Clemson University has been in the news a lot lately. Their football team playing for the national championship is no small feat. I have been visiting the campus a lot lately because my daughter is a freshman there. But everything is not right in Tiger Town. Someone or a group defaced a sign on the campus, an act that had racist overtones. You can access this link to find out more details about the matter and I urge you to read the comments.
I first met our host Dr. Rhondda Thomas at the second Slave Dwelling Project conference which was held in North Charleston, South Carolina in October 2015. Dr. Thomas is an Associate Professor of African American Literature at Clemson University. She expressed to me her desire to bring the Slave Dwelling Project to Clemson. I took in the information with skepticism because I had heard it before from individuals representing other institutions of higher learning. Their enthusiasm is often squashed when the powers that be are not receptive to the idea of acknowledging the slavery that was associated with the history of their institutions. You can find out more about the amazing Dr. Thomas by accessing this link: http://newsstand.clemson.edu/mediarelations/professor-will-use-grant-to-document-african-american-lives-in-clemson-history/
With my prior experience in trying to gain access to the extant slave dwellings at Francis Marion University in Florence, SC and the University of South Carolina in Columbia, SC, and being denied, I thought the chances of me sleeping in the spot on Clemson’s campus where the slaves cabins were once located was little to none. And Clemson being located in the reddest part of a very red state did not boost my confidence that a sleepover on the campus would happen. In a testament to her prowess, Dr. Thomas disproved my skepticism and got the sleepover approved.
Having already spent a night in slave dwellings on the campuses of Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Virginia and the College of Charleston in Charleston in Charleston, SC, Clemson would be my third sleepover at an institution of higher learning. Having spent nights in cabins in Holly Springs, Mississippi, the previous week, I was primed and ready because the governor of Mississippi had declared the month of April Confederate Heritage Month. I would be joined in the sleepover by Prinny Anderson, Terry James and Tammy Gibson. While avid readers of this blog are familiar with Prinny Anderson and Terry James, Tammy Gibson is an upcoming contender and avid supporter of the Slave Dwelling Project because Clemson would be her fifth stay and she holds the record for distance travelled because she lives in Chicago, Illinois. She too had just spent the night in the slave cabin with me and others in Holly Springs, Mississippi the previous week. None of us were prepared to participate in an active controversy but the racist act of placing the bananas on the sign dictated that something had to be done. It was because of that act that a forum of which we attended was held in the student center on campus. Among the students who expressed themselves so well about their feelings about the incident, Terry James and I could not hold back and had to express ourselves likewise.
After the forum, Rhondda took us on a tour of the campus. This was a tour that told the real stories of the campus, reminiscence of the tour that I took at the University of Mississippi in February. This tour described the site as it existed as a plantation and how the campus was built by convicts, most by today’s standard were wrongly convicted. It gave us the good the bad and the ugly of John C. Calhoun and Benjamin Tillman. The slave cabins were made of stones that were dismantled and were incorporated into other buildings. We got to touch some of those stones. The part of the tour that stood out most to me was it was expressed that one of the enslaved women in the Calhoun Mansion had to sleep with a string tied to her wrist so that she could be summoned at her time of rest. This tour was nowhere close to the one that I received with my daughter during student orientation. I recall that tour vividly as I wanted to fill in the blanks to give the students the real, raw and uncut version of the history of Clemson University.
The original intent was to pitch tents on the spot where the slave cabins were originally located. Collectively, we decided against it because the ground was still wet from previous rain and a possible thunderstorm was in the overnight forecast. We all slept in an auditorium which is now on the spot of where some of the slave cabins were located. I anticipated that students would join us but none did. We were joined by a young lady who writes for the Clemson magazine.
