The University of Georgia on Friday made its most overt acknowledgement to date of its historic links to slavery when officials unveiled a granite memorial to honor individuals whose remains were unearthed in 2015 at a former slave burial site on campus.
The ceremony to dedicate the memorial on the front lawn of Baldwin Hall came after three years of controversy and missteps by the university leaders, who were at odds with students, faculty and members of Athens community over the handling of the remains.
President Jere Morehead in his prepared written remarks Friday didn’t specifically mention slavery, but he spoke of being “drawn here together by a deep sense of respect for these individuals and by a strong sense of duty to commemorate the lives they lived.”
The inscription on the granite memorial includes the following acknowledgement: “The University of Georgia recognizes the contributions of these and other enslaved individuals and honors their legacy.”
The saga began in November 2015 when construction crews working on an expansion of Baldwin Hall unearthed more than 100 remains next to the Old Athens Cemetery in an area on campus known as a former slave burial site.
Initially, the university’s public statements suggested the remains were from individuals of European descent. It took more than a year for the university to acknowledge the vast majority of the remains were most likely those of slaves or former slaves. A decision to secretly rebury the remains in nearby cemetery last year added to the controversy and drew criticism.
At times, students and faculty have run into resistance from campus leaders when they’ve tried examine the college’s past ties to slavery and the role slaves played working on campus. The university’s longest serving president (1829-1859), Alonzo Church, owned slaves.
But across the country, more and more universities have started to study their racist history and ties to slavery. Against this backdrop, Morehead appointed a task force in June to chart a course for a memorial and Friday’s ceremony was the culmination of that work.
The memorial, while not an apology, is a victory of sorts for those who’d been pressing UGA’s leadership to do more. It’s placement in a prominent space on campus holds promise to foster attention and more discussion about UGA’s history.
“The memorial we dedicate this morning will provide for an enduring tribute, as well as a physical space for meaningful reflection,” Morehead said.
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