Athens is a special place: a small town with welcoming people, a big university and many of the amenities of a big city, like vibrant music, arts and food scenes—at least when there’s not a pandemic going on. It hasn’t always been that way, though. Recent elections have brought a renewed interest in issues of equity of social justice. With that in mind, here’s some background through that lens on Athens’ history and the current political landscape.
How We Got Here
Athens and the University of Georgia have been intertwined from the beginning. The state legislature chartered the University of Georgia in 1785, making UGA the oldest public university in the country, no matter what anyone in North Carolina says. Future governor John Milledge, who bought the university’s initial 633 acres from early settler Daniel Easley in 1801, named the village-to-be for the Greek cradle of philosophy. The county was named for Elijah Clarke, a Revolutionary War hero who later attacked the Creek Indians and became involved in the Yazoo Land Fraud. Ironically, considering Athens now has over 100 bars, the site for UGA was chosen because it was far from any taverns that might distract students.
Athens was incorporated in 1806. In the decades that followed, the town became known as the “Manchester of the South,” because of its cotton mills. James Camak led the building of the city’s first railroad, connecting Athens to Augusta in 1841.
Other than a minor skirmish, Athens saw no action during the Civil War; but the Cook and Bros. armory across the river from downtown—now housing UGA offices—manufactured rifles for the Confederacy. On a lighter note, local dentist John Gilleland devised a double-barreled cannon that failed spectacularly when tested. The chain connecting the balls snapped, knocking over a chimney and killing a cow. The cannon is now displayed outside City Hall, facing north.
Many prominent rebels—including Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, former U.S. House Speaker Howell Cobb and his brother, T.R.R. Cobb, whose writings defended slavery—had ties to Athens. Plantation slave labor funded the construction of many grand antebellum homes, such as T.R.R. Cobb’s, which is now a museum in the Cobbham neighborhood.
Slave labor also helped build UGA. The remains of 105 individuals, mostly slaves or former slaves of African descent, were unearthed during a recent construction project at Baldwin Hall. Subsequent research revealed that the university rented slaves from nearby slave owners, and that much of North Campus had been built on top of a cemetery used by African Americans through the 1880s. A memorial was erected at Baldwin Hall in 2018 honoring those who were buried there.
In 1872, Howell Cobb’s sister, Laura Cobb Rutherford, spearheaded the construction of an obelisk honoring the Confederate dead, now located in the median on Broad Street downtown. Her daughter, Mildred Rutherford, was a prominent educator and advocate of the discredited “Lost Cause.” In addition, Howell Cobb’s speeches attacking black citizens’ newly won right to vote helped inspire the formation of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. In June 2020, city officials announced plans to move the monument to a location near the aforementioned Barber Creek skirmish.
By the turn of the century, Athens had public schools, a police force and its first streetcar suburbs, Cobbham, Boulevard and Five Points. In 1891, the State Normal School, a teacher’s college, opened in what’s now called Normaltown. The Navy took over the college in the 1950s, training its Supply Corps there. When the Navy school moved to Rhode Island in 2011, UGA acquired the property and turned it into a health sciences campus.
In the early 20th Century, Black-owned businesses were flourishing on the Hot Corner at Hull and Washington streets, centered around the Morton Theatre, built by wealthy developer Monroe “Pink” Morton, the son of a former slave. But race relations remained tense. Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter integrated UGA in 1961, sparking near-riots. In 1964, Athens Klansmen murdered Lemuel Penn, a Black Army Reserve officer, who was passing through town late at night. Marches and sit-ins were held at the popular fast-food restaurant The Varsity. Local public schools didn’t fully integrate until 1970, 16 years after Brown v. Board of Education. There was also Urban Renewal, which demolished Black neighborhoods, and Model Cities—which brought a health clinic, better housing and more improvements to African-American areas.
Downtown largely emptied out when Georgia Square Mall opened on Atlanta Highway in 1981, which paved the way for Athens to become the music mecca it is today. R.E.M. was about to hit it big, and entrepreneurs took advantage of the vacancies to open venues like the 40 Watt Club.
Clarke County and the City of Athens, after two previous failed attempts, merged in 1990, and the newly unified Athens-Clarke County elected Gwen O’Looney as its first female and first progressive mayor.
Today, the mall is struggling, while downtown has become in some ways a victim of its own success. The proliferation of luxury apartment complexes has brought rising rents and more chains, increasingly catering to (mostly white) students and pushing locally owned businesses out into the Five Points, Normaltown and Chase Park areas. Historically Black neighborhoods like East Athens and the Hancock Corridor that have suffered for decades from lack of investment are now ripe for gentrification.
These issues and more galvanized voters in 2018. They swept five new, more liberal commissioners into office and chose another progressive, Kelly Girtz, as mayor in a landslide. Spurred on even further by massive protests after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in May 2020, the new group is now tackling issues like affordable housing and criminal justice reform.
How to Get Involved
Flagpole’s City Dope column is a great resource for keeping up with local politics.
