Many who lived in Linnentown are urging leaders in Athens to pay for destroying their community more than 50 years ago to make way for the University of Georgia.
Hattie Thomas Whitehead has fond memories of her childhood in Linnentown, a 22-acre neighborhood in North Georgia.
Born in 1948, Whitehead was among the fourth generation of families living in the all-Black neighborhood off Baxter and Church streets in Athens where a majority of the families owned homes.
“We were happy children,” Whitehead said. “It was a close-knit community in the Deep South before integration. We had a play area that the teenagers built for us. We had family Easter egg hunts. We had community baseball games. We played all over the community. Until urban renewal hit.”
Linnentown, once a thriving, self-sustained Black neighborhood full of plumbers, electricians, construction workers, beauticians and more, was destroyed in the 1960s to make way for the University of Georgia, according to Athens-Clarke County documents. Linnentown, like hundreds of other neighborhoods and cities across the country, fell victim to the Housing Act of 1949, a decadeslong federal urban renewal program that the government funded to raze “blighted” neighborhoods and build public housing or private commercial properties in their place.
Soon, the project was extended to building colleges and universities, according to the county documents. The city of Athens used eminent domain to force 50 Black families out of Linnentown on behalf of the university. The documents say the University System of Georgia acquired an urban renewal contract with the city to “clear out the total slum area which now exists off Baxter Street.” On the acquired land, the university built dorms and parking lots. The residents of Linnentown were given as little as $1,450 — about $12,000 today — for their seized properties, according to the county documents.
More than 50 years later, Whitehead and a group of fellow former residents and descendants of residents created the Linnentown Project to memorialize the lost community and urge the city to recognize and provide redress for the loss. The group was formed in 2019; by this year, Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz and the Clarke County Commission had approved a resolution in support of the effort.
However, members of the group have said that while the county is willing to make amends, University of Georgia officials have been dragging their feet.
“We’ve had some resistance. UGA has not acknowledged us as a team,” Whitehead said. “We asked to put a wall of recognition down where Linnentown was. ... They would not allow us to put it on their property. They are not at the table with us. I have written letters to President [Jere] Morehead. Initially they were completely silent, then they replied but with nothing that would bring them to the table. They have continued to ignore the team.”
Whitehead said the group has even requested to change the name of the school's Russell residence hall to Linnentown Hall.
Under the resolution, the county has vowed to acknowledge the harmful injustice by the city and the university; work with the university system to build a physical “Wall of Recognition” memorial; allocate city funds to local impoverished communities; work with the university to create a center on slavery, Jim Crow and the future of Athens' Black communities; regulate property acquisition between the county and the university system; and urge the General Assembly to establish an authority to recognize and provide redress for systemic racism in Georgia.
Jeff Montgomery, a spokesman for the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government, said the Wall of Recognition would be erected on county property, not university property. He said that university officials have not, to his knowledge, been involved in the county’s redress efforts but that the county “would definitely be open to having a partnership with them on this process.”
In February, Girtz apologized on behalf of the county to Atheniansdisplaced by urban renewal projects.
“I think it’s important to recognize that apology is a strength,” Girtz said at the urban renewal proclamation ceremony. “It’s a strength of recognition. It’s a strength that as we atone for those things that we would not do today, we learn to walk a better path.”
Now, Whitehead said, the group has focused on working with county commissioners and city officials to implement the resolution’s demands. But some of the Linnentown Project group members say it is not enough.
Whitehead has said she wants the university to work with the group to redress the displacement. Bobby Crook, another group member, said the university should do more.
“We want money,” Crook told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “As a child growing up, Linnentown was always a social place. I remember coming home from school and everybody was crying and carrying on about UGA taking our house.”
Crook said his family was the last to leave Linnentown, in 1966.
“I was afraid because I had never been invaded,” Crook told the Journal-Constitution.
A UGA spokesman, Greg Trevor, told NBC News that the school “on several occasions” has offered to include Linnentown in the Athens Oral History Archives maintained by the university. In a letter to Whitehead, President Morehead explained that USG, through its Board of Regents, is primarily responsible for the acquiring the Linnentown property. He noted that changing the name of any residence halls is up to the Board of Regents, not UGA.
"Diversity and inclusion are—and will always be—central to the University of Georgia academic community and a priority for the institution," Trevor said in a statement.
Black families settled in Linnentown as early as 1900. But by the late 1960s, the neighborhood was gone, and its residents were displaced to public housing or “sporadically throughout” Athens, the documents say. Whitehead said her family was pushed out to public housing.
“I was about 14 years old when everything happened,” said Whitehead, the author of “Giving Voice to Linnentown,” a memoir of her childhood in the community. “I didn’t understand, nor did the adults understand. Nobody understood because there were no meetings with the community to inform the community of what was going on. It caused a lot of anguish. It caused a lot of hurt and disappointment.”
The nation’s history is riddled with instances of Black communities’ being displaced for the sake of broader infrastructure and development. Interstate highways were routed directly through Black neighborhoods, and several Black cemeteries have been paved over.
The federal urban renewal project was another national effort that pushed Black people out of their communities. Thousands of Black families from Massachusetts to California were displaced through federally funded urban renewal programs from 1955 to 1966, according to a digital mapping project from the University of Richmond. The displacements went on well into the 1970s, but the federal government did not collect and publish the numbers of displaced families after the 1960s, according to the project.
A co-author of the digital mapping project, Brent Cebul, an assistant professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, said the country has yet to fully reckon with how the displacement of entire Black communities led to growing inequality and poverty.
“At a moment when African Americans were finally gaining formal political and civil rights, to have some of the longest-lived communities, property ownership, businesses wiped off the face of these cities is clearly a major, major handicap in the process of finding a more equal United States," he said.
“There are people who are very much alive today who had their communities ripped apart,” he said. “That loss of community is a really significant destabilizing factor in people’s lives, the loss of kinship and social networks that provide support.”
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