Board of Regents block Linnentown Mosaic by claiming ownership of right-of-way

The University System of Georgia has blocked the Athens-Clarke County government from completing the Linnentown Walk of Recognition at the site of the former neighborhood. They did it by claiming ownership over a portion of Baxter and Finley Streets adjacent to the university, thereby requiring the ACC government to ask them for permission to install the final stop along the walk, which they denied.

What was Linnentown?

Linnentown was a majority-Black neighborhood located where UGA dorms like Russell Hall and Creswell Hall stand today on Baxter Street. It was razed by the city of Athens in the 1960s at UGA’s request to make room for these dorms.

UGA claims that Linnentown residents sold their homes voluntarily and that they were fairly compensated. However, Linnentown descendants say they were forcefully displaced and greatly undercompensated, and available evidence confirms their telling of the story. According to a study by Dr. Jerry Shannon, associate professor of geography at UGA, Linnentown residents were collectively underpaid by about $5 million in 2022 dollars.

The Linnentown Resolution, passed by the ACC Mayor and Commission last year, calls the razing of Linnentown an act of “white racism and terrorism” and asks UGA to recognize “the history and legacy of Linnentown and its descendants” through the creation of an on-site memorial. But despite being asked repeatedly by Hattie Whitehead, chair of the Athens Justice and Memory Project and a former resident of Linnentown, UGA has never agreed to participate in the creation of any on-site memorial, including the Walk of Recognition.

The Walk of Recognition

The purpose of the Walk of Recognition, as mentioned in the Linnentown Resolution, is to raise awareness about the former neighborhood of Linnentown and about the University of Georgia’s role in its destruction.

Dr. Jennifer Rice, associate professor of geography at UGA and chair of the Walk of Recognition subcommittee in the Justice and Memory Project, planned to move forward with the walk even without UGA’s official involvement. Rice’s team designed the Walk of Recognition as a series of four stops: three historical markers and a large mosaic created collaboratively by the Athens community together with Linnentown descendants as the final stop. The design was inspired by Sweet Auburn Avenue in Atlanta.

“The Linnentown Mosaic is a unique and exciting public history and art project, unlike anything we have in Athens to date,” Rice told APN. “There has been a tremendous amount of community participation, which is a big part of what makes the project so special.”

Athens residents and UGA students create medallions intended for the Linnentown mosaic at an Athens Justice and Memory Project workshop in 2021.

UGA blocks the mosaic’s planned site

Throughout this process, Rice had assumed that the Walk of Recognition could be installed along the public right-of-way on Baxter and Finley Streets even if UGA opposed its construction. In fact, she was explicitly told by ACC staff that this would be allowed.

But barring a long and costly legal battle, this is not true, at least for the mosaic. That’s because the University System of Georgia is fighting installation at the planned site

Letter from the Board of Regents

On July 29, Teresa MacCartney, Executive Vice Chancellor of the University System of Georgia (USG), informed ACC Attorney Judd Drake that USG denys the ACC government’s claim to the right-of-way at the intersection of Baxter and Finley Streets and that they are denying ACC’s request for an easement to construct the mosaic.

“The Board of Regents has serious concerns about the placement of a monument at this busy intersection,” MacCartney wrote. “These concerns include…vehicular and pedestrian traffic safety, limited parking in the area, liability and public safety concerns and possible inconsistency with the University of Georgia’s design and construction standards.”

Ironically, UGA gave the right-of-way at this intersection to the city of Athens during the very urban renewal project that destroyed Linnentown during the 1960s. At that time, UGA wanted the city of Athens to widen the streets and make other changes to support their construction plans. Drake argued that this fact supports ACC’s claim to the right of way today, but MacCartney shot back, saying that the process to give these streets to the city of Athens was never officially completed.

“As you know, state property can only be conveyed through a legal instrument,” MacCartney wrote. “It may not be acquired through other means, such as a local ordinance… or an oral agreement.”

At the time, both UGA and the city of Athens assumed that the right-of-way had indeed been transferred to the city, but it turns out it may only have been an oral agreement between the institutions that lacked the force of law.

MacCartney finished her letter by denying the ACC government an easement to construct the Linnentown Mosaic. This means that if ACC attempts to construct the mosaic, UGA would immediately file a lawsuit to stop them.

The Justice and Memory Project reacts

Whitehead, who grew up in Linnentown, told APN she is disappointed at USG’s response but says the Justice and Memory Project will continue to look for ways to make sure Linnentown is not forgotten by Athens and the UGA community.

“It’s disappointing that President Morehead is not willing to come to the table with the Justice and Memory team and at every avenue put up obstacles to keep us from having recognition of the neighborhood they once erased” she said. “We’re going to look at other avenues right now to see what we can do with the space we have to work within.”

Whitehead wants the first three stops of the Walk of Recognition to be constructed on the public right-of-way on Finley Street, regardless of what happens with the mosaic. “It’s meaningful for us as first descendants to have something on the property where we were born and raised. Whatever we do, it is important that we have it on-site.”

Commissioner Mariah Parker, who has been working on the Justice and Memory Project with Whitehead, doesn’t think much of MacCartney’s argument that the mosaic would endanger pedestrian safety. The real issue, according to Parker, is protecting the university from demands for reparations. 

“I don’t think they want people to know about this history,” Parker said. “If they let this be built on their property, next thing you know, people are going to be like, ‘okay, you recognize this happened, so where’s the money?’ I think they’re trying to shut it down any way they can.”

Whitehead agrees with Parker’s analysis, but emphasizes that she and the other Linnentown descendants are not asking for direct compensation, which would be illegal under the state constitution. 

“They don’t want people to know the role they played in erasing our community. Our land was taken and it disrupted lives and split up families,” Whitehead said. “But we cannot get direct payouts. The gratuities clause in the Georgia Constitution will not allow direct payouts. The only ask we have of them is to put these markers and this mosaic down there, and we’re not asking them to pay for it.”

Next Steps

The mayor and commission could choose to fight USG in the courts over the right-of-way at Baxter and Finley Streets, but they might not do so. That’s in part because the Justice and Memory Project has not asked them to, but also because it would be a long and costly legal battle with no guarantee of success, according to Commissioner Tim Denson.

“I don’t think [USG’s legal argument] is ironclad, but is it a worthwhile use of time and resources? They’d spend a lot of money to shut us down,” Denson told APN. “I see two paths forward: one is going into some kind of negotiation with them, seeing something they really want from us that we could give them, or we start to look for creative alternatives.”

Whichever path commissioners choose, Rice and other members of the Walk of Recognition subcommittee are determined to see their project through to completion.

“We will continue to pursue all components of the Walk of Recognition, despite setbacks or challenges,” Rice said. “I have been present in many situations where UGA students and Athens community members hear the story of Linnentown. Every time people want to know the history. Learning about and confronting the difficult aspects of our past makes us a better community. The Walk of Recognition and the Linnentown Mosaic offer an important opportunity for us to grow together, and we will continue to do what we can to realize this important project.”

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