The University of Georgia has been seeking research proposals about the school's history on the subject of slavery. University administrators say they're committing $100,000 for the effort. UGA wants research from the year it was founded in 1785 to 1865, when the Civil War came to an end.
From Eric Stirgus, AJC…
The University of Georgia, founded nearly eight decades before the start of the Civil War, proudly proclaims itself as “the birthplace of public higher education in America,” but that title comes with an asterisk.
Amid the backdrop of teaching and learning was also a lesser-known history entangled with slavery.
During those early years, records show enslaved workers cleaned buildings, started fires to keep students warm and performed other tasks for students and the faculty and administrators who owned them.
Now, the university wants to know more about that time period and is reviewing proposals from faculty to research that history from UGA’s founding to 1865, the year the war ended. But critics say the school’s research plan — and the $100,000 to do the work — does not go far enough.
UGA President Jere Morehead declined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s requests for an interview. The university sent a statement saying, in part, “it is our hope that this research will culminate in one or more definitive, publishable histories on the subject.”
The criticism is part of an ongoing dispute between university administrators and some current and former students, faculty and community leaders over how UGA has managed issues concerning race, as well as its engagement with the surrounding black community that has long been underrepresented on campus.
Critics say the school mishandled the discovery of the remains of several dozen African Americans near its Baldwin Hall in late 2015 by inadequately engaging faculty and community leaders in researching and exhuming the remains. They want the university to issue some form of reparations to the descendants of those enslaved workers. They also say UGA is not doing enough to recruit black students from the Athens area.
For longtime residents who witnessed the resistance to UGA enrolling its first black students in 1961 and a federal program that displaced 40 African American families that decade to build student housing, the current concerns are another example of how they say Georgia’s flagship school doesn’t get it.
The friction in Athens comes amid milestones in the university’s enrollment, promotion and support of African American students. UGA last year reported more than 8% of its students are African American, a record. Also last year, for the first time in UGA history, students elected African Americans to each of the top three positions in its undergraduate student government association. UGA has also increased its scholarships for students with financial need and is in the process of naming its College of Education after Mary Frances Early, its first African American graduate. The state’s Board of Regents is scheduled to vote on the naming proposal this month, a UGA spokesman said.
But there have been troubling moments involving race on campus in the last year. A fraternity was suspended in March after a video appearing to show some of its members using a racial slur and mocking slavery went viral on social media. Also last year, a white Georgia baseball player was dismissed from the team after allegedly making racial slurs toward an African American UGA football player during a game.
Sophomore Arianna Mbunwe joined a rare march and sit-in of the university’s administration offices near the end of last semester in support of reparations demands, higher pay for workers and better communications with community leaders.
She learned about the Baldwin Hall discovery last year, and it stirred her interest in addressing racial disparities on campus. Mbunwe, like many African American students here, has mixed emotions about the university.
“I love this school and I’m proud of this school,” said Mbunwe, 19, who grew up in Temple, Georgia, and is majoring in genetics and biology. “But at the same time, I’m frustrated by their unwillingness to address these inequities.”
UGA officials said in an interview Wednesday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it understands the concerns. They say they worked diligently and thoughtfully on the Baldwin Hall matter and other issues and note several ongoing and recent programs to help local students.
“This whole situation has allowed us to dive deeper into the Athens community in a way that maybe we haven’t before,” said Alton Standifer, assistant to the president. “It’s an exciting time to be in the Athens community.”