Call My Name African Americans in Early Clemson University History

CMN Backstory

Welcome to the launch site for my project, Call My Name: African Americans in Early ClemsonUniversity History, 1825-1973. My name is Rhondda R. Thomas, and I'm an associate professor of English at Clemson University whose research focuses primarily on 19th-century African American literature and culture.

I became interested in learning more about Clemson's history on my first day of work during a campus tour in August of 2007 when a colleague informed me that the university was built on American statesman John C. Calhoun and his wife Floride Calhoun's Fort Hill Plantation.

I had been hired as a visiting assistant professor/post-doc to teach early African American and American literature in Clemson's Department of English. Later that fall, I accepted a tenure-track position and intensified my research, inspired by and building on the work of my English department colleagues Professors Susanna Ashton and Michael LeMahieu, and working alongside Professors Cameron Bushnell, Kimberly Manganelli, and Angela Naimou who were also engaged in recovering and examining this history.

Photo: Professor Thomas standing in front of John C. & Floride Calhoun's Fort Hill Plantation house that is located in the center of the Clemson University campus.

Six Generations of African Americans

in Early Clemson University History, 1825-1973

Call My Name: African Americans in Early Clemson University History (CMN) is researching and documenting the stories, acknowledging the contributions, and honoring the legacy of six generations of African Americans at the university. I chose "Call My Name" as the name of the project to evoke the call and response tradition associated with African American culture, as we are calling the names of African Americans in early Clemson history and inviting an array of people to assist us in documenting their stories, honoring their lives, and acknowledging their contributions. The project name also evokes the roll call for the cadets who matriculated at Clemson College, as well as the roll call that occurs in classes for current Clemson students.

While many higher education institutions such as the University of Virginia, Georgetown University, Brown University, College of William and Mary, and Emory University founded during the colonial and antebellum periods have focused on the history of slavery in the founding and flourishing of their universities, CMN adopts an approach for Clemson University that reaches back into our antebellum roots when John C. Calhoun's Fort Hill Plantation was established on the land in 1825, and then moves forward 138 years to the enrollment of Harvey Gantt as the first African American student at the University in 1963. There six generations of African Americans connected to early Clemson University history during this time period--slaves, sharecroppers, convict laborers, low-wage workers, musicians, and students, faculty, and staff. Their stories will increase our understanding of the complex dynamics of race relations and labor in South Carolina and the nation from the antebellum period into the modern era. Thus, CMN functions as a family/plantation history, a study of black labor, and a history of race and higher education.

I'll provide more details about the six generations below the photographs.

Matilda Brown, slave at Fort Hill, and Harvey Gantt (l to r)

Photographs (l to r): image of family photograph belonging to Eva Hester Martin, grandaughter of Matilda Brown (R. Thomas, 2016); Harvey Gantt registering for classes in January 1963 (Source: Harvey Gantt Papers, Clemson University Libraries' Special Collections & Archives).

Generation I: Slaves

At least 129 enslaved African Americans lived and labored on the Fort Hill Plantation, initially owned by John C. Calhoun and his wife Floride, between 1825 and 1865. They worked as domestics, field hands, valets, gatekeepers, gardeners, blacksmiths, carpenters, carriage drivers, and weavers for the Calhouns, Andrew Pickens and Margaret Calhoun, and Thomas Green and Anna Calhoun Clemson families.

CMN is conducting research to document and provide new insights into the lives and labors of African Americans who were enslaved at Fort Hill, as well as their descendants who remained in and migrated from South Carolina after the Civil War. In telling their stories, CMN will also enhance our understanding of the Calhouns and Clemsons as slaveholders and the institution of slavery in Upstate South Carolina.

Photo: Fort Hill Plantation House (Source: Thomas Green Clemson Papers, Clemson University Libraries' Special Collections & Archives).

Generation II - Sharecroppers

Between 1868 and 1874, at least 40 freedmen, women, and children—former slaves—signed annual contracts to labor as sharecroppers for Clemson University founder Thomas Green Clemson and his agent on the Fort Hill Plantation. The laborers signed the documents with an X mark that stipulated the terms of their work, including pay for planting and harvesting crops, housing arrangements, rules governing behavior, and punishments for offenses.

CMN is conducting research about these newly freed slaves who labored as sharecroppers at Fort Hill during the Reconstruction era. We are also seeking details about their enslavement during the antebellum period and their descendants. Additionally, CMN will investigate the roles of Thomas Green Clemson and his agent for the sharecropping enterprise at Fort Hill.

