from individuals of African heritage, most likely slaves or former slaves. The university added to the controversy when the remains were secretly reburied in March 2017 at nearby Oconee Hill Cemetery, a historically white cemetery. Officials didn’t announce the date of the reburial, angering the local African American community, who felt excluded from a process to reinter individuals who may have been their ancestors. A public ceremony a couple weeks later did little to quell criticism from the community and UGA faculty.
“So many other institutions, including Southern institutions, are addressing this head on and that’s not happening here,” said Dan Rood, a history professor who studies slavery. “I don’t know why.”
University officials maintain they’ve managed the discovery responsibly and with care. In May, however, Morehead appointed an 18-member task force to meet over the summer and deliver a plan to place a memorial on campus — a move viewed by some as tacit admission that not enough had been done.
Michelle Garfield Cook, the university’s vice provost for diversity and inclusion, said the guiding principle from the start was to treat the individuals whose remains were discovered with dignity and respect. Cook, who chaired the task force and has been Morehead’s spokesperson on the issue, said the memorial is the latest expression of how seriously the university considered this responsibility.
“There’s no playbook for something like this for an institution,” said Cook. “We’ve moved forward in the best possible way to treat the individuals respectfully.”
As for his meeting with student leaders, Assistant to the President Arthur Tripp Jr. said he was advising, not pressuring them when he met with them earlier this year.
“I said whatever you put forward, make sure you’ve done your own research and the facts are correct,” Tripp said.
Great grandson of slaves leads recognition
A quarter mile from downtown Athens, a state historical marker stands on campus near the entrance to the Old Athens Cemetery.
It identifies the hillside lot as the town’s original burial ground. Just six years after the university graduated its first class, the cemetery opened in 1810 and remained in heavy use until the late 1850s. Some of Athens’ earliest white citizens are buried on the two and a half acre site, including two soldiers of the Revolutionary War. The university’s fifth president, Moses Waddel, was interred on the sloping grounds.
Down the hill, beyond an imposing black metal fence that surrounds the cemetery, Fred Smith surveyed the area near the new $8.75 million Baldwin Hall annex one recent morning. He walked through a neatly landscaped brick courtyard outside the building. For Smith, the great grandson of slaves, this is sacred space.
“I”m standing on a burial ground,” he said. “I see this whole area as a cemetery.”
If not for Smith’s long memory, the anonymous remains in the slave burial site likely would have remained obscured in the past. Smith, 65, first learned about the slave burial grounds while attending the university as a graduate student in the 1970s. He read a Feb. 22, 1978, feature article in the Red & Black student newspaper that detailed graveyards near campus.
A paragraph deep in the story mentioned how unmarked slave graves were discovered and moved off campus during Baldwin Hall’s construction in the late 1930s. For Smith, who grew up in the Athens area and co-chairs the Athens Area Black History Committee, it was a haunting revelation.
When the university said in December 2015 that the remains were of European decent, Smith knew it couldn’t be accurate. It was a slave site, he thought. He emailed university officials and started pressuring for a proper reburial.
More than a year later, on March 1, 2017, the university announced that a total 105 graves had been identified and the vast majority who underwent DNA tests were of African descent. A plan was outlined to rebury them at nearby Oconee Hill Cemetery with a large granite headstone that would mark the grave site.
Smith and other black leaders called on university leaders to hear their concerns and to talk about the plan before proceeding. Within days, the university went ahead with a secret reburial at the Oconee Hill Cemetery performed outside the public’s view. When Smith got a tip the reburial was underway, he went to the cemetery and found the gates locked. A public ceremony dedicating the memorial headstone two weeks later did little to quell his sense of betrayal. He and other activists renewed their determination that the individuals receive a proper memorial.
“This wasn’t something I planned,” Smith said. “But it wasn’t something I could walk away from.”
UGA late to recognition movement
In one way or another, the question of higher education’s entanglement with America’s original sin has been lurking in the halls of academia for more than a century. Many of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious institutions owned or benefited from slave labor and money from the slave trade helped fuel their early expansion.
But until recently, colleges have been reluctant to acknowledge this history. Many took steps to keep it hidden. That shifted in 2003 when Brown University’s president ordered a task force to study the Rhode Island campus’s links to the slave trade. Emory University followed in 2011 with a task force and a public statement of regret for “the decades of delay in acknowledging slavery’s harmful legacy.”
