On Mar. 1, the University of Georgia announced that it would reinter dozens of remains that were discovered buried underneath a Baldwin Hall parking lot in 2015 while the university was adding onto the building. And oh, by the way, DNA testing showed that those remains belonged to African Americans, not white people as earlier believed.
Fred Smith suspected that all along. Three days later, he and other local black leaders held a news conference outside the historic Morton Theatre—Athens’ most prominent black landmark—to express their displeasure with the way UGA has handled the remains and demand input into what is done with them, considering that they likely belonged to slave ancestors of Athens residents.
But by Mar. 7, the remains were already in the ground. UGA loaded boxes containing them into a rental box truck and—without telling anyone, and with the gates locked—reinterred them at Oconee Hill Cemetery. “We didn’t want to turn it into a spectacle,” spokesman Gregory Trevor told the Athens Banner-Herald.
UGA provided reporters with a letter from the state archeologist advising the university to bury the exhumed remains in the same pattern they were found to avoid splitting up families and in the nearest cemetery, which happens to be Oconee Hill.
That letter was released “to avert blame away from UGA and to provide talking points to senior staff and sympathizers,” according to Smith. “But for us, it’s time to grieve for the girls, boys, women and men abused in life and in death; for the ones removed from the cemetery recently and to who-knows-where in the past; for the ones still buried there; and for them whose remains may have been removed with construction dirt.”
The question remains whether UGA knew the remains were there when they started digging; the university says no, but some whisper otherwise. And although Oconee Hill, like its predecessor on Jackson Street, contained remains of both races, many members of the black community would prefer if they had been reinterred at a local black cemetery, such as Gospel Pilgrim or Brooklyn, which were long neglected but are being restored as educational opportunities. Now, it’s too late.
UGA will hold a reburial ceremony at 3 p.m. Monday, Mar. 20. A “stately granite marker that provides an account of their discovery and reinterment” will be placed at the gravesite. Meanwhile, work on Baldwin Hall started up again last March, and the expanded building will be dedicated June 13.
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