Welcome to the launch site for my project, Call My Name: African Americans in Clemson University History. My name is Rhondda R. Thomas, and I'm the Calhoun Lemon Professor of Literature at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina, where I research and teach courses about 18th & 19th-century African American literature and 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 one of my colleagues informed me 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 fellow 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, examining, and sharing this history.
Photograph: Dr. 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. (Source: Clemson University Creative Media Services.)
Seven Generations of People of African Descent
in Clemson University History, 1737 onward
The Call My Name (CMN) team is researching and documenting the stories, acknowledging the contributions, and honoring the legacy of seven generations of people of African descent in Clemson University history. "Call My Name" was selected as the name of the project to evoke the call-and-response tradition in African American culture, as we are calling the names of Black people in Clemson history and inviting the public to assist us in making their stories accessible and visible in the university's pubic narrative. 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 and at graduation for current Clemson students.
The CMN team utilizes an interdisciplinary methodology to document this history. We begin with Africans who lived freely before they were captured, sold into slavery, transported to the British colonies, and eventually forced to migrate to Calhoun's Fort Hill Plantation that he established in the South Carolina Upstate in 1825. We then trace the journey of African peoples from slavery forward more than a century to the enrollment of Harvey Gantt as the first Black student at the University in 1963 and the graduation of the first Black PhD student James Bostic Jr. in 1972. We recently added twenty-first century activists who are advocating for a more diverse and inclusive campus, nation, and world.
We have identified seven generations of Black people connected to Clemson University history: 1) free Africans and enslaved persons of African descent, 2) sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and servants, 3) convicted laborers, 4) wage workers and cooperative extension service employees, 5) musicians, 6) students, faculty, staff, and administrators, and 7) twenty-first century activists. These stories will increase our understanding of South Carolina and America's complex history including that of families and plantations, and Black labor, race relations, and higher education.
The goals of the CMN Project are to educate the public about this history, to empower our supporters to become change agents, and to advocate for the equitable treatment of and opportunities for Black people at Clemson University and in local communities.
To support the work of the Call My Name: African Americans in Clemson University History Project, you may click here to make a donation through the Clemson Foundation. Thank you.
Scroll down for more details about the seven generations and CMN initiatives below the photographs.
Generation I: Free Africans & Enslaved Persons of African Descent
At least 139 enslaved Black people lived and labored on Calhoun's Fort Hill Plantation. But their story really begins with free Africans like Polydore and Menemin who are believed to have been captured and enslaved in Africa and transported to South Carolina where they were sold to enslavers again and eventually forced to migrate to and labor for the Calhoun family in the Upcountry region of the state. The Calhouns had initially settled in Abbeville, SC, before John C. Calhoun relocated his family to his own plantation. Enslaved persons worked on Fort Hill as domestics, field hands, valets, gatekeepers, gardeners, blacksmiths, carpenters, carriage drivers, and weavers for the families of John and Floride Calhoun, Andrew Pickens and Margaret Calhoun, and Thomas Green and Anna Calhoun Clemson.
CMN is conducting research to document and provide new insights into the lives and labors of people of African descent 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 increase our understanding of the Calhouns and Clemsons as enslavers and the institution of slavery in Upstate South Carolina.
Photograph: Thomas and Frances Fruster, former enslaved persons (foreground) and Mary Prince, caretaker (on porch) at the Fort Hill Plantation house, post-Reconstruction (Source: Thomas Green Clemson Papers, Clemson University Libraries' Special Collections & Archives. Used with permission.).
Generation II - Sharecroppers & Servants
Between 1868 and 1874, at least 44 freed men and women—formerly enslaved persons—signed annual contracts to labor as sharecroppers for Clemson University founder Thomas Green Clemson and his agent on the Fort Hill Plantation. Sixteen children who worked alongside them were classified as "half-hands." The adult laborers signed the documents with an X mark (due to illiteracy or disability) that stipulated the terms of their work, including pay for planting and harvesting crops, housing arrangements, rules governing behavior, and punishments for offenses.
Thomas Green Clemson also hired African Americans as servants and tenant farmers to work for him at Fort Hill.
CMN is conducting research about the sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and servants who labored on 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 and the maintenance of his home.
Image: Annual Articles of Agreement signed with an X mark by freed men and women, alongside notations regarding child laborers, to work as sharecroppers for Thomas Green Clemson on the Fort Hill Plantation during Reconstruction during Reconstruction (Source: Thomas Green Clemson Papers, Clemson University Libraries' Special Collections & Archives. Used with permission.).
