Complex Cloth

Welcome to Complex Cloth, an ongoing project—a work-in-progress—woven from multiple histories related to the University of Georgia School of Social Work, the profession of social work in Athens, and the historic mill building that the School now occupies at 279 Williams Street in Athens, Georgia.

Photograph, University of Georgia School of Social Work Building, Photo Credit Jane McPherson

What is Complex Cloth?

The University of Georgia School of Social Work sits on the banks of the North Oconee River at a site called Cedar Shoals. The waterpower generated at these shoals was first harnessed for industrial purposes by the “Athens Cotton and Wool” mill, which began producing thread and cloth in 1833. The mill investors reorganized themselves as the “Athens Manufacturing Company” in 1835, but the Williams Street mill was always known locally as the “Athens Factory.” During its first 25 years in business, the Athens Factory was re-built three times after fires and floods, and the current brick building, erected in 1857 after a devastating fire, now houses UGA Social Work.

Complex Cloth is a project that investigates the history of the Athens Factory in the context of social work. What does it mean for a School of Social Work to be located in a cotton mill—likely built by enslaved labor—that was established to turn slave-produced cotton into wealth for white mill owners? How do social work students reflect on common practices at the Athens Factory—like slavery and child labor—that were legal and considered ethical in their time?

Complex Cloth also explores Athens’ first social work experiments, several of which—The East Athens Night School & Neighborhood House, the Bessie Mell Home, and the Hiawassee Settlement—were developed to serve mill workers and their families.

Complex Cloth seeks to tell these stories and many others.

The Athens Factory and the School of Social Work: From 1832 until Today.

Complex Cloth is the project of Dr. Jane McPherson, Associate Professor and Director of Global Engagement at UGA School of Social Work. This project is ongoing and under construction. If you have information to add to the website or if you have questions about the project, please contact Dr. McPherson at

Telling Complicated Stories—or Why History Matters for Social Work

This 3-part lecture complicates the stories we tell about the social work profession, while looking locally at the history of Athens, Georgia. In Part 1, Dr. McPherson discusses social work’s history of “facilitating injustice” (Yoosun Park’s term) and provides a few examples that reach beyond Georgia. In Part 2, she highlights the stories of pioneering Black social workers and social work institutions in Georgia, whose histories should be shared more widely. In Part 3, she brings us back to Athens, Georgia, where she lives and works, where she delves into the history of the Athens Factory (in whose building the University of Georgia School of Social Work now operates) and then explores links between social work’s beginnings here and a dominant white supremacist ideology.

Telling Complicated Stories: Part 1

Telling Complicated Stories: Part 2

Telling Complicated Stories: Part 3