Being in a shared space gave us the opportunity to interact more. I learned more about Dr. Thomas and what it took for her to get to this point in her investigation of Clemson’s real history. We both realized that there are lots of institutions of higher learning throughout the United States that have similar histories as that of Clemson University. The problem with most institutions is that they do not have a Dr. Thomas or the like who would take on such a task to reveal that history. The bigger problem is that most of the institutions don’t recognize that there is a problem or they themselves are part of the problem and not the solution because they do their best to rid themselves of any ties to slavery. Institutions of higher learning in northern states are not excused for some of them also have beginnings that are rooted in the institution of slavery. Harvard, Yale, Brown, Georgetown, that list can go on and on.
My advice to Dr. Thomas was that she is doing a stellar job and that she will continue to get push back. Our missions are similar because it is that push back that helps to motivate us to continue to fight on and for that the Ancestors can be proud because we are continuing to tell their stories.
When I think of Clemson University, I think of one of the top colleges, athletics and friends that I know that have graduated from the university and the pride they have of being a Clemson Tiger. I was looking forward to sleeping at the campus and learning about the history of the enslaved.
The day I arrived at the campus, I found out that the African American banner was vandalized with bananas (a reference used toward African Americans as monkeys). I was very confused and disturbed trying to understand why is this happening on a campus in 2016. When I attended the town hall meeting, my heart was heavy as I was listening to the African American students talking about the racism that they experience on campus. They are at Clemson to get an education and I cannot imagine the disrespect and humiliation they experience. The issues at Clemson from not acknowledging the college’s ties to slavery, a building named after a segregationist that students have been trying to the rename for a long time, shows that the university does not want to change. When I think about the African American students at Clemson, I think of Little Rock 9, Clinton 12, Harvey Gantt, James Meredith and Ruby Bridges. The blatant racism that existed in the 1960s is prevalent today with the African American students at Clemson.
Sleeping at the campus of Clemson University, I felt like I didn’t belong there. I feel that there is still division and segregation amongst the African American students at the university. I hope one day, the university will acknowledge and come to terms with the lives of the enslaved that once were kept on the campus and stop whitewashing history.
Slave Dwellings at Clemson University, SC – History Will Not Be Denied
The mission of The Slave Dwelling Project is to preserve extant slave dwellings so that the stories and the people and all that they contributed to building this nation will be remembered, shared, taught and discussed. With a more complete historical record and deeper knowledge of who the enslaved people were, we can enable more complete, deeper and more honest conversations to address issues of racism in our country.
This mission has come about because so much evidence of the existence and importance of enslaved people has been ignored, erased, overlooked, destroyed and discounted. However, modern scholars of psychology, starting with Freud, have taught us that significant experiences, traumas and deeply rooted features of our culture never stay buried. They resurface repeatedly until we pay attention, make peace, and integrate them into our personal and national psyche.
The Slave Dwelling Project’s visit to Clemson University was a microcosm of this psychological truth.
Our host, Dr. Rhondda Thomas, a professor of African American literature in Clemson’s English Department, has been researching the identities and stories of African Americans on the university campus from the time it was Fort Hill, John C. Calhoun’s plantation, and the African Americans of the day were enslaved, through periods when African American convict laborers were used for construction and other heavy work on campus, into the Jim Crow era when black university employees were segregated from their white counterparts, up to the present. Dr. Thomas has been working tirelessly to repopulate the university’s history with the heretofore missing African Americans. She had invited the Slave Dwelling Project for an overnight as a component of her campaign, as an experiential approach to the story of the enslaved in particular, and as a means to engage students.
Along with the Slave Dwelling Project overnight, Dr. Thomas had arranged for the groundbreaking for historical markers acknowledging the sites where enslaved people had lived when the campus was still a plantation. The groundbreaking brought the 90-year-old matriarch of one of the descendant families onto the campus to be honored and celebrated by students, faculty and administrators.
