What’s the deal with Memorial Hall?

By Andrew Porter

Most know it as the building diagonal from Tate. The old, yellowish building that looks out over central campus like a sentinel who watches his post. Students and faculty alike know its name, but do they really know what’s the deal with Memorial Hall?

Do they know about its deep-rooted place in UGA’s history? Would they be surprised to know that in the hallowed halls of the building erected to honor war veterans lie the stepping-stones for black life on campus? Do they know that at one point it used to be the equivalent of what is now the Dean William Tate Student Center? That it was the place where black students used to gather to fellowship with one another.

Do they know about the onion rings that were good enough to start fights? No. Most students and even faculty do not know the remarkable history this yellowish, old building entails. They couldn’t know. Or else they would never look at Memorial Hall the same.

I. The Old Building

War Memorial Hall—better known as Memorial Hall—was built in the 1920s and opened in 1925.  Although it was originally built to serve as a memorial for the UGA students who died in World War I, Memorial Hall has proven to be one of the most unique buildings on campus. During its storied history, it has housed a dining hall, swimming pool, gymnasium, library, student radio station, student lounges, athletic offices, and faculty dining rooms amongst other things.

One thing remains constant about Memorial Hall and that is its multipurpose use. Memorial is currently home to student affairs, Multicultural Services and Programs, the office of the Vice President, International Student Life, LGBT Resource Center, Judicial Programs, the Office of Student Conduct, and advising. Most UGA students cannot fathom the thought of all of these important facilities being housed under one roof, especially not in the yellowish building they bypass daily.

Central campus is home to too many other important buildings. Between the MLC, Sanford Stadium, and Tate, who has time to worry about the stepchild that is Memorial Hall? There is no way that the current group of UGA students could fathom Memorial once being a hub of student life. But that is exactly what Memorial Hall represents for alumni such as our very own Vice President for Student Affairs, Victor Wilson.

When Wilson was an undergraduate in the late 1970s to early 1980s, Memorial Hall served as the student center to UGA before Tate. As a matter of fact, Memorial Hall is to him what Tate is to current students.

“When I was here, Memorial Hall was the hub of campus,” Wilson said. “Memorial was happening. That was the place.”

Everything about the current set up of Tate, all the way down to Bulldog Café was first seen at Memorial. It was the heart and soul of the school: a place where students of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds could come and socialize with one another.

Kyle Gause, a 2003 UGA graduate and current advisor for the Zeta Pi Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. described Memorial as a personal highlight of campus during his time at UGA.

“Memorial Hall was the epicenter of black activities,” Gause said. “Everybody hung out at Memorial Hall.”

While Memorial has a crucial place of importance to all of the UGA community, what may be even more important though, is the role it played for the black community at UGA. Memorial Hall is the place where black culture was first established at the University of Georgia.

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II. UGA Integrates: The Hunter- Holmes Impact

First, to understand black life at the university, you have to first look at the timetable of when black student life was first introduced. Although Abraham Baldwin founded UGA in 1785, the first African American students were not admitted to UGA until 1961.

Their names were Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton E. Holmes. That only leaves a 54-year span for which black life has had time to develop here on campus. That development wouldn’t exist without Memorial Hall. For black students, Memorial Hall served as a meeting place where students would gather and fellowship with one another on a daily basis.

Student life was already centered around Memorial so it was already crowded; however, black students were said to have had their own place carved for them right outside of Memorial—in Memorial plaza—by the statue of the brass bulldog.

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“The brass bulldog was the post up,” Gause said.

The statue still remains there today.

“When I think of when I was in school and if someone was to ask where I could find a conglomeration of African American students, I would say Creswell lobby and Bolton, but I would really say Memorial Hall plaza,” Wilson said.

The bulldog is somewhat of an icon and remains symbolic for a generation of UGA’s former students.

“Every single day I was at that bulldog,” Wilson said. “Sometime it was one hour, sometimes it was two hours. Everybody just got along. I think to me it’s important to give African American students something that says this is your UGA too.”  

For students like Gause and Wilson, Memorial Hall represented a place where students could come knowing that there was at least one place on the huge campus of UGA where they could express themselves without fear of reproach.

It was also here that Greek life was exhibited. Historically black fraternities and sororities, who can be considered the gatekeepers for black culture at UGA, thrived at Memorial Hall.

Simply put, Memorial was the place where black culture was cultivated at the institution. That history is undeniably linked with the history and narrative of another well known building on campus—the Dean William Tate Student Center.

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III. The Dean William Tate Student Center

Memorial Hall and Tate will forever be linked because one is the predecessor to the other. The Dean William Tate Student Center opened on October 20, 1983.  Talks of opening another student center had been on going since the mid 1940s, led by Dean William Tate himself.

Tate served from 1946 to 1971 and was known for his kindness, compassion, and willingness to help those in need.  Tate was also famously known for helping to ease tensions during tumultuous times at the university. In 1961, he walked through a mob outside Myers Hall that was attempting to assault Charlayne Hunter and helped policeman detain the mob.

