By Lily Jackson
Reckon Staff Writer
This story is part of a state-by-state series looking at racist histories and Confederate remnants on campuses across the South and explores how current administrations are working toward a better future.
Robert Toombs might be revered as a University of Georgia alumnus had he not been expelled in 1828 for chasing fellow students with a hatchet.
According to lore, Toombs later returned and delivered a rousing speech near a tree now named in his honor. Today, juniors and seniors pass down the legend that Toombs’ ghost haunts Demosthenian Hall, the 100-year old debate building.
Toombs’ legacy, cloaked in mystery and rebellion, obscures less honorable parts of his life. He was a slave owner, a stark segregationist, a Confederate brigadier general and the first Secretary of State for the Confederacy.
Students are about one month away from returning to campuses like the University of Georgia, which will be the new battleground for the Black Lives Matter movement. UGA, like many other Southern universities, has started preparing.
This spring, after classes dismissed early for the semester, UGA President Jere W. Morehead released a statement condemning racial inequalities. Students were quick to point out that the statement made no mention of Black people, including Georgia resident Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor whose deaths galvanized a summer of protests.
Just a few days later, Morehead released a second statement listing the names of those lost and committed to “standing with” Black students on campus. “During my presidency, I have committed to working to create a UGA that is better tomorrow than it was today. I know we don’t always get it right and mistakes are made,” the letter said.
“It worries me when we get baseline statements because it is unwelcoming to read as a Black student,” said Joshua Patton, chair of the school’s Black Student Union.
Several past UGA presidents handled race controversies poorly, said Dr. John Morrow Jr., Franklin Professor of History at UGA.
In 2015, construction crews unearthed remains of more than 100 people from a former slave burial site, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Initially, the university claimed the remains appeared to be of European descent. A year passed before administrators acknowledged the remains were from the bodies of people with African heritage.
Even after the acknowledgment, the university secretly reburied the remains in Oconee Hill Cemetery, a historically white cemetery, in March 2017. A joint resolution by the student and faculty senates later called for a separate memorial to be installed in front of Baldwin Hall, where the remains were discovered.
“They tried to sneak (the remains) out, and when people got wind of it they demanded action. (Then) they built the memorial and it didn’t mention slavery,” Morrow said.
Morrow, who grew up in Talladega, Ala., says the university’s unwillingness to address the legacy of slavery tied to the school is problematic considering UGA’s history runs parallel to pivotal moments in the history of the Confederacy.
Moments such as Thomas R.R. Cobb’s role in writing the Confederate constitution. Thomas Walter Reed’s “The History of the University of Georgia,” documents the relationship between the Confederacy and UGA alumni such as Cobb, for whom a building on campus is named.
Though the university has long denied that the institution owned enslaved people, the institution last year budgeted $100,000 to research the history of UGA’s relationship to slavery.
Morrow said no known records exist showing that the university purchased enslaved people, but that plantation owners in Athens occasionally loaned slaves to the university, and that students sometimes brought their slaves to campus with them.
“A lot of Southern states take knocks for their history of slave-owning, and Georgia is way up there,” he said.
Not Just Historical Racism
And the knocks keep coming. In March 2019, white UGA fraternity members at UGA posted a video of a white student hitting another person with a belt, telling him to “Pick my cotton” and using a racial slur. The Student Government Association condemned the actions, and the fraternity was suspended from campus shortly after.
Patton, a senior majoring in sociology, said the NAACP met with university officials but it’s unclear to the student body whether there were individual consequences for the students in the video. He also notes that the city of Athens recently announced the removal of a Confederate Monument just beyond the reaches of the university’s best-known landmark — the UGA Arches.
“The university, sitting proudly next to the Confederate soldier, had nothing to do with its removal,” Morrow said. “They said nothing. No word of support (for the removal).”
Patton, working with other campus leaders, plans to push for the renaming of several buildings that were named in honor of white supremacists, including Lipscomb Hall, Mell Hall, Park Hall and Milledge Hall.
A group of students recently started the Instagram account Dawgs Demand Better, which drips with the school’s official red and black colors. The account links to President Morehead’s email and office phone, and directs students to contact him and ask questions such as, “Why won’t you say, ‘Black Lives Matter?’”
The account rapidly gained almost 2,000 followers. Featured high-profile voices include Roquan Smith, a former UGA football player now with the Chicago Bears, and a callout from Charlamagne Tha God, an author and host of The Breakfast Club, a popular radio show.
And the work seems to be paying off.
On July 20, Morehead established a Presidential Task Force on Race, Ethnicity and Community, an effort backed by $1 million in private donations from the UGA Athletic Association that aims to “develop initiatives and actions that UGA can take to foster a more welcoming and supportive learning environment for Black and other underrepresented members” of the campus community, according to a university-wide email.
Morehead also announced the formation of a planning committee to develop a new five-year strategic plan for the university. Morehead pledged to hold a series of “meaningful programs and events” in the upcoming year to celebrate the 60th anniversary of desegregation — the enrollment of Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Dr. Hamilton E. Holmes in 1961 — at UGA.
Patton said he would also like to see more intentional social integration among students of different races.
“You don’t see much intermingling on UGA’s campus,” he said. “People are comfortable with what they are used to, and we want to push students to get out of their comfort zone more than joining a club where everyone looks like you.”
This story is the last in the series, “University Racism Unraveled.”