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University of Georgia Builds On Lessons Learned from Slave Cemetery

In 2015, the University of Georgia broke ground on a planned expansion of Baldwin Hall, an academic building on campus. Baldwin Hall’s graceful neoclassical façade masks the fact that the building’s foundations rest on a burial ground that is nearly two centuries old.

At the time, the university was unaware of what lay beneath the earth. So it came as a surprise when workers excavating the site uncovered a human skull. Work halted so that an archaeological team could step in to examine the findings. Other human remains were soon discovered.

The university reburied the remains in Oconee Hill Cemetery last month.The university reburied the remains in Oconee Hill Cemetery last month.

Baldwin Hall sits close by Jackson Street Cemetery, also known as Old Athens Cemetery, Athens’ original burial site. The burial ground was in use from approximately 1810 to 1856, before the cemetery ran out of land and Athens developed Oconee Hill Cemetery.

After it went out of use, parts of Jackson Street Cemetery were neglected. The state deeded cemetery land to the expanding university, which subsequently built Baldwin Hall in 1938, some 70 years after the burial ground was closed. From the surface at least, the land then would most likely have appeared to be unclaimed, although workers reportedly uncovered human remains when the building was first constructed.

Fast forward to 2017: after careful study, a team of UGA anthropologists and the Southeastern Archaeological Services determined that they had discovered 105 grave sites by Baldwin Hall. The graves were dug into dense, rocky soil, and 63 contained skeletons or fragments of human remains.

Through DNA testing, it was determined that the remains belonged to people of African descent, meaning that the people buried by Baldwin Hall were most likely enslaved during their lifetimes, according to Dr. Laurie Reitsema, an assistant professor in the UGA Department of Anthropology and director of the Bioarchaeology and Biochemistry Laboratory.

“We know that they were of African ancestry, and we know that people of African ancestry living in Athens were usually enslaved prior to 1865,” Reitsema says.

Enslaved people rarely had durable memorials over the gravesites. Their graves were marked instead with fieldstones, wooden memorials or other non-durable materials, meaning that, within a matter of years, all traces of their existence would often vanish.

“Grave markers are expensive,” Reitsema explained. “They’re not accessible to everybody. So instead of using marble markers, the graves were probably marked with wood or fieldstone.”

In fact, Reitsema revealed, archaeologists did encounter fieldstones placed near gravesites as they excavated the burial ground. Reitsema said that, in all probability, they had been used as markers, although it was hard to say with certainty since the site was not pristine. When archaeologists began their work, the burial ground had been paved over with a parking lot.

As it so happens, UGA’s anthropology department is housed in Baldwin Hall. “It’s a strange coincidence,” Reitsema acknowledged.

As these discoveries were made, UGA was left with a difficult quandary: what to do with the remains.

When the burial site was first discovered in 2015, it was assumed to be the resting place of a few White people. When it was revealed that it was a site holding the remains of 105 people who almost certainly were enslaved, it became a much more complicated conversation.

After discussions with the state archaeologist’s office, the university chose to quietly reinter the bodies in Oconee Hill Cemetery outside of public view in March, holding a public ceremony a few days later on March 20.

“The university throughout this process has worked very diligently to be respectful of the remains that were discovered,” said Dr. Michelle Cook, associate provost for institutional diversity and chief diversity officer at UGA.

Black leaders in Athens, however, say that the university ought to have consulted with them before reinterring the bodies. After all, it is very likely that the people buried beneath Baldwin Hall are the ancestors of many who still live in town.

“I did not feel that the way that the remains were handled was done in a fair and balanced way,” said Mokah-Jasmine Johnson, founder of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement. “They could actually be some of the local ancestors, direct family members of the people in town now.”

Johnson is a community activist who moved to Athens five years ago. She said she was attracted to its creative vibe and the music scene, but is troubled by what she sees as a distinct town and gown divide.

She believes that the university ought to have consulted local community leaders before deciding what to do with the remains. After all, there are two Black cemeteries in town that the university could have chosen to move the remains to, such as Brooklyn Cemetery or Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery. Oconee Hill, like Jackson Street Cemetery, is a biracial site.

Nor is this the first time that UGA uncovered bodies at Baldwin Hall, Johnson added.