Generation III: Convict Laborers
Between 1890 and 1915, Clemson College trustees successfully petitioned the South Carolina State Assembly 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 in the state and ranged in age from 12 to 67 when they were processed into the penitentiary. (The 12-year-old turned 13 before he was assigned to the Clemson convict workforce.) The majority of convicted individuals assigned to work at Clemson College were under the age of 25.
Convicted of felonies varying from petty theft to murder with sentences ranging from six months to life, members of the predominately Black convict workforce cleared land, made bricks, erected academic buildings, faculty houses, and a dike, farmed crops, and built an extension station for Clemson College, a higher education institution for white cadets founded in 1899 and opened for classes in 1893. A small percentage of the convicted men received pardons from several SC governors, including Benjamin R. Tillman, while working at the College. Those who died while laboring on campus are believed to have been buried in unmarked graves in the African American burial ground within Cemetery Hill, formally known as Woodland Cemetery.
CMN seeks to tell the stories 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 white Democrats, particularly Tillman adherents, established in South Carolina after the end of Reconstruction, especially the excessive policing and criminalization of Black boys and men, the rise of the prison industrial complex, and the impact of Jim Crow laws and customs on the African American community.
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 Department of Archives & History, Columbia, SC).
Generation IV: Wage Workers & Cooperative Extension Service Employees
Beginning in the late 1800s, Black Americans were hired as wage workers on the land where Clemson was built as domestics, cooks, nurses, farm hands, barbers, groundskeepers, live-in servants, construction workers, and butchers to maintain the infrastructure of the institution and care for its white administrators, faculty, staff, and students.
Clemson also employed "Negro agents" for the segregated Cooperative Extension Service program 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 Black communities throughout the state.
CMN seeks to identify and tell the stories of Black Americans who labored as wage workers and extension agents at Clemson prior to and immediately after integration, and to document the University's dependence on Black labor for its establishment, growth, and success. We will also tell stories about the impact of extension workers on the development of Black communities throughout South Carolina.
Photograph: South Carolina 4-H Club, Clemson College Extension Program (Source: Documenting the Clemson African American Experience, Clemson University Libraries' Special Collections & Archives. Used with permission.).
Generation V: Musicians
As early as 1920, African American musicians performed for social events and gave concerts at Clemson. That year, the Tiger, the student-run newspaper, reported that a "negro orchestra" played for the Junior Prom. Throughout the Depression, other African American musical groups, including Graham Jackson and the Seminole Syncopators, Neil Montgomery, the Jimmy Gunn Orchestra, and Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra, were hired to play at Clemson. In 1939, Jimmie Lunceford became the first Black musician booked by Clemson's student-run Central Dance Association (CDA) to have his photograph included in a Tiger article about his performance (see image below).
In 1955, the CDA hired Duke Ellington and his orchestra for three performances. It had taken more than ten years to negotiate his concert series. Eight years later, while Clemson College administrators sought unsuccessfully to legally bar Black architecture student Harvey Gantt from enrolling at the higher education institution, the CDA continued to book Black musicians for performances at dances and social events for white Clemson students on campus.
CMN seeks to identify all Black musicians who performed at Clemson prior to and in the years after desegregation and to document their varied experiences at the institution.
Photograph: Duke Ellington autographed this photo for the Clemson Dance Association (Source: George Bennett Papers, Clemson University Libraries' Special Collections & Archives, ca. 1955. Photograph is in the public domain.).
Generation VI: Students, Faculty, Staff & Administrators
On January 28, 1963, Harvey B. Gantt became the first Black student to enroll in Clemson after winning a class-action lawsuit for admission. Gantt began the admission process by requesting a bulletin and application on November 2, 1960. After his application was repeatedly denied or delayed for various reasons, his father filed a lawsuit on his behalf in the summer of 1962, which he won on appeal to the US Supreme Court in December 1962.
South Carolina was the last state to desegregate its public schools after the US Supreme Court ruled in its Brown v. Board of Education 1954 decision that racial discrimination violated the 14th amendment that guaranteed American citizens equal protection under the law. Clemson was the first public institution to desegregate in South Carolina since Reconstruction.
CMN seeks to ensure that the details regarding Gantt's two-year fight to gain admission to Clemson are accessible to the public, as well as information about the matriculations of other Black students who enrolled at the University, particularly during the first decade of integration. We will also document how the desegregation of the student body helped to facilitate the hiring of the first generation of Black faculty and administrators, the establishment of the Student League for Black Identity, the integration of athletics, and the diversification of staff at Clemson. And we will honor the accomplishments of Black Clemson trailblazers.
