Athens developed as a tiny settlement and trading post that emerged at Cedar Shoals, where an ancient Cherokee trail crossed the Oconee River.
On January 27, 1785, the Georgia General Assembly created the University of Georgia as the first state-chartered university in the United States. It was not until the summer of 1801, though, that five men traveled to the area to look for an appropriate site for the university. One member of the delegation, John Milledge, purchased 633 acres on the hill above Cedar Shoals and donated it to build the university. He renamed the area Athens in honor of the Classical Greek center of culture.
To raise money to pay for construction of buildings for the school, lots were sold adjacent to campus. As fine federal homes began to appear around the new campus, the role of Athens as the intellectual center of Georgia became increasingly evident: the cultured social life surrounding the college attracted prominent families of wealth and national stature. Industry developed rapidly.
During the Civil War, an occupation garrison arrived in Athens and an informal federal occupation continued until early 1866. Union soldiers spared Athens the fate of many of Georgia’s cities, however, and it remained virtually intact after hostilities ended.
In the post-Civil War era, Athens became known as a center of undergraduate education for freed slaves, and three black newspapers thrived in the city when it was rare for a southern town to have even one. In the early 1900s, the corner of Washington and Lumpkin Streets downtown became known as the “Hot Corner” for the black community. The Morton Building, as well as the Samaritan Building and Union Hall, housed black lawyers, dentists, doctors and other professionals. The two-story opera house in the Morton Building hosted the likes of Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
Today, with its vibrant academic, arts and sports cultures, Athens, consolidated with Clarke County, remains a cultural center of the state, producing pop bands as readily as innovative technologies.