It is believed that bodies were found when it was built in 1938 and again during an earlier expansion to the building in the 1960s. According to local lore, some of the bodies were reinterred along Nowhere Road in Athens.

Yet there are no markers on UGA’s campus, at Baldwin Hall or otherwise, that recognize the people buried at Baldwin Hall.

“I think the area should be a memorial site and they should not be allowed to continue to expand and dig up bodies because it is a burial ground,” Johnson says. “If there’s not a memorial, years go by, people forget about it, and next thing you know, they dig up more bodies and they do it again.”

Dr. Chana Kai Lee, an associate professor of history at UGA, said that the university community also had little say in the decision-making process prior to the reinterment of the remains at Oconee Hill. Instead, they were apprised of developments via university press releases, finding out about new discoveries at the same time that the public did.

“I thought that perhaps the university community or at least people with a stake in this issue — like Black faculty, perhaps — should have been notified before it got to the press,” Lee said. “We have a university-wide listserv, and even though that would have been pretty impersonal, it would have been better. I thought the way it was handled in that respect was a bit insensitive, and kind of clumsy, really.”

Cook said that the university chose Oconee Hill in consultation with the state archaeologist’s office for three reasons. Oconee Hill is within the closest proximity to Jackson Street Cemetery, it is the chronological successor of Jackson Street Cemetery, and it allowed the remains to be reinterred in closest approximation of how they were originally buried.

“In terms of the respect for the remains and who those individuals were, it was very important to ensure that, when they were reinterred, they were reinterred in a configuration similar to their original burial, so as to not inadvertently separate families or other groupings of individuals,” Cook said. “In moving forward with Oconee Hill, we were able to procure a space large enough to recreate that original configuration.”

Once the state archaeologist’s office approved the Oconee Hill plan, Cook said that the university reached out to some community members to plan the March 20 ceremony. UGA contacted a local pastor, Judge Steve Jones, who is an alumnus of UGA, and a faculty member whose family is rooted in the local community.

Nevertheless, the university has made an effort to engage the university and local community more frequently in recent months, holding a community conversation about slavery in March. UGA plans to place a marker in Baldwin Hall this summer explaining that human remains were discovered during the expansion.

The university is in the early stages of planning what Cook calls “an interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary research project.” The research project is borne out of the recognition that, “there is a real interest on the part of the community, as well as the university, to understand who these individuals were and how they lived, and to learn more about that time period in Athens,” as Cook put it.

UGA is but one of many colleges and universities currently grappling with its historic connection to slavery. Institutions from South to North were enmeshed in the institution in one form or another prior to the Civil War. Southern schools were sometimes run with the contracted labor of enslaved people, and in the North, some schools, including Brown University, owe their existence to the massive fortunes some families derived from the slave trade.

Slavery also made itself felt in smaller, but no less insidious ways. Presidents and professors owned slaves at varying points in history, even in Northern states. Harvard University, for instance, commemorated the lives of four enslaved people who worked for an early president of the institution last April.

Dr. Scott Nesbit, an assistant professor of digital humanities in UGA’s College of Environment + Design, said that delving more deeply into UGA’s history promises to reveal much about the context of the times and the institution of slavery itself. So far, much remains that is unknown.

“We are at the early stages of this work,” Nesbit said, noting that a preliminary study of the remains uncovered at Baldwin Hall conducted by Reitsema and her graduate students showed that the people buried there were not laboring on plantation fields, but rather in manufacturing and other more “urban” pursuits.

“What this means is that we really need to think carefully about what our conception of what slavery was, and what slavery in the Deep South was,” Nesbit said. “I think that these are questions that scholars are continuing to learn more about, especially as we begin thinking about how slavery worked as an economic phenomenon.”

As UGA prepares to delve into its past, activists like Johnson hope that it will remain sensitive to the impact that history still has on the present. While the university has shown a willingness to listen to the community, if the conversations are not “done in a constructive manner, the situation is going to be right back to where it was,” Johnson said.

“It’s an ongoing thing, and a lot depends on how the university chooses to handle it,” Johnson said. “It also depends on us locals. It takes a lot of work to make sure they do the right thing.”

Catherine Morris can be reached at [email protected].

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