Photograph: Harvey Gantt at press conference following enrollment in Clemson College in January of 1963 (Source: Harvey Gantt Papers, Clemson University Libraries' Special Collections & Archives. Used with permission.).
Generation VII: 21st-century activism
The roots of Black protest on the land where Clemson was built stretch back into the antebellum period when an enslaved girl named Issey who was owned by the Calhouns nearly burned the Fort Hill Plantation house down by setting fire to a feather pillow in an upstairs bedroom. Through every generation, Black people have fought against injustice and demanded liberation and equality.
In the twenty-first century, Black Clemson students and their allies and accomplices have become increasingly involved in activism as the Black Lives Matter movement sparked protests across the nation and around the world.
In 2014, A.D. Carson, then a graduate student in Clemson's Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design program, penned a powerful spoken-word poem that issued a call to action for Clemson tigers to directly address and fully acknowledge and honor the stripes--the lives and labors of enslaved persons, sharecroppers, and incarcerated men and boys--in the University's incomplete, whitewashed history.
Additionally, students have organized a series of marches and protests to demand change at Clemson and in the nation. They marched to call for the change of the name of Tillman Hall to its original name the Main Building, or "Old Main," an action supported by the Faculty Senate in 2015 and which the Board of Trustees requested an exception in the SC Heritage Act to actually do in 2020. They staged a die-in on Bowman Field to protest the murder of Eric Garner who was choked to death by a police officer on a New York sidewalk and the lack of an indictment for the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. They issued grievances and demands for Clemson administrators to address the institution's failure to live up to its founder's vision and its mission to provide an empowering education in a safe and nurturing environment for all students. They staged a sit-in at Sikes Hall--which led to the arrest of five Clemson students--when racist incidents continued and the administration didn't respond to their grievances and demands when they promised they would. Administrators provided a response just as the student-activists ended the protest, but most of the demands have not been fulfilled.
More recently, student-athletes organized a demonstration to call for an end to systemic racism after the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and many other Black people, often by police officers. Clemson students initiated an Instagram campaign called "Black and Brown at Clemson," now facilitated by Clemson Undergraduate Student Government's Council of Diversity Affairs, to provide a forum for people of color at the University to share their stories. In the fall of 2020, students will launch a video campaign called "WeCU" in which they discuss different social issues and how they impact Clemson.
CMN is documenting these stories in real time, offering students and their supporters opportunities to tell and preserve their history in their own words so that future generations will known their names and be inspired and empowered by their activism.
Photograph: Students and their supports during the Sikes Sit-in in April 2015 (Source: Rhondda R. Thomas).
Clemson University African American Burial Ground Project
During the summer of 2020, Preservation South, using ground penetrating radar, located 215 graves in two locations in Woodland Cemetery where African Americans are believed to be buried.
The Clemson University Board of Trustees' Legacy Council has asked Dr. Thomas and the Call My Name Project team to lead the community engagement aspect of the project. We would like to talk with people who believe their families or friends are buried in the cemetery. We would also like to talk with African Americans who were employed by Clemson prior to and after desegregation in 1963, particularly through the mid-1990s.
If you have information about the burial ground, please email email@example.com.
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 creating stories about Black women at Clemson.
"The African American Experience at Clemson" Honors English Project
During the spring of 2012, Kali Kupp, an English major in my Honors Seminar, renaissance @ clemson.edu which examined the lives and contributions of Clemson University founder Thomas Green Clemson and Harvey Gantt, who desegregated Clemson in 1963, developed a website devoted to Black peoples' contributions to and involvement in Clemson for her final project. Click the link below to learn more about Kupp's research.
Photograph: CI team member conducting research in the South Carolina state archives (Credit: Rhondda Thomas).
Call My Name Publications by Dr. Thomas
Forthcoming: Call My Name, Clemson: Documenting the Black Experience in an Upstate South Carolina University Community, Humanities and Public Life Book Series, University of Iowa Press, November 2020. Pre-order your copy by clicking here.
Photograph: Susan Calhoun Clemson Richardson holding Byron Herlong (ca. 1892 (?). Mrs. Richardson was enslaved by John C. and Floride Calhoun and given as a gift to their daughter Anna when she married Thomas Green Clemson. After the Civil War, Mrs. Richardson was employed as a caretaker for the Herlong family children for three generations. She died in Aiken, SC, in the early 1900s. Her burial site is currently unknown. (Source: Historic Properties, Clemson University. Used with permission.).
