CLEMSON – Rhondda Robinson Thomas has been named the new Calhoun Lemon Professor of Literature at Clemson University.

Thomas is an associate professor in the Department of English who specializes in early African-American and American Literature. A sixth-generation South Carolinian, she has served on the Clemson faculty for a decade.

Rhondda Robinson Thomas

Rhondda Robinson Thomas is the new Calhoun Lemon Professor of Literature.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

“Dr. Thomas is superbly qualified to receive this honor endowed by C. Calhoun Lemon,” said Susanna Ashton, chair of the Department of English. “Along with her wide-ranging service to the department, Clemson University and the world beyond, she has an extensive record of publications and academic achievements. Through her determined research and advocacy, Thomas has become a leading force in public humanities scholarship.”

Thomas earned her Ph.D. in English at the University of Maryland, College Park, after completing undergraduate studies at Washington Adventist University in Maryland and master’s degrees in journalism at the University of Georgia and literature at the University of New Hampshire, Durham.

At Clemson University, Thomas has been an instrumental member of the Clemson History Implementation Team. Through tireless research, Thomas has helped assemble and share a more complete early history of the University and the land it was founded on, John C. Calhoun’s Fort Hill plantation. She has researched the African Americans who were enslaved there, those who continued to labor there after emancipation as sharecroppers and servants, convicts who constructed the original campus buildings, wage workers hired to work at Clemson, musicians who performed at social events for Clemson students prior to integration, and the students, faculty, and staff who came to Clemson during the first decade of integration.

Thomas won a 2018 Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship for “Black Clemson: From Enslavement to Integration,” an upcoming museum exhibition that will travel around the state of South Carolina.

In 2017, Thomas earned a “Creating Humanities Communities” challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support her ongoing project Call My Name: African Americans in Early Clemson University History.”

As part of these projects, more than 2,000 primary documents have been digitized, including slave inventories, prison records, labor contracts, correspondence and photographs. Undergraduate and graduate students have been able to participate in this ongoing research through Thomas’ Creative Inquiry classes, the intern program at the Pearce Center for Professional Communication and as research assistants.

Thomas wrote the book “Claiming Exodus: A Cultural History of Afro-Atlantic Identity, 1774-1903” (Baylor University Press, 2013) and is currently editing “African American Literature in Transition, 1750-1800, Vol. 1,” which is slated for publication by Cambridge University Press in 2020.

“I’m honored to follow in the footsteps of Barton Palmer as the Lemon Professor, and grateful for the opportunity to work with such distinguished and collegial English faculty at Clemson,” Thomas said. “I look forward to expanding my research, working with colleagues, students and community partners, and representing my department, College and the University.”

Barton Palmer held the Calhoun Lemon Professorship in Literature since 1995. Palmer served as English chair during his distinguished tenure, and he continues to serve as director of the interdisciplinary World Cinema program in the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities. As an author and editor, Palmer has published published more than 50 books on medieval literature and film studies, as well as numerous chapters in books and articles in leading scholarly journals. Palmer is editor of the South Atlantic Review and the Tennessee Williams Annual Review.

The Lemon award was created through the generosity of Clinton Calhoun Lemon (1910-89), who attended Clemson from 1928-30, and his wife, Kathryn (1913-2000). Though he went on to receive his bachelor’s degree from the University of South Carolina, the trucking company executive remained a lifelong Clemson fan and supporter, serving as a president of IPTAY and director of the Alumni Association. The 1972 Lemon gift established named professorships in literature, history and philosophy.