The ACC Commission includes 10 members, each representing a district, and the mayor, who is elected countywide and presides over meetings but only votes in case of a tie. The commission meets at least three times a month. Work sessions, where staff give presentations on upcoming decisions, are at 5:30 p.m. on the second Tuesday. Agenda-setting meetings, which include further discussion as well as public input, are at 6 p.m. on the third Tuesday. Voting meetings are at 6 p.m. on the first Tuesday of the following month. When not held remotely, all three are at City Hall (301 College Ave.) and televised on Channel 180 on Charter cable and streamed at youtube.com/accgov. Agendas, background information and contact information for county officials are available at accgov.com.
The Clarke County Board of Education administers the 14,000-student Clarke County School District and is composed of nine members who elect a president from among themselves.The board holds virtual meetings on the first and second Thursdays of the month at 6 p.m. CCSD’s website is clarke.k12.ga.us. Agendas are posted at go.boarddocs.com/ga/clarke/Board.nsf/Public 24 hours before each meeting. Meetings can be streamed on CCSD’s You Tube channel and viewed later on the website.
Politically, Athens is roughly 70 percent Democratic, but due to gerrymandering, it is represented by four Republicans and one Democrat in the state legislature, where Republicans still dominate both the House and the Senate. The General Assembly meets for 40 working days a year, starting on the second Monday in January and ending sometime in late March, usually in time for the Masters Golf Tournament. Check legis.ga.gov to contact legislators, read the texts of bills and watch the action on live-stream.
Athens has numerous activist groups working on labor, discrimination, LGBTQ, immigration, transportation and other issues. An incomplete list includes the Clarke County Democrats (clarkecounty.com), Athens for Everyone (athensforeveryone.com), Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement (aadmovement.org), Athens Immigrant Rights Coalition (athensimmigrantrights.org), Athens PRIDE (athenspride.org), United Campus Workers of Georgia (wcwga.org), BikeAthens (bikeathens.org), Young Democrats of UGA (facebook.com/YoungDemsUGA), Young Democratic Socialists (facebook.com/AthensYDSA), College Republicans (ugarepublicans.com), Athens GOP (athensgop.com) and the Libertarian Party of Athens (facebook.com/AthensLP). Many campus group meetings are open to non-students.
When restrictions on gatherings aren’t in place, UGA also hosts nearly daily lectures, exhibitions, readings and discussion groups that are open to the public; check Flagpole’s Calendar or calendar.uga.edu for the latest.
How to Get Around
WALK/BIKE: Downtown, North Campus and most intown neighborhoods are compact and easy to navigate on foot or bike. (Drivers, remember to stop for pedestrians!) The North Oconee River Greenway runs from Sandy Creek Nature Center through downtown, with another leg to College Station Road on the Eastside. Except for a gap in Dudley Park—where part of the trestle on the back cover of R.E.M.’s Murmur will be incorporated into a new bridge—the Firefly Trail is now complete between East Broad Street and Old Winterville Road. Eventually, it will run to Winterville and perhaps beyond. BikeAthens has a map of streets with bike lanes.
DRIVE: On-street parking downtown is $1.50 per hour between 8 a.m.–10 p.m. Monday–Saturday, with a two-hour time limit from 8 a.m.–6 p.m. Meters accept cards and coins. Tickets will run you $20–$25. Avoid the risk by parking in a deck—they’re free for the first half-hour (and all day Sunday) and $1 per hour after that. Most surface lots are operated at night and on weekends by National Parking, which usually charges $5 and can tow or boot you if you don’t pay. On campus, surface lots are permit-only, so visitors should park in a deck. See downtownathensga.org and parking.uga.edu for more.
TAKE A CAB: Athens taxis are mostly large vans shared with other passengers. Fares aren’t metered; they’re based on zones and should be posted inside the cab. Vans gather by the Arch late at night. Expect to be asked whether you’re going to the Eastside or Westside. With multiple stops to make, the ride might take a while. Uber and Lyft also operate in Athens.
TAKE A BUS: Athens Transit (athenstransit.com) buses leave in all directions from the Multimodal Center on East Broad Street, down the hill from downtown. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, all busses are free of charge through at least July 1, 2021. Campus Transit (transit.uga.edu) is also free and open to the public—just hop on. UGA buses mostly run through campus, but routes along Milledge Avenue and Prince Avenue stop at a handful of off-campus locations. Both agencies have apps that allow you to track buses.
SKIP TOWN: Southeastern Stages (southeasternstages.com) intercity buses leave from a gas station/minimart at 4020 Atlanta Hwy. Groome Transportation (groometransportation.com) will take you from one of several pick-up locations to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. Athens officials are currently searching for an airline to provide commercial air service from the city’s recently enhanced Ben Epps Field. Amtrak’s Crescent (amtrak.com) stops in Gainesville on its run between New Orleans and New York City.
How We Stack Up
Area: About 122 square miles—geographically the smallest county in Georgia.
Population: 127,330 (2018 Census estimate—includes UGA students)
Demographics: 65% white, 27% black, 7% Hispanic, 3% Asian (2010 Census)
UGA enrollment: 39,147 (Fall 2020)
Largest employers: UGA (10,700), Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center (3,300), Clarke County School District (2,400), St. Mary’s Hospital (2,100), Athens-Clarke County government (2,100), Caterpillar (1,600), Pilgrim’s Pride (1,350)