Dr. Gregory S. Broughton of the UGA Hugh Hodgson School of Music looked to the sky and took a deep breath before beginning a moving a cappella version of “Amazing Grace,” a vocal tribute to the men, women and children whose remains were discovered during the construction of the Baldwin Hall expansion.
Broughton, the Honorable Judge Steve C. Jones of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, the Rev. Dr. Winfred M. Hope of Ebenezer Baptist Church, West, who delivered the opening prayer and benediction, and UGA President Jere W. Morehead, joined approximately 125 members of the community for a Reinterment Ceremony March 20 at Oconee Hill Cemetery.
“Despite all that we do not know, it is our privilege to join together today—in complete reverence—to pay tribute to these individuals as they assume their final resting place in the historic Oconee Hill Cemetery,” Jones said. “While we cannot call to mind their personal stories or life histories, we can hold these individuals with care and compassion in our hearts and in our minds.”
The remains of those unidentified individuals were meticulously catalogued and placed in 105 funeral boxes before they were laid to rest in Oconee Hill. Oconee Hill Cemetery will provide for the perpetual care of the reinterment site. This site is marked by a granite marker that reads:
Here lie the remains of 105 unknown individuals, originally interred during the 19th century. The vast majority of the 30 remains able to be identified were those of men, women and children of African descent, presumably slaves or former slaves. Others were of European and Asian descent. Their remains were discovered in November 2015 during the University of Georgia’s Baldwin Hall construction project adjacent to the Old Athens Cemetery. In March 2017, they were respectfully reinterred here.
May they continue to rest in peace.
Jones also quoted Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Day,” saying that it “conveys a message of hope and optimism that I find very fitting for this occasion.” An excerpt from “Day” is inscribed on the granite marker.
“This occasion provides all of us with an opportunity for meaningful reflection—reflection on the precious nature of human life, on the value of family and community, on the history of this place—Athens, Georgia—a place many of us here call home,” President Morehead said. “From the moment the first remains were discovered in November of 2015, the university’s guiding principle has been to treat these individuals with dignity and respect, and it is in that spirit that today’s ceremony was developed.”
University planners did not anticipate discovering remains on the Baldwin Hall site. Construction was delayed from November 2015 until February 2016, while archaeologists from Southeastern Archaeological Services Inc. and bioarchaeologists with the UGA Department of Anthropology worked to exhume the remains. Exploration and exhumation continued through the end of January 2017.
As a point of clarity, archaeologists did not discover 105 bodies. Some sites were empty, indicating that individuals could have been moved previously.
In addition, more than a century has passed, so most of the graves contained only fragments of skeletal remains. In some instances, only “human essence” was found—soil that is presumed to have biological material from the naturally decomposed remains of these individuals.
Throughout this entire process, the university has strictly followed the guidance of the State Archaeologist’s Office to reinter the remains individually, in a location close to the original burial site, and arranged as closely as possible to the original burial configuration so as to not inadvertently separate potential family members.
The university was informed by the State Archaeologist’s Office that reinterment in Oconee Hill Cemetery was the most appropriate approach.
“From the first discovery of these remains on the Baldwin Hall site to their reinterment at Oconee Hill Cemetery, the University of Georgia has relied upon the expertise and direction of the State Archaeologist’s Office,” said Gwynne Darden, associate vice president for facilities planning and university architect, who is overseeing the Baldwin Hall expansion project. “Their experience has provided the university with the necessary guidance to care for the remains of these men, women and children in the most dignified, respectful and appropriate manner.”