Possible slave cemetery on west Georgia campus stirs debate
CARROLLTON, Ga. (AP) — Lord knows how many times in the 113-year-old history of the University of West Georgia that students have picnicked, played Frisbee or casually walked across a small, grassy plot of land in the middle of the campus.
The school west of Atlanta was once the home of Thomas Bonner, one of the 19th century’s largest Carroll County slaveholders. In 1906, the former Bonner Plantation was turned over to the state where it eventually became the core of what today is the university.
Few visible remnants of the plantation remain, most notably the Bonner House, which serves as the university’s welcome center. But recent archaeological tests suggest the long-forgotten remains of Bonner’s slaves might be buried here.
If true, UWG will be added to a long list of colleges and communities who find themselves challenged with questions on how to deal with newly discovered remains of former slaves and Reconstruction-era African Americans.
There had always been whispers that there may have been a slave cemetery on campus near Melson Hall, the oldest building on campus. As far back as the 1940s, Abe Bonner, a former slave who died in 1947 at the age of 107, pointed to a spot near Melson Hall and said slaves were buried there.
“When you have been here a while you hear stories,” said Ann McCleary, who has taught history at the school for 22 years. “But you don’t know unless you look. The idea of doing an archaeological study and trying to figure it out was a good one.”
Last fall, at a community meeting, the possibility of the cemetery came up again so the school commissioned a study. In December, tests revealed something in the ground on a plot of land the size of an average backyard next to Melson Hall.
“It is actually really exciting for a lot of different reasons, particularly the possibility of knowing a little bit more about what is there and doing more with the information,” said Yves-Rose Porcena, the university’s chief diversity officer. “When we found out, the leadership was very clear that we wanted to do this the right way. No matter the process.”
UWG is still in the early stages of figuring out what they have in the ground and what to do with it.
Ya’Ron Brown, who graduated from the university in 2007 with a master’s degree, said he hopes UWG, Carrollton and the county make a concerted effort to honor any slaves buried on campus and look at restitution for any families who worked the land.
“It is not surprising that slaves would be buried unmarked because they were seen as property, not people,” Brown said.
Students and graduates of the University of Georgia also are exploring ways to address a 2015 discovery of 100 remains in an area on campus known to be a former slave burial site. It may never be known how many hidden or paved-over slave burial sites and black cemeteries are scattered across the South. But they keep getting discovered.
“After Reconstruction, there were thousands of black communities that sprung up and they all had cemeteries,” said Nadia K Orton, a genealogist and public historian who has studied and written extensively about the subject.
Orton, who began writing about cemeteries as an extension of a family genealogical project, sees them as a barometer of the local black community. She said through decades of neglect, African American burial grounds have become endangered sites as thousands of them have been destroyed by development, while many others are overgrown, abandoned and forgotten.
“With these cemeteries, the people have been removed, displaced and died off,” Orton said. “Where did the communities go?”
Thomas Bonner was the scion of a prominent family that owned hundreds of acres across Carroll County with plenty of slaves to tend to the land.
In 1860 Bonner was the county’s fourth-largest slave owner with 24 on 350 acres, according to documents from the Georgia Historical Society.
After the Civil War, Bonner moved to Alabama and his former slaves were disbursed across the county, McCleary said.
The university also is researching if the plot was used after the war as a burial site for free blacks.
The school hired Southern Research, Historical Preservation Consultants Inc. to do the archaeological survey. After several rounds of testing, including the use of ground-penetrating radar, they found anomalies in the soil suggesting possible graves.
The university says no remains have been disturbed.
After the discovery, the university began contacting descendants of people enslaved by Bonner who could possibly be buried there, including relatives of Abe Bonner. While there are several white Bonners still in the Carrollton area, the school says it hasn’t identified any direct descendants of Thomas Bonner.
“The school will want to honor and respect those who are buried there,” Porcena said. “This is a topic that could have been very divisive. But we have captured something. We are on the right path.”
Orton, the genealogist, is hopeful that UWG will do the right thing in recognizing and honoring those buried at the site.
“Even though it wasn’t seen as sacred, because someone knew they were there when they built over it, they have an opportunity to redress that wrong by making it a memorial park or putting up a monument,” Orton said. “And by finding out who they are. Honor them by who they were.”