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A college town reckons with reparations to right wrongs of 'urban renewal'

The old houses of Linnentown
Posted at 4:18 PM, Sep 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-01 16:18:53-04

ATHENS, Ga. — From the edge of the city, you can see the outline of the campus.

The city of Athens, Georgia, would hardly exist without the University of Georgia. The largest school in the state holds nearly 40,000 students. It is an institution.

Around town are reminders of what institutions can bring … and what they can take.

“You cannot come by here without associating what could have been,” said Hattie Whitehead, as she stares across Baxter Street at three dorms. “This could have been a Black, middle-class community if it was left alone.”

Whitehead and dozens of other families grew up where a series of dorms now stand. They knew it as Linnentown.

“Linnentown was a small, Black community where adults worked hard, and they reached 66% homeownership,” recalled Whitehead. “Home felt safe. The [wider Athens] community didn’t feel safe, but home felt safe.”

It was safe, until the early 1960s. That’s when the University of Georgia and the city of Athens targeted Linnentown for urban renewal. They used eminent domain to purchase residents’ land for cheap, literally paving the way for the dorms that stand there now.

“Our parents did not know what urban renewal was,” Whitehead said. “It means taking property – just taking it – from poor areas, particularly targeting Black communities. It means they want the land and they want it cheap, so this is a way to get it cheap, all under the name of the law.”

A study by the University of Richmond estimates the federal government gave at least $13 billion from 1950 to 1965 to fund urban renewal projects. Those projects displaced more than 300,000 Americans, largely people of color, in all but seven states. Institutions wielded power and served some over others.

But this story isn’t just about an event six decades in the past. It’s about the ripple effects that continue to the present.

“I would say they’re mixed,” Mayor Kelly Girtz said about race relations in Athens. “We have to be honest and reckon with our history.”

Nearly 3 in 10 Athens residents are Black. Among students at UGA, it’s fewer than 1 in 10.

“The Board of Regents [at UGA] has been named by the last three conservative governors of the state,” said Mayor Girtz. “There are times where they haven’t wanted to touch these issues with a 10-foot pole.”

But it’s not just campus. It’s the lack of affordable housing as rents and home prices skyrocket. It’s the bar downtown that only last year changed its name from that of a Civil War general. It’s the first sight off the highway being the Plantation Buffet. It’s the tensions in the institutions that bubble under cities and towns across America.

“If you look in terms of census tracts, in terms of demographics, it’s evident that Black Athenians have long held less home wealth than White Athenians,” Mayor Girtz said. “And I’ve gotta be conscious on how we move the meter on that.”

This past June, Athens passed a budget that includes fare-free transit and a $15/hour minimum wage for all city employees. And four months earlier, Mayor Girtz read aloud a proclamation passed by the city that honored Linnentown and promised to provide reparations for its descendants – the first act of reparations in the state.

“People told me they thought it would never happen,” said Whitehead. “When it happened, it brought me to tears, like, ‘Finally! We got an apology from the city of Athens.’”

There are plenty of hurdles. It’s unclear how much the community will receive, and Georgia’s own Constitution prevents giving state and local dollars directly to third parties. As for the campus that once held the homes of Linnentown, university leaders have chosen not to participate in the project. They also have not granted permission to place markers of recognition on campus.

“The University System of Georgia declined to participate … since the Board of Regents lawfully purchased this tract of land,” wrote UGA spokesperson Greg Trevor in a statement. “It will be up to the University System of Georgia to approve any physical markers on the property.”

Trevor also offered information on the school’s various recent efforts to increase enrollment of Black and other under-represented students, which can be found here.

Despite the complications, Hattie Whitehead emerges with hope – “and faith,” she said.

“It’s been recognized, in a small way. So, it makes a difference.”