Professor will use grant to document African American lives in Clemson history
CLEMSON – Rhondda Robinson Thomas, associate professor of English at Clemson University, has received $100,000 for her research about African Americans who lived and labored on Clemson land during the pre-1963 integration period. James E. Bostic Jr. and Edith H. Bostic of Atlanta recently awarded Thomas $50,000. That gift was matched by the university, bringing the total grant to $100,000.
Thomas joined the university in 2007 and teaches African American literature in the English department. She is the author of “Exodus: A Cultural History of Afro-Atlantic Identity, 1774–1903” and the editor of Jane Edna Hunter’s autobiography, “A Nickel and a Prayer.” In 2013, she co-edited “The South Carolina Roots of African American Thought” with Clemson professor of English Susanna Ashton.
Shortly after joining Clemson’s faculty, Thomas learned that convict laborers were involved in constructing several of Clemson’s original buildings. Intrigued, she began to dig for more information.
“I wanted to discover more about their lives and roles in establishing the institution,” Thomas explained. “Several years passed before I located the records at the South Carolina state archive in Columbia. When I learned that the youngest convict laborer was a 12-year-old African American boy and that some of them had been slaves or were the children of former slaves, I decided to conduct more research so that I could enrich Clemson’s public history with details about the predominately African American convict labor crew’s contributions to the institution.
“Legally, these men and boys who were leased to Clemson were ‘slaves of the state,’ which extended the practice of slavery on Clemson land into the early 20th century.”
Thomas has big plans for the grant funding, including the development of a website, mobile app, story map and book to make the stories of these men and boys – as well as the stories of enslaved African Americans, sharecroppers and black laborers – accessible in multiple ways to the Clemson community as well as to a worldwide audience.
“Dr. Thomas’s scholarly work on the early history of Clemson University is providing new and truly fascinating insight into the lives of people who labored to construct the campus, said Clemson University Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Robert H. Jones. “We are seeing that Clemson’s beginning reflects both good and tragic elements of the social and economic fabric of late 19th century South Carolina. I am extremely grateful to Jim Bostic for his generous support of our faculty, commitment to diversity and focus on a deeper understanding of our history.”
In 1972, Bostic was the first African American to earn a doctorate from the university. He has served as a director of the Clemson University Foundation, president of Clemson IPTAY and as a member of the Clemson University board of trustees. In 1990, he was presented with the Distinguished Service Award from the Clemson Alumni Association.
Bostic currently is managing director of HEP and Associates, a business consulting firm, and is a partner with Coleman Lew and Associates, an executive search consulting firm. He served as executive vice president of environmental, government affairs and communications for Georgia-Pacific Corp. prior to his retirement in 2005.
His vision for the gift is expansive and mirrors Thomas’s.
Bostic noted, “These funds are for the support of the research of Dr. Thomas on enslaved African Americans and sharecroppers who lived and worked at Fort Hill; the black convict laborers who worked at Clemson University making bricks that they used to build Tillman Hall, Sikes Hall, Hardin Hall and the Trustee House; erecting other structures; planting and harvesting crops; and black wage laborers who were employed by the college prior to the integration of the university in 1963.”
He added, “We can’t change history, but I want us to know about it, and for us to talk about it.”