The original plan for the Slave Dwelling Project overnight was for an encampment in a grassy area close to the site, very recently identified, of a number of dwellings for enslaved field workers. The dwellings had been built of granite blocks, but had been dismantled by African American convict laborers in 1890 to form the foundation of Hardin Hall and other campus buildings of the period. Ironically, although the dwellings were obliterated and one might believe the presence of their inhabitants would be erased as well, the almost indestructible building blocks were transformed into the essential underpinnings of places of learning. If you keep your eyes open, you can see those blocks still doing their job, still keeping the university standing.
Putting our hands on the stones the enslaved Ancestors had quarried, hauled, and put in place, followed by planning to sleep near to where those Ancestors had slept 150 years ago and more, was as close as we could come to sleeping in a slave dwelling at Clemson. And it felt sufficient for our purposes of acknowledgement and building awareness.
Then the weather changed the plans. Thunderstorms made the prospect of sleeping in the open dangerous and potentially uncomfortable. So we slept on the floor of an auditorium in Lee Hall, a floor constructed exactly on top of the old slave dwelling site. With some imagination, you could feel yourself sleeping on the floors of the Ancestors’ dwellings, as long as you closed your eyes to the tiers of desks, the whiteboard and the media equipment. It wasn’t ideal, it wasn’t what we’d planned, but it was what we could do, it was as close as we could come to giving history its due place.
On its own, these events and plans, and all the other dimensions of Dr. Thomas’ work, represent the process of resurrecting the truth, examining and discussing it, and moving forward toward psychological and social health.
But Dr. Thomas’ planned activities could not escape the wider context of university events. During the weekend before the Historic Marker groundbreaking and the Slave Dwelling Project overnight, someone hung a bunch of bananas from a banner on campus put up to honor African Americans at Clemson. On the following Monday, the day before the groundbreaking and the overnight, a denunciation was published by the University President. On the day of the groundbreaking and overnight, during the hour immediately preceding our walking tour of key sites on campus related to African Americans, the university held a student forum described as an opportunity to ask questions, get information, and express concerns.
The way the student forum was set up and conducted seemed consistent with a culture that has been suppressing the story of African Americans at Clemson, a culture that isn’t comfortable with or doesn’t know how to begin coming to terms with a people and a history denied.
The forum was planned to last 60 minutes, only 60 minutes allocated to renew a conversation about race in a community of 17,000 people whose belief systems have been shaped by over 300 years of white-dominant history. The university president was absent. Most responses to students’ comments and questions were vague generalities; no specific action steps were communicated, no leadership vision was expressed.
But the students’ determination and the centuries of history would not be denied. The students kept standing up to speak, kept asking for dialogue and insisting on leadership responses. Since the forum was inadequate, they held a march the next day. Then they began a sit-in. After 24 hours, African American students who were sitting in were cited for trespassing at the direction of the president. Nonetheless, the students vowed to sit in through the weekend. A meeting with administrators to discuss diversity and the campus racial climate was finally scheduled for Sunday.
History will not be denied forever. Dr. Thomas’ work must continue. The Slave Dwelling Project has many more overnights to come. The university must find a way to hold conversations and change its culture. The work goes on.
Wednesday, 13 April 2016, 3:37 a.m.
I am laying in my red sleeping bag on the stage of the Lee Hall I auditorium.
At least three people are snoring.
So I begin trying to imagine life for the Calhoun slaves in this space. On this land.
The floor of the stage area where we’re sleeping is really hard. I wonder what it was like to sleep in those stone quarters located somewhere near me—did the enslaved African Americans sleep on the floor? Did they fashion pallets of straw or hay?
What would it have been like to work in the fields or the house? Or perhaps be a seamstress? Or weaver? Would it have really mattered much—all were enslaved.
What if an enslaved person were disabled? Lame in one leg? What if the person had a pain or injury root meds or the local doc couldn’t heal?
Could I have dreamed of being a teacher? Would I have been courageous enough to rebel?
Would I have known that my master was a statesman? That his words and ideologies would lead many southerners to love slavery so much they were willing to die for the right to enslave people who look like me forever?
