Every weekday between September and May, students are likely to flow down Baxter Street from high-rise buildings at the top of the hill to the University of Georgia campus. Each of the three nine- or ten-story towers on the hill – Creswell Hall, Brumby Hall, and Russell Hall – have been home to young people for decades.
When Hattie Thomas Whitehead was young she lived here too. “When I was a little girl it was filth,” said Thomas Whitehead when he recently toured her old neighborhood and referred to Finley Street, which runs between Creswell and Russell. “It wasn’t paved.”
That was in the 1950s when the area south and west of the intersection of Baxter Street and Finley Street was a mostly black neighborhood called Linnentown. That changed in the early 1960s when UGA and the City of Athens looked at Linnentown and saw space to add dormitories for the growing university.
What followed was a textbook example of mid-20th century infrastructure projects, somewhat euphemistically referred to as urban renewal. In districts outside the white power structures, urban renewal led to economic losses. But now the residents of Linnentown and their descendants have received recognition and, in a first for every community in Georgia, a promise to make amends for what they endured when the neighborhood was cleared.
Before college students, said Thomas Whitehead, the people who called Linnentown home had jobs as bricklayers, janitors, or nurses. “All working people,” she said, “but hardworking people for meager wages. Eight to ten dollars a week. “
Thomas Whitehead said Linnentown is also a mostly black neighborhood, with more than half of the residents owning their homes. Separately, Thomas Whitehead said the city called the area a “slum” to get the ball rolling in the new dormitories.
“But keep in mind that it took most of the people in this area years to raise enough money to become homeowners,” said Thomas Whitehead. “It took years.”
At the request of the UGA, the city government used an important domain to first acquire these houses and then demolish them. When residents were paid for their loss, the records suggest they received only about a third of the market value. And Thomas Whitehead said the city would use the vacant homes to send distinctive messages to families left behind that it was time to move out.
“In some cases, they started the heavy equipment at noon,” she said. As soon as the bulldozers rumbled in the middle of the night, said Thomas Whitehead, they would push in the empty houses. Or the fire brigade would burn the houses down, she said. All of that, she said, was terrifying.
Thomas Whitehead’s father was one of those homeowners who, in this case, had saved years for years to get the family out of their rented shotgun house in Linnentown and into something they could call themselves. But that second house was also in the urban renewal zone on Peabody Street. It was also lost to major domains. “My family [would] Never be a homeowner again, ”said Thomas Whitehead.
The house in which Geneva Johnson now lives was actually transported from Linnentown across the Oconee River to eastern Athens in what is now the district of Athiah-Clarke County Commissioner Mariah Parker. One day Parker met Johnson at a store where Parker said she had a habit of looking for snacks. Parker said she heard from a woman who was still very traumatized.
“You could hear it in Ms. Johnson’s voice when she spoke to her at the gas station,” Parker said. “Your voice would tremble if you talked about this thing that happened 50 or 60 years ago.”
Since that conversation, former Linnentown residents have collaborated with the Athens-Clarke County Commission’s Justice and Memory Project. The aim is to reverse some of the damage caused by the urban renewal period. This relationship resulted in a proposed resolution that not only recognized the economic damage that Linnentown had suffered, but also identified the tactics used to evict the residents.
The names? Terrorism and white supremacy. This was a problem for Commissioner Russell Edwards. He’s used to being a dealmaker between the local government and the UGA, which is by far the economic engine of the community.
“And a lot of my colleagues were just as pragmatic,” said Edwards. “And so the pragmatic problems were: ‘OK, if we pass this document we will claim that the Georgia university system, UGA, has committed an act of white supremacist terrorism.'”
And that, Edwards feared, would slow progress. So he wanted to soften the language and work out a compromise with UGA to do something good for the Linnentown community.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Parker said UGA was most interested in not talking about Linnentown at all. “You have disproved claims that Linnentown is a black community,” said Parker. “And then refuted all allegations of wrongdoing in an email, I think, shortly after discussions began publicly about what happened in Linnentown.”
The residents of Linnentown would not budge from the language of the resolution. They wanted the fear and trauma they were going through to be recognized. “And that,” said Edwards, “was an unorthodox approach.”
But when Edwards pondered what Thomas Whitehead and others had to show him about losing their homes, demolishing homes in the middle of the night, and leaving with nothing, his thinking changed. “I just came by and ended up saying, ‘You know, I can try [finesse] That’s all I want, but the fact remains that this was an act of terrorism, ”he said.
Neither the UGA nor the Board of Regents have publicly commented on the Linnentown resolution. However, when it was passed unanimously by the Athens-Clarke County Commission, terrorism and white supremacy became public knowledge in Linnentown.
The residents and their descendants want money repairs. The Georgian law on tips prohibits this, and instead they control something called participatory budgeting. An amount of money determined by a reparation economist is set aside and then spent in Athens where the residents deem it best.
Thomas Whitehead has some ideas. “One was affordable housing,” she said. “There is simply no affordable housing in Athens.”
However, their ideas of raising money to help people with rental deposits or to pay for maintenance are already against the same law that prohibits the county from paying them directly for what their family has lost. Participatory budgeting will require a new kind of finesse.
“One of the things we’re asking is a black history center,” said Thomas Whitehead. Beforehand, a historical marker will be set up in Linnentown in front of Creswell Hall on Finley Street, just yards from where the young Thomas Whitehead lived as a girl. The Board of Regents has not said whether it will allow such marking on school grounds, but Athens-Clarke County has enough rights of way along Finley Street that the university system may not have a say on the matter.
And the truth is important to Thomas Whitehead. “That would tell the whole truth, wouldn’t it?” she said of the center and the marker. “Not a part of it, not a part of it, but everything.”
This story comes to Flagpole through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a nonprofit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.
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