Linnentown was a black neighborhood in Athens that was razed in the 60s during urban renewal. Former residents are calling for a resolution that recognizes the wrong that was done to them and calls for redress.
Despite the commission’s general agreement on and support for the resolution, negotiations with former residents have broken down. At the end of the commission meeting on February 4, Mayor Kelly Girtz promised “significant conversations” regarding Linnentown in the future. We’re going to need them.
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Dozens of protesters packed City Hall last Tuesday demanding justice for Linnentown. They say their houses were stolen from them in the 60s by the University of Georgia. Will this wrong finally be made right? Will it even be recognized? Let’s find out.
Linnentown was a black neighborhood in Athens that was right where the high-rise dorms stand today on Baxter street. It was razed in the 60s during urban renewal where so-called blighted or slum areas across the country were demolished to make way for new development. The people living there didn’t have an option to say no. The city bought their homes by invoking a government right called eminent domain, and then they were destroyed. Governments are allowed to forcefully take people’s property, if its in the public interest and so long as they they pay adequate compensation.
Now whether forcing people from their homes to put up student dorms is really in the public interest or not, is perhaps debatable. What’s more certain is that the amounts these black families were paid for their land was far from adequate. In some cases, it was shockingly low. The median amount given in exchange was $5,800, which would be about $47,000 in today’s dollars. I’m not an expert on real estate, but I’m doubtful you can find a home in the downtown area for under $50,000 these days.
So, fifty black families had their property stolen and were forcefully removed from their homes, which were then destroyed. But a few homes from Linnentown managed to escape the destruction. One such home belongs to Geneva Johnson’s family.
Geneva Johnson: “This house right here is from Linnentown, on Peabody. That’s not the house we was raised in, they wouldn’t let Daddy move our house that we was raised in because it was too big. They was gonna tear it down anyway, and they said all the houses that was in Linnentown, they said they was “shacks and shambles.” But they were not.”
Hattie Whitehead: “Basically, they just kicked us out, and if we didn’t move fast enough, we had to pay rent. They charged rent. So, even with this small amount of money that was given, they wanted some of that back. They would push houses down, of people that we knew. And then, some houses were burned, and we saw, you know, some houses were burned down. So it was traumatizing.”
Former residents of Linnentown like Geneva and Hattie say they want two things: recognition and redress.
With the help of Commissioner Mariah Parker and the Linnentown Project, these former residents have crafted a resolution which they want the mayor and commission to adopt. It calls, first and foremost, for recognition of the wrong that was done to them. They want an apology. This is something that UGA in particular has yet to give them. In a response to former residents’ push for recognition, UGA sent a private statement to commissioners arguing against the resolution. UGA claims that the purchases were voluntary, that the homeowners were well compensated, that race had nothing to do with it, and that the urban renewal project was actually in the public interest. Okay so that’s not any kind of apology.
Beyond recognition, the Linnentown resolution calls for financial compensation to the victims, an onsite memorial and historic designation for the remaining Linnentown structures. And it seems like commissioners are on board with it. Commissioner Parker helped draft the resolution like I said, and several others have been strongly supportive. Another group of commissioners, including Russell Edwards and Jerry NeSmith, support at least parts of the resolution. Commissioner Edwards even attended a rally held by the group outside city hall. When he got up to speak, he let the crowd know his feelings. He said he supported the resolution but was concerned with parts of it and wanted to make some changes… and that was the wrong thing to say. He was booed off the stage, with the crowd yelling “this is what white supremacy looks like.”
So, what could have possibly caused the crowd to boo a supporter?
First, Edwards wanted to make sure that the resolution’s language about financial compensation was legal under state law.
Second, there’s a line in the resolution that reads: “the City of Athens and the University System of Georgia perpetrated an act of institutionalized white supremacy and terrorism”
While that may be true, the local government’s relationship with UGA is a critical one, so I understand why some commissioners might prefer to compromise in this situation, to get what’s really important in the resolution passed. *booing sound effect*
Commissioner Parker: “When we sit, in their faces, and talk about compromise, and talk about how we’re gonna figure out something significant to do at some point, some way somehow: that is white supremacy still. That is white supremacy still. I will continue to insist that the resolution as written will make it on to a future agenda, that it’s voted, that it’s passed, that we follow through on every single step.”
*a rising, urgent tone raises tension during this part of the video*
Commissioner Thornton: “I just hope we can get to the place where we are sitting around talking, instead of sitting in a place where some folk feel as though they are being threatened.”
Member of the audience: “Pass the resolution then.”
Commissioner Thornton: “Well you know what? First of all, I wasn’t talking directly to you. Okay?”
Commissioner NeSmith: “I volunteered a month ago, after a long meeting where I almost cried, with Hattie.”
*laughter from the crowd*
Commissioner NeSmith: “Well you can laugh if you want, I’m not laughing.”
Member of the audience: “You’re not telling the truth.”
Commissioner NeSmith: “Yes, I am. Who the hell do you think you are, to call me a liar?”
Mayor Kelly Girtz: “Commissioner NeSmith…”
Commissioner NeSmith: “Okay.”
*the urgent tone subsides, releasing the tension*
Hattie Whitehead: “Something else is going on that keeps somebody from actually supporting the resolution, because they have ties or…”
APN: “What I heard was that Commissioner Edwards did support the resolution, but there was just maybe a few words in there, like, the really strong, very strong language that.. and maybe it’s very true, but…”
Hattie Whitehead: “Well, if we say, we have said all along that we are not tied to just words, we just want the intent to be the same. You can change the words. But the intent of the resolution should be the same. But if you ask a person, okay if this word was changed, would you support the resolution? And we don’t get an answer.”
Commissioner Edwards: “I think that this is a process. You know. We’re working towards meaningful legislation. And we might have some minor differences, I mean I view them as minor. But I am committed to getting something passed, and I’m here at the table.”
Commissioner Thornton: “There has been a lot of miscommunication. And when miscommunication happens, you have a lot of people who take sides, not knowing what’s in the middle.”
Commissioner Denson: “I support the current iteration, if that is what is pursued.”
*applause from the audience*
Commissioner Denson: “But, I do hope though, that we, the residents, and I know the residents spoke to this tonight, that we, the residents, the mayor and commission, can sit down and work together so that we can optimize our ability to implement those end goals of redress. Because it is not enough to only recognize. It is not enough, as Commissioner Thornton put it, to have a piece of paper. It’s not enough! That’s not why I signed up for this job, just to pass pieces of paper with good words on it. That’s an important part of it, but it’s the action that those words lead to, that’s why I did this. So I want to make sure that that is our end goal. I know from talking to the residents, that’s the resident’s end goal, that is my end goal as a commissioner.”
This resolution can pass. We have to talk to each other. That’s out best chance. We need to communicate. Thanks for watching.