McPherson Uncovers the Complex History of the SSW Building

Dr. McPherson standing outside of the SSW Building (Photo by Wingate Downs)

Dr. McPherson standing outside of the SSW Building (Photo by Wingate Downs)

A complex history: Project unveils complicated past, but hopeful future for School of Social Work’s home

By Thomas Ehlers

The building at 279 Williams Street has served as a center of teaching, learning, and scholarship since the University of Georgia’s School of Social Work decided to call it home in 2015. Once known as the “Athens Factory,” however the factory-turned-school has a unique and storied history that few knew about.

Until Jane McPherson uncovered it, that is.

McPherson’s research into the School of Social Work’s headquarters – a project she calls Complex Cloth – began with her interest in the old mill building and has expanded to encompass local histories of slavery, cotton, factory labor, and the social work profession itself. The associate professor and director of Global Engagement started with the SSW in 2015 – the same year as the school’s move to Williams Street – and she was instantly curious about the history of the not-so-new structure.

“Over my first few years at UGA, I did some research at the University’s Special Collections Library to help me understand: what is the history of this factory and what is this place where we work?,” McPherson said. “It turns out that the Athens Factory, which opened in 1833, operated with a mixture of free and enslaved labor until the Civil War and Emancipation, and after the Civil War, the factory workforce was made up mostly of white women and children – including really young children.”

Building an educational component

The history was a painful pill to swallow, but it also presented a teaching opportunity.

“Discovering that we work in a building whose walls were likely built by enslaved labor– and that inside these walls, both children and enslaved people once worked, I realized that this was really an opportunity for thinking about social work’s implicit social justice curriculum,” McPherson said. “This is really an opportunity to teach about how injustice can be invisible even though it exists all around us.”

To learn more, McPherson applied to UGA’s Special Collections Libraries Teaching Fellows program, an initiative by the University Libraries and the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) that provides participants with the skills they need to facilitate archives-based learning. Continuing her research as part of the Libraries’ 2020 Cohort, she looked for a hook that could make Complex Cloth fit into the MSW curriculum.

“I had the eureka moment when I discovered that some of the first social work efforts in Athens were outreach to the women and children who worked in this very spot,” McPherson said. “I realized that the history of my profession in Athens is actually embedded in the history of the building our school is housed within. That changed everything.”

McPherson collaborated with SSW Professor Kate Morrissey-Stahl and UGA’s Center for Teaching and Learning to build out the MSW Capstone course to include these complex histories. The course challenges students to reflect on the changing nature of social justice and social work intervention over time, viewing local histories – including those of social work – through the lenses of race, culture, gender, oppression and social justice.

A different audience

In its first iteration, Complex Cloth’s digital content was available only to MSW Capstone students. Like all UGA course material, Complex Cloth was housed on a password-protected learning platform where only enrolled students were able to engage with this fascinating history. But as McPherson’s research continued, she determined that this information – this tough and important history – should be open for all of Athens and the social work community to see.

It took a village, McPherson said, to complete this task. First, social work colleagues supported the project by adding the materials to their own syllabi before CTL helped McPherson professionally record the project lectures. In 2022, Grady College’s New Media Institute accepted Complex Cloth as a project, and assigned its own Capstone students to build the initial version of the project’s pubic-facing website.

Then in August 2023, with the help of her MSW graduate assistant Annabel Bunton, McPherson launched the updated website. Bunton helped McPherson design the site layout and project logo, and took the lead in loading materials onto the site. Now the historical objects – photographs, newspaper clippings, narratives from millworkers and other media – are available to all. Today, the Complex Cloth website details the history of the Athens Factory, provides insight into factory working conditions, and reports on the lives of those who worked in the mill. It also explores the social services that developed to meet the needs of those workers during the latter part of the 19th- and early 20th-centuries and has expanded to tell more of the story of social work in Athens. It is continuously growing as new research is completed and information is uncovered.

Bunton assessed the impact of the project on herself and other students.

“When we look at these histories of injustice, it’s easy to imagine that these problems were just in the past,” Bunton said. “Complex Cloth has helped me see how these ethical problems can repeat in the present. I’ve heard from other students as well that this project has helped us to look critically at social work practice today and to prepare us to prevent harm in the future.”

Some components of the site are still under construction, for example, the “Social Welfare in the Athens Black Community” section. While exploring Athens’ early efforts to assist the women and children working at the mill, McPherson realized that those efforts – like the post-Civil War mill workforce – were segregated by race, and therefore, they had little impact on Athens’ Black community.

Those findings led McPherson to ask questions about social services in the Black community, including “How was Athens’ Black community providing for itself in these first decades after Emancipation?” and “Was there interracial cooperation on social service programs?” McPherson’s ongoing research on these topics is currently supported by a small grant from UGA’s Institute for Women’s Studies.

McPherson’s vision is for the project to be more than just a historical website – she wants to take this local material into the community.

McPherson began this outreach by providing continuing education training to social workers around the country, encouraging them to reflect on how engaging with social work’s history might promote ethical practice today. Locally, she has spoken to the Athens branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) and given walking tours of the building and its surrounding area through Athens Parks and Recreation and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UGA (OLLI@UGA).

Additionally, the School of Social Work now displays a beautiful afghan in its lobby that once belonged to Louie Lane, known as “the Jane Addams of Athens,” who was a pioneer in outreach to the mill workers. The School hopes to bring more of these historical “objects” into the building. Additionally, McPherson is working with the Athens Historical Society and Athens-Clarke County Schools to build video content to teach students about the area’s history.

As the project continues to shift and grow, McPherson maintains a focus on improving the social work practice today and in the future.

“I think it is an opportunity we have at the UGA School of Social Work that we teach in this beautiful building that has this difficult and uncomfortable history,” McPherson said. “It really allows us to wrestle with social work ethics in novel ways. Knowing that we work in this building that was built by enslaved labor and which enslaved people and children worked – we are literally surrounded by practices from our past that are abhorrent to us in the present.”

“I think those historic realities help us to hone our ethical imaginations and challenge us to be more ethical now. Slavery and child labor were both legal in their time. I want students to reflect on social work practice now. Is there anything we are doing now that we will look back at from the future and identify as an injustice? And if so, how can we change that now?”

For Bunton, her assistantship led to an impactful project, one that taught her to seek for the whole truth.

“I think the most impactful thing that I will take away is the importance of telling the complete history even if it is uncomfortable,” Bunton said. “I think my favorite part is understanding how to highlight all of the messiness – because social work has been a part of complicated things like urban renewal projects and facilitating injustice – but also how we can tell the whole story and amplify stories that were historically left out.”

That whole picture is still being built as new stories are discovered. For McPherson, Complex Cloth has brought her to a place of better understanding of the world and the profession that she holds dear.

“When I start on a project, I don’t know where it’s going to lead me,” McPherson said. “I have an intuition that it’s important, but I don’t know what I’m going to find. This project has been a stunning experience. I hoped that it would lead me to something important and necessary and it truly has.”

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