Professor, students go to Charlottesville to talk about history of slavery at universities
CLEMSON, South Carolina — Clemson University students and English professor Rhondda Thomas are traveling to Charlottesville, Virginia — the site of a deadly racial clash this summer — to participate in a symposium about the history of slavery at U.S. universities.
Thomas and the students will share research and opinions on Clemson’s history as a plantation and how the past impacts its future.
“I think that a university is a place where difficult conversations should take place, where we can have discourse, where we don’t have to all agree, but we can be respectful of people we don’t agree with,” Thomas said.
Thomas teaches early African-American literature. Ten years ago, she began the journey of researching Clemson’s past with slavery after taking a tour of campus during her first day on the job. Thomas said she marveled over the beauty of the campus as she walked over the library bridge and crossed the street.
The professor said the building was John C. Calhoun’s plantation house.
“I didn’t particularly like historic plantations. I wasn’t comfortable visiting historic plantations, yet here I was working on a plantation,” Thomas said.
Thomas selected a diverse group of students to participate in the conference. The team will engage with representatives from colleges and universities around the country.
Killian McDonald, a senior political science and women’s leadership double major, is a Calhoun Honors College ambassador, president of Undergraduate Student Government and a Truman Scholar.
“My role at the conference is to discuss the history of the naming of the Honors College and if it should be named after John C. Calhoun, and outlining his life compared to the mission of the Honors College,” McDonald said.
Junior Hannah Connelly is an English literature major. She hopes to learn how other universities deal with their histories and how that information is shared with students.
“We exist alongside of other schools who share similar threads, and I think it is important that we act as a part of a collective sentiment rather than a single voice so that change may occur and stay,” Connelly said.
Clemson senior and computer science major Khayla Williams started coming to Clemson when she was in high school. She participated in the Emerging Scholars Program. Williams said she fell in love with Clemson and decided to make it her school of choice. When she was a freshman, she learned about its plantation history.
She helped organize and lead campaigns and protests against racism and for social justice. She was a participant in a nine-day sit-in at Sikes Hall after which, the university outlined a plan to address a list of concerns, including telling Clemson’s full history. Williams said she is convinced the sit-in helped change the culture at Clemson.
Williams will discuss student activism in a roundtable at the conference.
Ian Anderson is a junior majoring in political science. He said he hopes to learn how students at other universities and colleges successfully communicate race-related issues and concerns to the leadership on their campuses.
Thomas asked the students to learn all they can during the trip to UVA.
“I told them, ‘You need to talk to lots of people. Don’t talk in a vacuum. Don’t just focus on what’s happening at Clemson. Learn from other students. Learn from other campuses,’” Thomas said. “So I think choosing students from four different areas of campus will result in multiple ways for us to filter this information across campus when they get back.”
Thomas said faculty at other colleges and universities say they are inspired by the work and impact of the work Clemson is doing to tell its complete story.