Former Linntown residents push for UGA to return property

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ATHENS – Hattie Thomas Whitehead waited nervously in February as Athens-Clarke County Commissioners voted on the Linnentown resolution.

The resolution represented the city’s first step in combating the destruction of Linnentown, a black neighborhood destroyed in the 1960s by urban renewal to establish new dormitories for the University of Georgia.

“When there was a unanimous vote, I just started to cry,” said Whitehead, a former Linnentown resident. “I felt like justice had finally been served or seen, and I felt sad for the people who hadn’t been there to hear it.”

the resolution declared that the city of Athens and the university system of Georgia “perpetrated an act of institutionalized white racism and terrorism resulting in intergenerational black poverty, the dissolution of family units and trauma through the eviction and forced displacement of families black “.

Linntown Project members talk about Athens resolution

Joshua L. Jones, Athens Banner-Herald

As part of the resolution, the city also established the Linntown Justice and Remembrance Committee. The committee has helped push Athens-Clarke County employees to receive a minimum wage of $ 15 and is working to establish a black history center.

“If we have a story center, we can tell the whole story, not pieces or parts of it but the whole,” said Whitehead, who also runs the Linnentown project.

But five months after the resolution, residents of Linntown said the UGA was not open to repeated attempts to invite officials to the table.

Hattie Thomas Whitehead, a former Linnetown resident, from a letter he wrote to University of Georgia President Jere Morehead
Children have learned for centuries to give back what they steal. Adults and institutions must also respect this basic rule. Give us back our land.

“Denial appears to be the path UGA chooses to take instead of acknowledging its dark role in erasing Linnentown,” Whitehead wrote in a July 19 letter to the President of the University of Georgia, Jere Morehead. “UGA took 22 acres of our land to build dormitories – land UGA made hundreds of millions of dollars on.”

“Children have learned for centuries to return what they steal,” Whitehead continued. “Adults and institutions must also respect this basic rule. Give us back our land. “

Greg Trevor, spokesperson for the University of Georgia, said the city of Athens used eminent estate and federal funding to acquire the property, which was then sold to the Board of Regents to establish the three residences that are there now.

“Under Georgian law then and now, only the Board of Regents can acquire and own property on behalf of member institutions of the Georgia university system,” Trevor said.

Morehead echoed a similar response in a letter to Whitehead, adding that requests to rename buildings were also the responsibility of the Board of Regents. He said Steve Wrigley, then chancellor of Georgia’s university system, was also invited by Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz to serve on the justice and remembrance committee. Wrigley has since retired.

“This invitation was not, and should not have been, extended to me as president of the University of Georgia,” Morehead wrote. “Chancellor Wrigley declined the invitation in a response letter to Mayor Girtz.”

Morehead said that despite this, the invitation to include Linnentown in the Athens Oral History Project maintained by UGA Libraries still stands.

“I am dedicated to focusing on what falls within my authority and sphere of influence – continuing to make UGA a more welcoming and accessible university,” he wrote.

“We want to get our land back”: members of the Linnentown project are pushing for the UGA to come back to the neighborhood

Joshua L. Jones, Athens Banner-Herald

But some have pointed to the hypocrisy of the UGA’s refusal to come to the table as banners around campus celebrate the 60th anniversary of desegregation at the school.

Joseph Carter, a member of the Linnentown Project and UGA Library employee, said residents of Linnentown made several attempts to contact the school administration only to find them seemingly fallen on deaf ears. Yet every day he walks into work seeing giant banners celebrating desegregation.

“I don’t understand the celebration of the 60th anniversary of desegregation when the same year the Linnentown urban renewal project began,” Carter said. “I am confused by the celebration and the silence.”

Carter said the school administration should at least meet with residents or join the Linntown Justice and Remembrance Committee. He added that celebrating desegregation while continuing to turn on and silence black residents was a continuation of injustice.

“It sounds like both a symbolic and a distraction from what the university should really take responsibility for,” he said.

Morehead and the university have again been invited to get involved in the work in progress in a written response.

“Even if you are not the ultimate decision maker, you still have tremendous power and influence. Much more than us,” Whitehead wrote. “That’s why we always ask for your involvement.”

Bobby Crook, a former Linntown resident, said while that may not happen, they continue to push for the land to be returned.

“We are asking for some kind of reparation because it is a very disheartening thing that has happened to all these families,” he said. “It still affects families now, a lot of people have never recovered from what happened.”

Bobby Crook Linnentown, first descendant and co-chair of the Linnentown Project, pose for a photo in front of the administration building and the president's office on the University of Georgia campus on Thursday, July 15, 2021. Crook and the Linnentown Project ask UGA to return to their land.

Crook’s family were the last to leave Linnentown as residents were relocated in the 1960s. He said watching the families he grew up with being slowly driven out one by one was a lonely process.

“I missed all of my friends and it was a very scary feeling where a whole neighborhood is like a shell and there’s nothing left,” Crook recalls.

At the time, no one challenged the city or the university, he said, but his father remained stubborn throughout the negotiation process. He said authorities were initially pushing his family to move into the projects, but his father refused. Her family eventually settled on Barber Street.

“My dad said we’re not moving to the projects that we own back home and so that’s where we want to move. We want to move on to something that we can own,” said Crook.

While the return of land remains uncertain, city officials said the resolution marks the first step in the work ahead.

“The items in the resolution will not just be a checklist of items that will be completed and then we’ll move on,” Girtz said. “In some ways, these are lifelong commitments to create a better life for black Athenians, to raise the bar for people’s quality of life, and to continue to be open to understanding things we don’t even know. “

Girtz said a series of interpretive signs are designed to be placed in the Cloverhurst Avenue and Baxter Street neighborhoods and will tell the story of Linnentown. The Justice and Memorial Committee also hopes to use part of the space in the Costa Building on Washington Street as the first home for the Black History Center.

State laws currently prevent monetary reparations from being paid to former residents of Linntown using state or local dollars. But Girtz said he was in talks with the city attorney over how that might apply to federal funds.

He said that if possible, the funds could be used to provide a down payment or home repair fund similar to a repair model implemented in Evanston, Ill..

Girtz said he also plans to write a follow-up letter to Teresa MacCartney, acting chancellor of the Georgia university system.

“What I can say is that when you represent the audience, you do a better job of opening up to dialogue, even if it is a dialogue that is going to be long or time consuming, or that you come back to the table, ”Girtz said. .

Through dialogue, people can learn things, grow to understand and build common ground, he said.

“I would tell anyone from a public sector institution to buckle up for the ride, but please go ahead,” Girtz said.

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