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UGA Slave Research Continues, but No Plans to Commemorate Slaves

In late 2015, when they expanded Baldwin Hall, University of Georgia officials unearthed human remains from a 19th Century burial site. In March 2017, the university re-interred them at Oconee Hill Cemetery. That action dismayed many black Athenians who believe those remains could be their ancestors, held in slavery. After they were studied by UGA experts, samples of some of the 105 remains were sent to a lab at the University of Texas for DNA analysis.

At a recent forum at the Lyndon House on “Baldwin Hall: Present and Future,” participants learned from a panel what is happening with those remains and with the university in terms of researching the role slavery has played on its campus.

Members of the forum’s panel included school board member Linda Davis, who is spearheading the cleanup of Brooklyn Cemetery; Fred Smith, co-founder of the Athens Black History Bowl; UGA anthropologist Laurie Reitsema, who studied the remains initially; Kimberly Davis, a trustee of the Athens Clarke Heritage Foundation, which sponsored the forum; David Lee, UGA’s vice president for research; and Michelle Cook, vice provost for diversity and inclusion and strategic university initiatives.

Lee told the Lyndon House crowd of more than 100 people about the proposal his office has funded. Marguerite Madden, director of the Center for Geospatial Research, and several students are creating a GIS database of the evolving UGA campus and Athens from source materials. Madden is finding old photos and maps and digitizing them in an interactive tool, but she said there are no maps earlier than the late 1800s. Her project has cost $44,364 so far.

In addition, scientists at the University of Texas could obtain thorough genetic information for only 30 or so of the remains identified as African. The samples will then travel to Harvard for more analysis. Lee said his office has spent $26,394 on that effort. “Both projects are ongoing and we anticipate further costs,” Lee said.

Linda Davis said that continued cleanup and restoration efforts at historically black Brooklyn Cemetery will allow more people to be buried there. If it turns out she is related to any of those whose remains are being analyzed, she would like to bury them in the cemetery. And she would like “some clue that black people lived here, worked here and built this town,” she said.

Creating a center for the study of slavery at UGA, as one faculty member proposed, Lee said, “is beyond the scope of my money.” Smith wants more research and collaboration between black Athenians and the university on the remains and their final resting places.

Reitsema said studying human remains provides direct information about that individual person and offers glimpses of the past. Her goal is to bring the lives of those individuals into daily public consciousness. Studying these people offers a way to build bridges between the university and the community’s African Americans, she said.

Undergraduate Joe Levine created a 24-minute film, Below Baldwin, on the issue for a documentary production course, the second half of which he shared at the beginning of the forum. Taylor Miller, assistant professor in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, who assigned the documentary, said many faculty members and researchers dropped out or declined to participate and told him that he “should be scared to pursue the project.” 

When asked whether the university, as an institution, is talking about joining Universities Studying Slavery, a consortium of schools coming to terms with their past involvement with slavery, Vice President Cook said she hasn’t been a part of any such conversation. She didn’t know if others may have discussed the possibility. Scott Nesbit, a professor of digital humanities in the College of Environment and Design, said he suggested to Provost Pam Whitten three years ago that UGA join the consortium, but he said he’s heard nothing back.

There’s been no public discussion about how to commemorate the contributions of slaves on the university campus. Cook said conversations about commemoration may be happening, but she hasn’t been a part of them.

UGA history professor John Morrow wondered why President Morehead wasn’t at the forum, and why he hasn’t “gotten in front of the slavery issue” and publicly acknowledged UGA’s past.