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What the hell is a Scalawag?

In November 2015, construction crews at the University of Georgia in Athens abruptly stopped renovations on Baldwin Hall, a stately 1930's-era building hosting five academic departments.

Underneath the 53,000 square foot, column-laden structure, they found dozens of gravesites.

School administrators initially stated that the remains found under the academic building belonged to people of European descent. Later DNA analysis, however, confirmed suspicions held by some university faculty members and some leaders in Athens' Black community that the 105 uncovered graves likely belonged to people of African heritage.

Since the initial results of the DNA analysis were released, critics of the university have repeatedly requested that UGA formally acknowledge its historical ties to slavery, and have been largely ignored by the administration. Some community members allege that UGA interred the uncovered remains at a predominately white cemetery before consulting Athenians who objected to the burial site. A granite memorial erected outside Baldwin Hall states that UGA "recognizes the contributions of these and other enslaved individuals," but doesn't explicitly acknowledge the university's use of slave labor.

That controversy is the subject of an hour-long documentary produced by UGA alumnus Joe Lavine. The film, "Below Baldwin," will premiere at Morton Theatre, a historically Black theater in Athens, on March 31. While it began as a 24-minute group assignment, Lavine felt compelled to expand the documentary after his graduation to include information that didn't make the first cut.

"What we can see from the Baldwin Hall incident really is just a systematic pattern of UGA administrators neglecting and omitting history," Lavine said.

"What we can see from the Baldwin Hall incident really is just a systematic pattern of UGA administrators neglecting and omitting history," Lavine said.

A central event in "Below Baldwin" is the reburial, which took place in 2017. Lavine said that leaders in Athens' African-American community argued that the remains should be left where they are and the planned expansion of Baldwin Hall canceled. Alternatively, the remains should be interred at a historically Black cemetery. Instead, the bodies were buried at Oconee Hill Cemetery, a historically segregated burial ground.

The University of Georgia premiered this memorial in November 2018 to commemorate the suspected remains of enslaved Black people found under Baldwin Hall three years earlier.

In a letter printed in The Athens Banner-Herald, UGA's executive director of media communications, Greg Trevor, said that the school followed the recommendations of Georgia's Archeological Office — that the cemetery chosen be the closest one to the original burial site.

"The extent of the University's efforts demonstrate that its actions are in no way unilateral, irresponsible or unethical," Trevor wrote. "It is a shame that some would now endeavor to mislead the campus and local community to believe otherwise."

The university funded research to learn more about those buried under Baldwin Hall. One project aims to create a series of interactive maps showing how the campus has evolved since the 1800s. Another focuses on continued analysis of the DNA produced from the remains.

But Lavine said another proposed project received no institutional support: the creation of a study that would document slavery "as it existed at UGA." That project was rejected because the topic was not directly related to "the Baldwin Hall site and how land use related to the Old Athens Cemetery had changed over time," said David Lee, who serves as UGA's vice president for research.

"It is important to note, however, that UGA faculty are, of course, free to explore ideas, seek external grant funding and collaborate on research projects with faculty colleagues elsewhere, if they choose," Lee said.

'No playbook'

Lavine stressed that UGA officials have never denied the university's history of employing slave labor. However, the history the university does reflect, especially in the names of buildings on campus, is often that of former slave owners and segregationists. That can be seen even with Baldwin Hall, Lavine said.

"There's a statue of Abraham Baldwin on north campus and he argued pretty fiercely to preserve the institution of slavery," Lavine said.

UGA administrators, when responding to criticism, have largely reiterated the university's commitment to treating the unearthed remains responsibly. In a 2018 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article written about the controversy, Diversity and Inclusion Vice Provost Michelle Garfield Cook said that "there's no playbook for something like this for an institution." However, major academic institutions have been figuring out how to document and acknowledge slave histories on their campuses for more than a decade. Those efforts sometimes include marking cemeteries where slaves or freed families of color are likely buried.

Some students, faculty members and Athens residents have criticized UGA for its failure to explicitly acknowledge the institution's past use of enslaved labor, a trend which is reflected in the language chosen for the Baldwin Hall memorial plaque.

