In 2003, the president of Brown University appointed a special committee to investigate the university’s historical connection to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. In making its final report, the committee was tasked to “reflect on the meaning of this history in the present, on the complex historical, political, legal, and moral questions posed by any present-day confrontation with past injustice.”

If there is a single common element in all exercises in retrospective justice, it is telling the truth.

The committee concluded: “If there is a single common element in all exercises in retrospective justice, it is telling the truth.”

Since 2003 universities across the country have engaged in similar research and similar soul-searching. This is as it should be: research and soul-searching are university specialties. Harvard’s motto is “Truth.” Yale’s motto is “Light and Truth.” Georgia’s motto is better: “to teach, to serve, and to inquire into the nature of things.”

On November 17, 2015, a construction crew working on the expansion of UGA’s Baldwin Hall uncovered the first of what would prove to be 105 gravesites. In the black community, there was immediate suspicion and even certainty that these were the graves of formerly enslaved peoples—possibly their ancestors. In the white community, especially at the upper echelon, there was defensiveness, denial, and hand-wringing.

The Department of History’s UGA & Slavery site is dedicated to exploring our university’s historic entanglements with the institution of slavery and its legacies in our community. This project aligns with our areas of research excellence as well as the activities of the peer and aspirational institutions across the South that have joined the Universities Studying Slavery consortium, including Clemson University, College of William & Mary, George Mason University, University of Mississippi, University of North Carolina, University of South Carolina, and University of Virginia

As a deep South state, Georgia’s antebellum institutions, including higher education, were deeply imbrued with slavery. Commodified, collateralized, and compelled to work as capital and labor, the enslaved—and the profits they generated, represented, and never enjoyed—were foundational and formative to the history of our university, our state, and our country. To an important degree, our college was slave-made. Most of UGA’s antebellum presidents were slaveholders; most were deep defenders of the institution, and some were steadfast in their enthusiasm. The founder of our law school wrote the deepest defense of slavery ever published, complete with this defense of all slave punishment short of murder: “Where the battery was committed by the master himself, there would be no redress whatever, for the reason given in Exodus 21:21, ‘for he is his money.’” Much of the early capital, and a good portion of our early curriculum, was dedicated to championing an institution that many Americans recognized was contrary to the values of the Revolution.

At the reinterment ceremony for the Baldwin dead, it was repeatedly noted that “we know very little about the lives of the 105 individuals we commemorate today.” The commemoration might have acknowledged what we do know—that these dead were almost certainly enslaved—and it might have called upon us to explore what we could know—about the history of slavery and its legacies in Athens. After all, our brief, our portfolio, is our motto: “to inquire into the nature of things.”

Get in touch

  • Department of History
    220 LeConte Hall, Baldwin Street
    University of Georgia
    Athens, GA 30602-1602
  • 706-542-2053
  • 706-542-2455
  • history@uga.edu

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