‘Call My Name’: Clemson University professor seeks to credit black laborers on campus
Rhondda Robinson Thomas arrived at Clemson University in 2007, filling a post-doctorate position in the English Department faculty. A colleague took her on a tour of the place, ending within a grove of trees at the heart of the campus. Nestled there was Fort Hill, the former plantation home of John C. Calhoun. “I was pretty astounded,” she said. “No one had told me.” No one had told her that Clemson stood on the site of a former plantation where enslaved Africans toiled.
Almost immediately, she took her students to visit the historic old house, built in 1803 for the pastor of a Presbyterian church. It was then purchased by Calhoun in 1825, expanded and renamed. It became the epicenter of a sprawling plantation. Upon Calhoun’s death, ownership of the property transferred to his wife Floride and three of their children, Cornelia, John and Anna Maria, who was married to Thomas Green Clemson.
After various transactions, legal proceedings and an auction, the Clemsons ended up with the estate.
Thomas Clemson’s 1888 will stipulated that the state of South Carolina would inherit the 800-acre property for the purpose of establishing an agricultural college, and that the old house would never be demolished or altered and remain open to the public.
For more than 15 years, various colleges and universities — such as Brown, Georgetown, Harvard, William & Mary and Princeton — have delved into their history, acknowledged their role in sustaining and exploiting the institution of slavery and sought to find ways to make amends. With an eye toward improving African American enrollment numbers, the College of Charleston recently produced a short documentary, “If These Walls Could Talk.”
In February, Thomas will spend an $11,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant on a two-day event called “Documenting Your Roots.” The grant is part of the Common Heritage program, meant to help preserve aspects of America’s cultural legacy. Members of the public will be invited to bring documents and other materials for free digitization, and to donate items to Clemson for safekeeping in the special collections archives.