I initially thought that sleeping in Lee Hall would not help me to feel more connected to the enslaved African Americans of the Fort Hill Plantation whose stone quarters once stood on these grounds. The day before the encampment, however, Will Hiott, the director of historic properties at Clemson with the assistance of archivists in Clemson Libraries Special Collections discovered some new documents regarding the slave quarters that made this experience even more meaningful for me.
In 1945, Clemson architecture Professor Rudolph Lee developed “Suggestions for Restoration of Colonial Farm Life at Clemson College” in a settlement he believed could function as a “Little Williamsburg” tourist attraction as well as an architecture laboratory for Clemson students. Lee noted, “There are available also a number of log cabins 100 or more years old which could be used to advantage as outbuildings for activities on the colonial farm, such as weave house, meal house, blacksmith shop, etc., and as typical slave quarters. On this property I have unearthed the stone foundations of the old John C. Calhoun field hands’ quarters and there is now standing near the Marshall residence a cabin which was the kitchen of the house of John C. Calhoun farm overseer. There is a mill building on Clemson property which could be used for the John C. Calhoun grist mill. The mill race around the hill is still clearly seen. This is an opportunity to preserve some historical Calhoun plantation buildings.”
In the 1890s, stones from the slave quarters were used as foundations for Clemson’s earliest buildings, notably the Chemistry Building, now Hardin Hall, where one can still see the stones on the left side and inside the lower level of the structure.
But where are the stone foundations that Professor Lee discovered in 1945? And why weren’t his suggestions carried out?
Why didn’t someone care enough to help carry out Lee’s suggestions to preserve this history?
What happened to the antebellum buildings that were still standing on Clemson property in 1945?
Why and how does historic property on a university campus disappear?
In 1958, twelve years later, Clemson constructed a new building on this site and named it Lee Hall in honor of Professor Rudolph Lee, Clemson College class of 1896. The building is included on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Fort Hill slave quarters are not.
Yesterday, Tuesday, 12 April 2016, 11:30 a.m.
Clemson University held a groundbreaking ceremony for a historical marker that will acknowledge the history that is hidden on this site—71 years after Professor Lee located the foundation stones for the slave quarters. One side of the marker notes that the Fort Hill slave quarters once stood here. The other side acknowledges that the stockade for the predominately African American convict labor crew, ages 13-67, that helped to build Clemson College was erected nearby.
Ninety-year-old Eva Hester Martin, a descendant of Sharper and Caroline Brown and their daughter Matilda who were enslaved on the Fort Hill Plantation, was the special guest at the groundbreaking ceremony. She said she was grateful that she’d lived long enough to see this day when Clemson publicly acknowledged her family’s history. Ninety years.
Just prior to the encampment, I led a walking tour of sites associated with African Americans in early Clemson University history. Two of my African American literature students who took the tour remarked that they did not hear any of the stories I shared in their official campus tours. One even decided to give her parents a tour based on the things she’d just learned about African Americans in Clemson.
I’m a sixth generation South Carolinian. A descendant of enslaved people and slaveholders. A mixed-race woman of African, British, Irish, and Native American descent. For the past seven years as a scholar-teacher at Clemson University, I’ve also taken on the challenge with a growing cadre of faculty, students, staff, and alumni, and now with the support of the trustees and administration, who are pushing for a complete transformation of the institution’s public history.
Tonight I slept in a building associated with the land upon which at least 139 enslaved African Americans labored on the Calhouns and Clemsons’ Fort Hill Plantation. The space in which they stole time with their families and friends and slept during brief respites from incessant labor.
Their stories, along with the stories of the freedmen, women, and children sharecroppers who labored on the Fort Hill Plantation and the predominately African American convict labor crew who helped to build Clemson matter to me. And they are finally beginning to matter to Clemson University, too.
Rhondda Robinson Thomas, PhD
Associate Professor of English
Clemson, South Carolina