Markers signal new effort to share Clemson’s full history
As two descendants of people once enslaved at Fort Hill watched, University officials broke ground for a historical marker to commemorate a site where slave quarters stood on the plantation owned by John C. Calhoun and later by University founder Thomas Green Clemson.
The plaque now located at the intersection of South Palmetto Boulevard and Fernow Street Extension is more than a sign: It’s also the launch of a new commitment to tell the full story of Clemson University’s history — good or bad.
At the groundbreaking, President Jim Clements said, “The story of Clemson University’s founding is one of great vision, commitment and perseverance. However, it is also a story with some uncomfortable history. And, although we cannot change our history, we can acknowledge it and learn from it, and that is what great universities do.”
The marker is one of three new additions to the Clemson landscape. A plaque located at the entrance to Woodland Cemetery marks the burial sites of the family of John C. Calhoun, enslaved African-Americans, and convict laborers who died during their confinement at Clemson.
A new third historical marker stands in the Calhoun Bottoms to commemorate the role of Native Americans and enslaved African-Americans in the development of the lands that are now part of the University.
The markers are one way Clemson is trying to give a more complete and accurate public accounting of its history in the wake of a national movement on university campuses to acknowledge connections to slavery, segregation or other practices and viewpoints inconsistent with current institutional values.
“There are many universities struggling with how to confront a painful past, and Clemson has the opportunity to become a national model for how to create a more inclusive history,” said Rhondda Robinson Thomas, associate professor of English whose research on African-Americans who lived and labored at Clemson prior to desegregation spurred interest in the markers.
In July 2015, trustees appointed a task force to work with the administration to gather input from constituents and recommend ways to tell the full story of Clemson’s history. The board approved the report of the task force in February, and the markers reflect one of its recommendations.
Each marker’s stories
Each of the new markers is dual-sided, telling more than one story. The physical placements were carefully selected for historical accuracy, maximum visibility and good storytelling. As visitors read the inscribed stories, their lines of vision will be oriented toward the area being described.
One side of the marker at the intersection of South Palmetto Boulevard and Fernow Street notes that 70 to 80 enslaved African-Americans lived at Fort Hill in 1849, the date of the earliest known written description of the stone, barracks-like slave quarters, with the number rising to 139 by 1865.
The other side of the marker indicates that a nearby site was later used for a stockade to house convict laborers — mostly African-American prisoners leased to the college by the state to clear land, make bricks and dismantle the slave quarters to use the materials for some of Clemson’s earliest facilities. Some of those stones are still visible on the foundation of Hardin Hall.
From that intersection, there is a clear view of Woodland Cemetery, where a second new marker stands. One side explains that the site had once been an orchard, and that the first known burial was a child — also named John C. Calhoun — who died in 1837. The college laid out the current cemetery in 1924 for faculty and staff, and today it is the final resting place for many Clemson leaders whose names are familiar to alumni and students.
The other side of the marker notes that enslaved people were buried along the hillside below the Calhoun family plot in graves marked only by fieldstones. The exact number is unknown. From 1890 to 1915, prisoners who died while at Clemson were buried next to the slave cemetery.
At Calhoun Bottoms — lands still actively farmed today as part of Clemson’s agricultural mission — one side of the marker tells the story of the Cherokee Village of Esseneca, which existed for centuries before the American Revolution. The Cherokee presence ended when the town was burned during the Cherokee war of 1776.
The other side notes that the Fort Hill Plantation once covered nearly 1,100 acres where enslaved African-Americans cleared fields, planted and harvested crops and worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, millers and gardeners. A gristmill stream called Sawney’s Branch for enslaved laborer Sawney Calhoun was later renamed Hunnicutt Creek.
Telling the untold stories
Two people were the driving force behind the effort — Thomas and alumnus James E. Bostic Jr., whose $50,000 donation helped fund her work. Bostic was the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Clemson.
Thomas’s goal is to tell stories about Clemson’s early founding that have gone untold for generations.
One of those stories is about Sharper and Caroline Brown, whose daughter Matilda was born into slavery but lived most of her life as a free woman. Matilda Brown’s granddaughter, Eva Hester Martin of Greenville, was a guest at the recent groundbreaking, accompanied by her husband, John Martin, and daughter and son-in-law Valerie Martin-Lee and Lorenzo Lee.
It’s a story Thomas is piecing together from personal recollections backed up by photos, newspaper clippings, church and census records and other documentation.
Martin’s story is an inspiring one, Thomas said. The youngest of 10 children, she earned a degree in chemistry from S.C. State University, enjoyed a successful career as a medical technician in Chicago and Los Angeles and raised four children.
“These are stories of overcoming obstacles, and it’s that same narrative that can still encourage and uplift people today,” she said. “Some of these stories make us proud, some make us think and some make us cringe, but they all have lessons we can learn.”
Collecting and telling those stories involves a lot of listening, followed by painstaking efforts to locate official records and documents, which are often spotty.
“The University’s archives are a wonderful resource, and Census records are a great help,” she said. “For the convict laborers, the pardon records provide the strongest evidence of the men and boys who labored at Clemson, as the documentation specifies when they were released from Clemson College. But in some cases the records are incomplete or missing. I’m also researching their lives prior to and after incarceration to provide important insights into their experiences as members of families and communities, and examining reasons why African-American men and boys were subjected to mass incarceration in South Carolina at that time.”
Thomas hopes the University’s efforts to tell these stories will encourage more family members to come forward with information, photos, family Bibles or other materials that can confirm an ancestor’s connection to the University’s early years. News coverage of the groundbreaking has already prompted another family to contact her about ancestors who were enslaved on the Fort Hill plantation. She’ll be meeting with them soon to begin documenting their family history.
“These stories are part of Clemson’s heritage, and they deserve to be told,” she said.