Another example of Tate’s unwavering passion for students came in the spring of 1970 when angry students marched at the home of the president in protest of the Vietnam War. Tate, who was said to be wearing love beads, walked to the head of the crowd, sat down in the street, and encouraged the students to engage in peaceful demonstration.

It is examples like this that made the decision to name the new student center after him an easy one for all parties involved. When the Tate Center opened, the heart of UGA’s campus experienced a shift from Memorial to Tate—a move that continues to have an impact even today.

If you ask current students where the heart of campus is at UGA, most will say the Dean William Tate Student Center. Tate is the hub of campus because it is a place where students of different races, ethnicities, and cultures interact with one another on a daily basis.

Home to the famous Bulldawg Café, Tate Theatre, pool tables, the Greek Life office, the Center for Leadership and Service, Center for Student Organizations, Tate Print & Copy, the UGA Card Office, and University Union, the Tate Center was built for the benefit of the entire UGA community.

Commitment to the preservation of the building can be seen in the $58 million dollar expansion project that occurred in 2009 that added 95,000 square feet of additional space.

The building represents for the current generation of students exactly what Memorial Hall represented. But did the growth and advent of Tate come at the detriment of the previously beloved Memorial Hall?

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IV. A Tale of Two Buildings

As mentioned before, most students don’t know the rich history that Memorial Hall provides. There are some who do though, such as fourth year Mass Media Arts major, Jamari Jordan.

Heavily involved in black student life at the University, Jordan acknowledges the important role that Memorial played in the past, but also looks forward to the traditions the current generation is fostering.

“I think Tate is our new epicenter for black students and minority students, but Memorial is still a second home for us,” Jordan said.

Most students, especially African Americans identify with Tate as a home, largely due to “Tate Time.”

“Tate Time is a time for fellowship amongst people who look like me that occurs from 10 a.m. -2 p.m. every Monday through Friday,” Jordan said. “There are not too many times when you walk on campus and see someone who looks like you. Tate Time is that time for African Americans and minorities to come together in between classes and just talk and have conversations that you usually may not have with people who don’t look like you.”

Jordan’s sentiments are extremely relatable considering the fact that African American students only represent eight percent of the student body at the University of Georgia.

Tate Time’s origins cannot be traced back to a particular time, but the fact that Gause also experienced Tate Time shows that it can be traced back to at least late 90s.

“From 10-a.m. – 2 p.m.  Monday through Friday, black people ran Tate,” Gause said. “Tate Time was a way of life.  My last three years of school here, I planned my classes around Tate Time.”

Tate Time has existed among various groups of students. It serves as a tool that seeks to bring together students to provide a sense of home.

“Tate time isn’t new,” Wilson said. “We’ve always had spaces like Tate Time. That was our space.”

The difference between the different generations of students was that in Wilson and Gause’s era, Tate served as an extension of Memorial Hall. Both buildings thrived and existed as separate entities, but were forever linked.

When Tate first opened up, it allowed for a lot of the first African American organizations to be housed in Memorial.

“They were kind of extensions of each other,” Gause said. “We knew that if you weren’t at Tate center, nine times out of 10 you were over at Memorial Hall. And if you weren’t at Memorial you were at Tate.”

The previous African American students used both buildings to their advantages. They took what was started at Memorial and continued its legacy over at the new student center all the while never forgetting the brass bulldog diagonal from the new hub that was gaining vast attention.

For them, it was about building something for future generations to come. The students in Wilson’s time knew that social justice and continuing Hunter and Holmes’ legacy was important as well as building cultural and social ties that would allow for students who would come later on to feel comfortable as well.

“I remember when I was in school you could have put a poster up and said MLK has risen from the dead and will be at the arch at 7:00 tonight, but if there was a step show in Memorial Hall ballroom every black student would be at the show,” Wilson said.

It’s about balance. In the quest for improvement, we seem to have forgotten about the foundation. As such we have a new generation of students who are doing a good job of creating the new, but have lost touch with the sense of old.

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V. Tying Loose Ends: Where Are We Now?

Today, Memorial Hall and The Tate Center both stand in the same places they did years ago; however, they tell different stories.

Memorial tells the story of the building that once was, while Tate represents the story currently being written. The building of Tate doesn’t mean that the history of Memorial is dead just yet.

“The spirit of Memorial is still alive,” Gause said.

It is up to dedicated students like Jordan to keep the narrative passed down through generations of students so that Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes’ sacrifices don’t go unnoticed.

“As a senior it’s my job to tell the underclassman about the history of BUGA  (black UGA) and UGA,” Jordan said. “You want to keep that tradition alive. Whether that’s by the bulldog or in Tate, the whole purpose was for us to come together as people and have a community. It doesn’t matter where you are doing it, as long as you do it somewhere.”

 

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