The phrase, “the past is always present,” captures the sentiment that history is our constant companion. Embodying this, five Black women in Athens — Hattie Thomas Whitehead, Freda Scott Giles, Linda Elder Davis, Linda Lloyd and Ovita Thornton—carry their history within them. Their collective past informs their present and plays a pivotal role in solidifying their legacies. They all have made significant contributions to education, activism, cultural preservation, politics, and the ongoing fight for justice, both individually and as a group.
Hattie Thomas Whitehead
What Hattie Thomas Whitehead remembers most about growing up in Jim Crow Athens is the strong sense of community she felt in the 22-acre neighborhood of Linnentown. Born in 1948, the middle of seven children, Whitehead recalls a self-supporting, poor, but loving community with skilled, hard-working people who took care of one another. “It was a community made up of love and children,” Whitehead recalls.
That all began to change in the early 1960s when, under the guise of urban renewal, the once-thriving all-Black neighborhood bordered by Baxter Street and South Finley Street was destroyed to make way for the expansion of the University of Georgia. All the homes were torn down or burned to build high-rise dormitories and parking lots. “The most vivid thing in my mind was the burning of homes and the pushing down of homes of people I had known and loved,” Whitehead says. “The smoke—the smell of smoke just filled your nostrils all the time.”
Nearly 60 years later, Whitehead’s five-year effort to ensure the people of Linnentown are not forgotten has resulted in a book, a musical, a street renaming, and a plan for a Black history center. It all began in 2018 with the discovery of urban renewal-related documents by Joseph Carter, who was researching rent prices in the UGA Special Collections Library.
The city had secured the land for the Board of Regents through eminent domain, paying as little as $1,450 for some and displacing 50 families who owned their homes. When Carter connected with Whitehead and other Linnentown residents, the Linnentown Project was born, comprising former residents, descendants, and supporters. Ultimately, the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government apologized for its role in destroying Linnentown and committed $2.5 million for affordable housing and The Center for Racial Justice and Black Futures, which will be housed at the Classic Center.
Whitehead was inspired to write and self-publish a memoir in 2021, “Giving Voice to Linnentown.” And now she’s taken her vision a step further by writing a musical based on the book to raise funds for the history center. Directed by retired UGA theater professor Freda Scott Giles, “Linnentown: The Musical” will debut at the Classic Center on April 12.
“It’s another way to teach the story,” Whitehead says. “Linnentown never left me –
that feeling that I needed to do something – never left me.”
Freda Scott Giles
Freda Scott Giles moved to Athens from New York in 1995. She had been raised in Syracuse and while educated to be a teacher, was drawn to theater. While working as a teacher in New York City in the 1970s, she also began working professionally as an actor and director in the thriving Black theater scene. That would lead her to pursue a doctorate in theater and eventually employment at UGA where she had a joint appointment in the department of theatre and film and the Institute for African American Studies.
What happened in Athens also happened in Syracuse, she points out. “They built a highway through the Black neighborhood there. It happened in New Orleans, too – urban renewal was a national problem.”
Dozens of people will be involved in bringing the play to the stage. While Whitehead has written the dialogue, an Atlanta composer has created the music. All the elements of a production are getting underway in January from auditions to set building, choreography, lighting
, and sound design.
Auditions are scheduled for Jan. 20 at the Classic Center with children in the morning and adults and teens in the afternoon. Callbacks are set for the next day. Giles hopes those who have been active in community theater or anyone who just wants to act will try out.
“We have scenes for them to read – they don’t need to prepare anything,” she explains. “We want to encourage people to come in.”
Throughout her career and into “retirement,” Giles has been an educator – whether in the classroom or through theater—bringing to the stage the histories and stories of African Americans. Giles says she sees this performance as a way of bringing the past to the present. “It’s important for people to know why we are where we are and how we got here.”
Linda Elder Davis
Linda Elder Davis says she first heard the Lord’s voice when she was a child in the garden of her grandfather’s house in Athens. She had been wanting to hear from Jesus forever, and all the adults told her she just had to be patient. “He will let you know when it’s time to go,” Davis recalls them saying. “And one day I was playing in my dad’s garden, and I heard a voice that said, ‘You are ready.’” She has stayed ready ever since.
