Named after a street that ran through the area called Lyndon Row, Linnentown was a small African-American neighborhood in Athens, Georgia. It was self-reliant as about 50 families that lived there had almost all the services they needed. There were those who could do plumbing, sewing or electrical work while kids spent their days playing jump rope or softball as entertainment, making sure they did not cross over to a fence that separated their neighborhood from the white neighborhood.
Since the University of Georgia’s campus was close to Linnentown, fans of the university’s football team used to park in front of the residents’ houses on gamedays. Some residents made some money keeping an eye on the cars parked there during games.
“Home felt safe. The [wider Athens] community didn’t feel safe, but home felt safe,” said Hattie Whitehead, who grew up in Linnentown.
All was well until 1962 when the university and the city of Athens used eminent domain laws to displace families from their homes in Linnentown as part of an urban renewal project. Eminent domain laws allow a government to seize private property as long as it provides monetary compensation to the owner, The Red & Black reported.
Thanks to those laws, homes in Linnentown were destroyed by the city of Athens. The city sold the land to the state Board of Regents and dorms for the University of Georgia went up. Today, University of Georgia dormitories Creswell Hall, Russell Hall and Brumby Hall stand where about 50 Black families once lived.
According to records, while some of the homes were razed, others were burned for firefighter practice. After their homes were destroyed, Linnentown residents dispersed to East Athens, to public housing, among other places. Geneva Johnson Eberhart’s family moved to East Athens after their home was destroyed. Eberhart’s father, Davis Johnson, physically moved a house from the neighborhood to East Broad Street, where Eberhart still lives.
“Everybody raised us. It was a village,” Eberhart, 74, told OnlineAthens. “They got rid of everything, but they haven’t gotten rid of everything in our hearts.”
Eberhart said her family got $2,581 (more than $20,000) for their house and lot. She said other families appealed and got more but her parents couldn’t because they feared losing their jobs at the university. Eberhart’s father was a janitor in the university’s Baldwin Hall, and her mother worked in a dining hall on campus.
Linnentown residents who couldn’t move after the time set by authorities were charged rent of $15 a month, OnlineAthens reported.
Eberhart and a group of former residents and descendants are now demanding redress. They are aided by some members of the Athens-Clarke County Commission. According to OnlineAthens, the former residents in February 2020 asked the Athens-Clarke County Commission to adopt a resolution that states in part that “the City of Athens and the University System of Georgia perpetrated an act of institutionalized white supremacy and terrorism.”
The resolution also calls for a fund for Linnentown descendants “to repair incurred material and immaterial losses through urban renewal.” The resolution further asks for historical markers to be placed at remaining Linnentown structures and a physical memorial built on the site.
What’s more, the resolution calls on the University System of Georgia to fund scholarships for Linnentown descendants and demands a public statement from the commission “taking responsibility for its collaboration with the University of Georgia and University System of Georgia Board of Regents in the harms committed against Linnentown.”
It’s still not certain if the resolution will pass. Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz told the AJC last month that the resolution represents a “commitment to creating better lives for Black Athenians.”
The University of Georgia has said that as part of its effort to preserve Linnentown’s past, the school has offered to include Linnentown in the Athens Oral History Archives, which are maintained by the University of Georgia Libraries. University spokesman Greg Trevor told the AJC that the university’s high-rise residence halls have housed tens of thousands of students from all races and socioeconomic backgrounds, providing them with the “transformational benefits of a higher education.”
He said: “Diversity and inclusion are — and will always be — central to the University of Georgia academic community and a priority for the institution.”
Linnentown is among several Black neighborhoods in the U.S. that were destroyed to make way for various projects. In the mid-1960s, universities needed more land to cater to the growing number of students. At the University of Georgia, the student population tripled from about 7,500 to over 22,500 between 1960 and 1969. Thus, it acquired property to expand, displacing over 50 families from the once-thriving African-American neighborhood of Linnentown.