The movement accelerated in recent years as Georgetown University, Columbia University and others took steps to acknowledge their ties to institutionalized racism. Last year, Wesleyean College in Macon began to atone for its connections to slavery and the Ku Klux Klan. The college joined a consortium of more than 40 schools administered out of the University of Virginia that is studying the role of slavery in their own stories. The group, Universities Studying Slavery, held a symposium last October that drew scholars and administrators from 61 institutions to Charlottesville, including three professors from UGA.
This movement’s entry into the mainstream of academia is why the Baldwin Hall saga has confounded those in Athens and across the state who want the history to be studied and acknowledged. The university’s missteps have drawn attention in academic circles outside Georgia.
Kirt von Daacke, an assistant dean at the University of Virginia who helps lead the slave history consortium, said the discomfort at the administrative level at UGA that he’s observed from afar is not uncommon. Officials worry that talking about the slave past will be detrimental to the institution, he said. But once an institution starts to acknowledge the history and go down the path of atonement it actually turns out to be easier than they imagined.
“We haven’t seen how this is all going to play out,” he said. “There’s still time to pivot….If they turn and start to do this work and realize it really is beneficial in five or six years they may be in a very different place.”
DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, who served Clarke County in the Legislature and has authored a book about African-American history in Athens, said the public recognition on campus of slaves and their legacy is significant.
“This is going to encourage students, academics and others to define that legacy,” he said.
Parts of that legacy are already known. A 2015 history class found that the university benefited from slave labor even though it didn’t own slaves. Slaves had a significant role in the life of the university during the antebellum period, working in housekeeping, carpentry, maintenance, water supply and bell ringing. The class learned that the university’s longest serving president (1829-1859), Alonzo Church, owned slaves.
Thurmond said administrators weren’t prepared to confront UGA’s slave legacy three years ago when the remains were discovered on campus.
“I think (Morehead) received bad advice,” Thurmond said. “To his credit he recognizes some mistakes were made early. To his credit he has reversed and is trying to correct those mistakes.”
New initiative from faculty
The task force and the memorial are Morehead’s best effort so far to make amends. But the task force has already received criticism for being exclusionary. Smith was not invited to join nor were any members of the university’s African American studies program or history faculty. The task force also operated with a certain measure of secrecy.
The AJC asked to review minutes from the group’s meetings but Cook, who chaired the body, said no minutes were kept. An agenda for its first meeting made clear that confidentiality was a key to its work. Cook shared with the AJC the language that the task force adopted to go on the marker.
It says the university recognizes the contributions of “these and other enslaved individuals,” but hedges by identifying the people buried at Baldwin Hall as “most likely slaves or former slaves.” The language, sure to lead to varying interpretations, does not express regret or acknowledge slavery’s injustice.
“The memorial wording seems to ignore and fails to pay homage to the people still buried at the site, as well as the ones unearthed there and buried God-knows-where throughout the years,” Smith said. Still, he said, “It’s a long way from where we started. Now, there will be a visible memorial on that site.”
The university says the scope of the task force’s work was to develop a memorial, not to address the history of slavery on campus. But, Cook said, the memorial is not the end of the discussion around the topic of slavery.
“I think it will lead to a broader discussion,” said Cook.
That would be good news to UGA scholars.
The faculty senate earlier this year met to discuss concerns about the way the university handled the Baldwin Hall remains and formed an ad hoc committee to examine the issue. In response to faculty comments, a university spokesman wrote a blistering criticism published in the Athens Banner-Herald in the spring.
The history department responded with an open letter critical of the administrator for an attack on a faculty member and cited “repeated missteps” by the university’s leadership. The history department, which has slavery scholars, had submitted a proposal in 2017 to study the people of the Baldwin Hall graves and slavery at UGA. It was part of a campus-wide research effort following the discovery of the graves, but the administration did not act on the department’s proposal.
This year, the department launched its own public history project. Researchers plan to include their findings on a public website so visitors can learn about the history of slaves on campus.
“We’re doing everything we can to make up for the lack of official support,” said Claudio Saunt, the history department head. “How it all plays out I don’t know. I do know burying the past doesn’t turn out well.”
Staff writer Eric Stirgus contributed to this report.