Image: Annual contract signed by freedmen, women and children to work as sharecroppers for Thomas Green Clemson on the Fort Hill Plantation during Reconstruction (Source: Thomas Green Clemson Papers, Clemson University Libraries' Special Collections & Archives).

Generation III: Convict Laborers

Between 1890 and 1915, Clemson College trustees successfully petitioned the South Carolina State Legislature at least three times for permission to lease incarcerated boys and men from the state penitentiary in Columbia to help build Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina. The men and boys assigned to the Clemson College convict detail hailed from nearly every county of the state and ranged in age from 12 to 77. Convicted of crimes varying from petty theft to murder with sentences ranging from six months to life, members of the predominately African American convict detail cleared land, made bricks, erected buildings and a dike, farmed crops, and built an extension station for Clemson College, a segregated academic institution for white cadets founded in 1899 and opened for classes in 1893. A small percentage of the convicted men received pardons from SC governors, including Benjamin R. Tillman, while working at the College. Those who died while laboring were buried in unmarked graves adjacent to the Fort Hill solve cemetery.

CMN seeks to confirm the identity of all of the men and boys who were listed in the registers of convict laborers assigned to Clemson College and determine which of them actually worked on the convict detail at the institution. We are also documenting their contributions to the building and maintenance of the College. Additionally, we seek to provide insights into the lives of the men and boys before, during, and after incarceration, as well as identify their descendants. In writing the stories of members of this generation, CMN illuminates the socio-political structure that emerged in South Carolina following the end of Reconstruction, particularly the excessive policing and criminalization of African American boys and men, the rise of the prison industrial complex, and the impact of Jim Crow laws and customs.

Image: Page one of the first register listing the names of men and boys assigned to the Clemson College convict detail in August of 1890 (Source: South Carolina State Archive).

Generation IV: Wage Workers

Beginning in the late 1800s, African Americans were hired as wage workers on the land that became Clemson University as domestics, cooks, field hands, barbers, garbage collectors, groundskeepers, and butchers to maintain the infrastructure of the institution.

Clemson also employed African American Cooperative Extension Service agents to develop and support community organization, increase farm and home ownership, encourage educational pursuits and independence, improve residents' health and understanding of nutrition, and facilitate the development of sanitation services in rural African American communities throughout the state.

CMN seeks to identify and tell the stories of African Americans who labored as wage workers at Clemson prior to and immediately after integration, and to document the essential role of black labor in creating and maintaining the infrastructure that was essential for Clemson's success. We will also tell stories about the impact of extension workers on the development of African American communities in South Carolina.

Photo credit: Extension workers employed by Clemson to work in rural African American communities. (Source: Clemson University Libraries' Special Collections & Archives.)

Generation V: Musicians

Prior to and after the integration of Clemson in 1963, the student-run Central Dance Association (CDA) hired prominent African American musicians to perform for a variety of dances and concerts at the College. In 1939, Jimmie Lunceford became the first African American musician to perform at Clemson. In 1955, the CDA hired Duke Ellington and his orchestra to perform three concerts at the institution. While Clemson College administrators sought unsuccessfully to legally bar African American architecture student Harvey Gantt from enrolling at the institution in 1962-1963, the CDA continued to pay African Americans musicians to perform at dances for white Clemson students on campus.

CMN seeks to identify all African American musicians who performed at Clemson prior to integration and document their varied experiences at the institution during and immediately after the Jim Crow era.

Photo: Duke Ellington photograph autographed for Clemson Dance Association (Source: George Benett Papers, Clemson University Libraries' Special Collections & Archives, ca. 1955).

Generation VI: Students, Faculty & Staff

In January of 1963, Harvey Gantt became the first African American student to enroll in Clemson University after winning a class action lawsuit that his father Christopher Gantt had filed on his behalf because he was a minor. Harvey Gantt initially sought admission to Clemson in January 1961 but after his application was repeatedly denied or delayed for various reasons, he filed a lawsuit in the summer of 1962, which he won on appeal in January of 1963.

CMN seeks to ensure that the details regarding Harvey Gantt's two-year fight to gain admission to Clemson are accessible to the public, as well as the matriculations of other African American students who enrolled at the University during the first decade of integration. We will also document how the integration of the student body helped to facilitate the hiring of the first generation of African American faculty at Clemson and give voice to their accomplishments.

Photo: Harvey Gantt at press conference following enrollment in Clemson College in January of 1963 (Source: Harvey Gantt Papers, Clemson University Libraries' Special Collections & Archives).