After integrating Clarke County public schools in junior high, Davis graduated from Athens High School in 1969 and enrolled part-time at the University of Georgia. She had a nearly 40-year career at what is now AT&T before retiring and moving back to her hometown in 2005.
Davis began getting involved in the community. It was then that she found her life’s passion—preserving the historic Brooklyn Cemetery, which had been the final resting place for African Americans on the city’s west side. Her grandparents are buried there in the roughly 10-acre site, which had fallen into disrepair over the years as the trustees in charge of it passed away.
For Davis, who has been a member of the Clarke County School Board since 2012, preserving the cemetery and the other acts of service she does is about being connected and honoring the past—making it ever present.
“I don’t ever walk one minute away from the fact that I’m supposed to be here,” she says. “I am a survivor. If the people before me could survive being taken from their homes, put in the bottom of the ship for 3,000 miles across an ocean, dumped out on solid ground, parsed, sorted, and sold into [slavery] – if they could endure that for however many generations—that’s powerful,” Davis says. “So, I have spent every day of my life since I learned of that history, trying to make these ancestors proud of me.”
Linda Lloyd was born the oldest of 13 siblings in Dooly County. Her childhood was not easy. “It was very difficult,” she remembers. “We were poor; we were sharecroppers.”
Lloyd saw how her parents worked hard to put food on the table, but she never understood how they could still be poor after so much hard labor.
“I always thought that we were picking so many cucumbers that we would get out of poverty,” she says. “But I didn’t understand how the system worked. I didn’t understand that by the time [my father] paid for fertilizer and all that, that we still didn’t have anything. So ‘the man’ always cheated us.”
Lloyd was determined that she would not meet the same fate. After graduating from Vienna High and Industrial School, Lloyd enrolled at Georgia Southwestern College in Americus, where she studied psychology and sociology. She then earned a master’s degree from UGA’s School of Social Work where she met Dr. Ray McNair, who co-founded the Economic Justice Coalition (EJC). She was hired as its first director in 2003.
Since then, the EJC, whose mission is “educate, advocate and organize for quality jobs with living wages and benefits,” has grown tremendously. According to Lloyd, the EJC has registered about 25,000 voters and has about 23 full- and part-time employees. It also has established employee-owned cooperatives and the Workers Center, which educates and empowers worker-leaders to improve their working conditions.
Lloyd relates her family’s past as struggling sharecroppers to her work at EJC. “It connects fully because what I have done is advocate for people to get better wages,” Lloyd says. “What I have done is I have created jobs.”
While she retired in June and recently completed chemotherapy. she has not stopped working. “I’m not a big fan of retirement.”
On April 4, 1968, Ovita Thornton was at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia when she heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated. This seminal event helped shape her life and work. It was then that race became apparent to her.
“I was 16. And I’ll never forget, it came on the intercom,” says Thornton. “That was the first time I saw race become violent.”
From then on, racism started popping up “like a bad cold.” There was the time when a group of Black students were accosted on a city bus by white students. And then they were chased out of a white neighborhood on their way to a party.
Thornton sees those past events as the beginning of her journey as an activist. That journey has carried her to her second term on the Athens-Clarke County Commission after serving on the Clarke County School Board for 16 years. Thornton graduated from what is now Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, and eventually moved to Athens with her husband, Willie, and the oldest of their three sons in the early 1980s. It was in Athens while advocating for improvements in public education for another of her sons that she really became attuned to systemic racism and began to work to fight against it.
“I have three Black boys,” says Thornton, whose husband passed away in May. “I knew every day my boys were under some type of threat, even on a good day.”
After so many years on the frontlines—marching, advocating and fighting for a more just system – Thornton has come to realize that she can’t change everything. The woman whose college professor called her “idealistic” simply wants to make a change in these next three years in office. “I just want to make a tangible difference and keep it moving,” she says.
Kimberly Davis is a fourth-generation Athenian who has been a writer and editor for 25 years.