Under the leadership of then-President Ruth Simmons, Brown University in Rhode Island began examining the legacy of slavery at its institution in 2003. The University of Virginia (UVA), which was founded by former president and slave owner Thomas Jefferson, began acknowledging its history in 2007.

Soon after issuing a statement of regret for using slave labor, UVA installed a small placard acknowledging enslaved laborers in an underground walkway. The placard was a starting point, but was poorly worded and unlikely to be seen by students and visitors. Kirt von Daacke, who serves as Assistant Dean and professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and teaches in UVA's history department, said a group of students quickly lobbied for a better memorial, which led then-UVA President Teresa Sullivan to back a commission to study slavery on campus in 2013.

"It's not enough to, you know, put up a website or put out a pamphlet," von Daacke said. "What are the changes you can make the landscape so it becomes harder and harder for people to come here and not understand that this is part of our history?"

"It's not enough to, you know, put up a website or put out a pamphlet," von Daacke said. "What are the changes you can make the landscape so it becomes harder and harder for people to come here and not understand that this is part of our history?"

In 2009, the College of William & Mary, another historical university in Virginia, also started a commission to study and acknowledge slavery on campus. That effort, which led to the creation of The Lemon Project, began after a member of the university's student government pushed a resolution urging the college to study its history in 2007.

Since then, dozens of universities have launched projects studying slavery on their campuses. In 2014, UVA, William and Mary and other institutions formed the Universities Studying Slavery consortium. At the moment, the group includes 46 universities with administration-approved projects on campus enslavement, including two colleges in Canada and one in Scotland.

Jody Allen, a William & Mary history professor who directs The Lemon Project, said that a number of concerns can make a university reluctant to study and promote its history as a slave-owning institution. Administrators might fear loss of funding or worry the study will hurt enrollment numbers. But when Allen asks her students if knowing about William & Mary's past would deter their enrollment, she's never received a yes.

"It's certainly not a high watermark in US history, but it happened," she said. "Ignoring it has not made it go away."

Lingering effects

One important reason for universities with a history of slave ownership to address their past is because that past has lingering effects on descendant communities. Slavery and subsequent Jim Crow laws often made it difficult for Black families to gain the educational or professional opportunities needed to escape poverty or secure generational wealth, as noted in a 2011 report released by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.

In Charlottesville, UVA is examining its impact on the wider community, including its effect on rental rates and property values in low-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods. For example, Von Daacke said that students are required to live on campus during their first year but often move off campus to student housing complexes for the remainder of their education. Many of those student housing complexes have been erected in low income neighborhoods "where freed people moved after the general emancipation, and then were progressively hemmed in by a combination of zoning, redlining, and urban renewal practices." The university's slavery commission is having conversations with the Charlottesville community about this issue and others, but does not have the power to make decisions or statements on UVA's behalf, von Daacke said.

"If you're not racist, but you allow a racist system to continue and do nothing about it, what are you?" von Daacke said. "I think the university is actively thinking about this."

Faculty and students at UGA also argue that the university should examine the intersection between its past as a slave-holding institution and its present as a major force in Athens' economy. Joe Fu, a mathematics professor and a founding member of a labor union for UGA employees said there's a link between the enslaved laborers who worked for the university and the low pay experienced by some university employees today.

"In the community of Athens, you can see these pockets of poverty that are almost exclusively African American," Fu said. "It seems just obvious on the face on it. There's got to be a historical link to what happened in slavery."

"In the community of Athens, you can see these pockets of poverty that are almost exclusively African American," Fu said. "It seems just obvious on the face on it. There's got to be a historical link to what happened in slavery."

It's unclear what steps UGA will take once the DNA and campus mapping projects are complete. When asked about the university's future plans, Trevor did not respond to the question.

In the meantime, Lavine said that many students, faculty and community members are still waiting for UGA to take what seems like a first step: acknowledging publically that the university was built, in part, using enslaved labor.

"If they just did a simple acknowledgement and pledged to fund some research, I don't see how that would go over bad," Lavine said.

Tiffany Stevens

Tiffany Stevens is an independent journalist based in Southwest Virginia. Their work focuses on the media, the LGBT community, and the triumphs and challenges facing Appalachian and Southern residents.