South Carolina Historical Markers Project

Beginning in January of 2015, a team of Clemson professors, alumni, and staff, including Barret Anderson, Dr. James Bostic Jr., Will Hiott, Professor Jeremy King, Professor Denise Anderson and Professor Rhondda Thomas worked to research, write text, and prepare the applications for three new South Carolina state historical markers that provide recognition for the Native American and African American life stories in early Clemson history. A group of Clemson historians were also consulted for the project. The markers installed on Clemson's campus in April of 2016 are 1) Esseneca Town/Calhoun Bottoms, 2) Fort Hill Slave Cemetery and Convict Laborer Burial Ground/Woodland Cemetery, and 3) Fort Hill Slave Quarters/Convict Laborer Stockade.

Clemson Student Research Projects

The Clemson Story Creative Inquiry Project

During the 2015-16 academic year, a team of 13 undergraduate students conducted research for the Clemson University Story Project. Their work ranged from documenting all of the Clemson University trustees and their political affiliations to detailing the stories of African American women at Clemson. Learn more about their research by clicking the link below.

"The African American Experience at Clemson" Honors English Project

During the spring of 2012, Kali Kupp, an English major in my Honors Seminar, renaissance @ which examined Clemson University founder Thomas Green Clemson and Harvey Gantt who integrated Clemson in 1963 as renaissance men, developed a website devoted to African Americans' contributions to and involvement in Clemson for her final project. Click the link below to learn more about Kali's research.

Photo: CI team member conducting research in the South Carolina state archives (R. Thomas, 2016).

StoryCorps Collaboration with CMN

In May of 2016, CMN partnered with StoryCorps, a national organization that records oral histories, and the Clemson Area African American Museum (CAAAM) to tape interviews of people associated with the project. Participants included descendants of enslaved African Americans who labored on the Fort Hill Plantation, current Clemson administrators and staff, and Clemson alumni and retirees. Some excerpts of recordings will soon be accessible through the CMN Facebook page.
Media Coverage of CMN

Photograph (left to right): Mrs. Eva Hester Martin; Mrs. Martin's grandmother Matilda Brown—daughter of Sharper and Caroline, all slaves on the Fort Hill Plantation; Mrs. Martin's mother Anna Brown; and Mrs. Martin's high school graduation photo (R. Thomas, 2016).

Call My Name Staff
CMN Project Affiliation

Photograph: Student League for Black Identity organized at Clemson University in 1968 (Source: Clemson University Libraries' Special Collections & Archives, ca. 1975).

Coming Soon

Black Clemson traveling Museum Exhibition

based on research conducted for Call My Name

Photographs (clockwise) 1 - Matilda, enslaved on John C. Calhoun's Fort Hill Plantation, and her daughter Anna born after Emancipation. 2) Littlejohn Grill, nightclub-restaurant in Clemson, SC where musicians like James Brown, Count Basie, and Ray Charles performed. 3) Abel Baptist Church historical marker. 4) James E. Bostic Jr., first African American student to earn PhD at Clemson University in 1972.

Black Clemson will be an interactive traveling museum exhibition that tells the story of African Americans' journey from slavery to integration on John C. Calhoun’s Fort Hill Plantation where Clemson University was built and around which the town of Clemson, SC, was established. These stories include those of enslaved people prior to Emancipation; former slaves who labored as sharecroppers during Reconstruction; incarcerated laborers, aged 13-77, who erected the University’s earliest buildings; wage workers who maintained the campus infrastructure during the Jim Crow era; musicians like Duke Ellington and Ray Charles who performed at segregated social events; and students, faculty, and staff who came to Clemson during the first decade of integration. Black Clemson will also highlight community institutions such as the Abel Baptist Church established by African Americans in 1868, Littlejohn Grill, a nightclub-restaurant-hotel where musicians like James Brown and Count Basie performed, and the Calhoun Elementary School, and will feature a living history stage where those connected with this history can share their stories. Key project partners include the Bertha Lee Strickland Cultural Museum, Clemson Area African American Museum, Clemson University Libraries Special Collections, and the Upcountry History Museum of Greenville - Furman University, a Smithsonian affiliate. Black Clemson reclaims these forgotten stories that are essential for understanding the intricate connections between the history of African Americans in Clemson and the region, state, and nation.


If you have information about people in any of the six generations, please contact us.

All pictures are either used with permission or owned by the CMN project. No part of this site can be reproduced without permission from the CMN project manager or the source cited.

Created By
Rhondda Thomas

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