There's a building on the campus of the University of Georgia where the foundation rests on the bodies of enslaved people.
That's Baldwin Hall on UGA's picturesque North Campus. It's been years since more than 100 burials of enslaved people were discovered during an expansion of the building that houses the Anthropology Department. Since then, many on campus at UGA and in the larger Athens community have not been happy with the way UGA handled those remains.
A few weeks before the end of spring semester a group of about 200 people — mostly students — marched on the administration building to make sure someone heard their ideas for a start to atonement for UGA's history with slavery.
“Who’s side are you on my people, who’s side are you on?” a protester sang from the front of the march as it wended from the student center across from Sanford Stadium.
Then they marched behind the storied Chapel home to the bell that rings after Bulldog victories today but which was once rung by enslaved people for class changes and calls to worship.
Then the others answered in unison.
“We’re on the freedom side!”
The protesters used a megaphone to give voice to their demands once they marched to the steps of the building where UGA President Jere Morehead has his office. They want UGA to acknowledge publicly, and in history classes, that enslaved people built much of UGA’s North Campus. That's not something student Walker Creswell learned in his core classes. He watched the protest while eating a chicken sandwich by a nearby fountain.
"The most understanding I had was civil rights sometime in the 1950s-ish," Creswell said. "It was a required reading in my history class."
That frustration over unrecognized history has also focused attention on a longstanding source of friction between UGA and the surrounding city of Athens, namely the gulf between who goes to college in Athens and who lives there.
The University of Georgia is still mostly a white space, even 58 years after it was integrated. While 8% of the UGA student body is black, Athens at large, much like the state of Georgia, is closer to 30% African American. The protesters draw a straight line from the student body’s makeup today to the history of black oppression.
“This has been 400 years in the making. Nothing about this has been quick,” a protester who goes only by the name Imani proclaimed through a megaphone.
Protesters are asking for two things.
First, they want a minimum $15 an hour wage for campus employees like food service workers and the people in the physical plant. Most of the workers are black.
Second, they want full scholarships for any African American student from an Athens high school, or for any descendant of an enslaved person.
Both requests are wrapped made in the name of reparations.
UGA President Jere Morehead was not in his office, so he never heard the chants and calls to action on the stoop outside his building. He never spoke with GPB for this story, either. But via email, his public relations office did explain why scholarships explicitly for African American students are off the table.
In the 1990s, UGA began a scholarship program for black students. Not long after, 15 white students sued in federal court, claiming the program violated their rights under the Civil Rights Act. UGA settled. Most students then won admittance to UGA, won in total a little over $60,000 but most importantly, they secured a promise from the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents that there would never be race based scholarships at UGA again.
Rachelle Berry is a graduate student at UGA and one of the reparation protest’s organizers. She said the consent decree still shouldn’t be an obstacle to protesters’ goals.
“There are ways to get at this. Other universities who are in these same constraints have been able to do that,” Berry said.
Berry said instead UGA could focus on the economic challenges that often stand between black students and college.“Like first generation college students are more likely to be students of color.... low income students,” she said. “We're not administrators. We're not lawyers but I do think that we our argument is that they do need to do something.”
That something needed to be done was clear to Tim Renick years ago. Renick is the senior vice president for student success at Georgia State University. He says when he first arrived at GSU in the 1990's it looked like the University of Georgia does today, very white. But that was changing.
“And the sad reality is as we were becoming more diverse we were enrolling more and more of the students who we were less successful in graduating,” Renick said.
These were single parents and veterans. Also first generation students, low income students and students of color. In short, Rachelle Berry’s list.
Tim Renick saw the world of traditional universities was not set up to work for these students.
“They've still at core been these institutions that were designed on the assumption that people are coming in from privileged backgrounds who kind of know the way the world works and have the supports to guide them,” Renick said.
So a little over a decade ago, Renick and GSU began building their own supports. Like the advising system.
“We have hired across Georgia State University over 100 additional academic advisors over the last seven or eight years so that we would have people on the ground watching students and intervening to support them if they were to go off path,” Renick said.
Then there’s The Panther Retention Grant fund, up to $1,500 that lands in your bank account, no questions asked, if you come up short on fees or for class registration. There’s no minimum GPA required.
These and other supports have paid off particularly well for African American students.
In the past decade, GSU has doubled African American enrollment to just over 40%. The university graduates more black students every year than any other university in the nation. What’s more, a Brookings Institution study of how public universities enhance social mobility for graduates found Georgia State was one of the best schools in the country by that measure, too.
In short, Georgia State has done a lot of what the protesters are asking for at the University of Georgia. However, there is one big exception. Tim Renick said the programs at GSU are blind to race.
“You know our philosophy is that all students should be supported,” Renick said.
Supported based on their needs as individuals. So if Georgia State University has created racial equity, Tim Renick said it’s just because he was chasing equity in general.
So given that would GSU style supports satisfy the protesters in Athens as reparations?
Rachelle Berry, the graduate student and protest co-organizer, said that requires a yes and no answer. Berry said yes because you have to be realistic about what’s politically doable in the South.
“I think that it's politically necessary to say that these are race neutral programs,” she said.
But, she said, the GSU programs are only race neutral if race is only about skin. Which, of course, it’s not.
“We have to understand that these markers for first generation college students, for a certain economic status, for a certain experience actually does correlate to race,” she said.
Berry said race, and racism, are skin plus the systems and history we have built around skin. So when you look again at all the things they look for to know when students need help at Georgia State University, you’ll see they flow from that system. Berry said the steps to change that system are meaningless if we aren’t honest about how it was built.
“How do we understand the reasons for this?” Berry asked.
So what Georgia State has done might work at UGA, too. But not without tackling history.
“We can't just have material changes though those are required. We have to have symbolic changes as well,” she said. “I need the history of slavery to be told alongside the material benefits of changing the institution of education that has always supported racial violence.”
The protesters never did make an appointment to speak face to face with UGA President Jere Morehead.
Meanwhile the debate about how Georgia’s University System at large will grapple with its history will continue. Graves, possibly those of enslaved people, were recently found under a grassy quad on the campus of the University of West Georgia.