StoryCorps Collaboration with CMN
Media Coverage of CMN
Photograph (left to right): 90-year-old Mrs. Eva Hester Martin. Mrs. Martin's grandmother Matilda Brown—daughter of Sharper and Caroline who were enslaved on the Fort Hill Plantation. Mrs. Martin's mother Anna Brown, born after Emancipation. Mrs. Martin's high school graduation photo (Credit: Rhondda Thomas).
Call My Name Research Team
CMN Project Affiliation
Call My Name Coalition
The purpose of The CMN Coalition shall be to maintain a partnership of organizations interested in documenting the African American experience at Clemson University and in the Clemson area, particularly the three adjacent counties of Anderson, Oconee, and Pickens, in Upstate South Carolina. By recording, representing, and soliciting the experiences of generations of African American life in an extraordinary microcosm of American history and racial politics, we hope to advance and encourage appreciation, understanding, of the African American experience, and to cooperate, when appropriate, with other groups to improve the cultural activities of the community.
CMN Coalition Members
Photograph: Student League for Black Identity organized at Clemson University in 1968 (Source: Clemson University Libraries' Special Collections & Archives, ca. 1975. Used with permission.).
Call My Name Tours
I conduct one- and two-hour Black heritage tours of Clemson University. Stops include the Seneca River Basin, the site of the Cherokee town of Esseneca and the later the Fort Hill Planation fields, where Clemson's organic farm is currently located; Lee Hall / Visitor Center where the Fort Hill slave quarters and convict stockade were located, respectively; the historic district that includes buildings built by incarcerated boys and men (Hardin Hall, Trustee House, Sikes Hall, and Old Main [Tillman Hall]); the Fort Hill Plantation house; Memorial Stadium; and the African American Burial Ground in Woodland Cemetery. Most tours end with a conversation while participants share a meal featuring cuisine from the African Diaspora.
We will begin tours again after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.
- Black History Month Celebration, Clemson University's Harvey and Lucinda Gantt Multicultural Center, February 11, 2020, 3-5 p.m.
- Black History Month program sponsored by Clemson University's Harvey and Lucinda Gantt Multicultural Center, February 7 and 21, 2018, 3-5 p.m.
- Black History Month program sponsored by Clemson University's Harvey and Lucinda Gantt Multicultural Center, February 7 and 21, 2018, 3-5 p.m.
- Clemson Undergraduate Student Association Cabinet, November 2017
- Contemplative African American Heritage Tour, October 2016 and March 2017
- Greater Clemson Music Festival, April 2015 and April 2016
- The Slave Dwelling Project Encampment at Clemson, former site of Fort Hill Plantation Slave Quarters, April 2016
- Leading for Environment and Future Living Learning Community (LEAF), Clemson University, April 2016
- Clemson Black Student Union, March 2016
For more information about tours, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Photograph: Descendants of Frances and Thomas Fruster who were enslaved on the Fort Hill Plantation. (Source: Clemson University Creative Media Services, Ken Scar)
CALL MY NAME
traveling Museum Exhibition
Gifts, Grants, and Awards, Sponsors, & collaborators
Gifts, Grants, and Awards
NEH CARES Act Grant, support of post-doc for research of African American history in South Carolina Upstate, with co-PI Professor Lee Morrissey, director of the Humanities Hub, Clemson University, National Endowment for the Humanities, Summer 2020
NEH Public Humanities Exhibitions - Implementation grant with co-PI Professor Lee Morrissey, director of the Humanities Hub, Clemson University, 2020
NEH Common Heritage Grant, "Documenting Your Family Story" Community Digitizing Event, with co-PI Professor Lee Morrissey, director of the Humanities Hub, Clemson University, 2019 (co-PI Professor Lee Morrissey, director of Clemson Humanities Hub)
Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship, 2018-19 (for exhibition project)
NEH Creating Humanities Communities Matching Grant, with co-investigator Professor Lee Morrissey, director of the Humanities Hub, Clemson University, 2017-2022
South Carolina Humanities Mini-Grant (for exhibition project research), July 2017
African American History, Culture and Digital Humanities Scholar, University of Maryland, Spring 2019
Gift from Dr. James E. and Edith H. Bostic, Jr., Clemson University Foundation, 2014 and 2017
Matching grant for Bostics' gifts from Office of the Provost, Clemson University, Clemson, SC, 2014 and 2017
The Department of English, Clemson University
Office of the Provost, Clemson University
Office of Inclusion & Equity, Clemson University
College of Architecture, Arts, and Humanities, Clemson University
Harvey and Lucinda Gantt Multicultural Center, Clemson University
The Humanities Hub, Clemson University
Pearce Center for Professional Communications, Department of English, Clemson University
Historic Properties, Clemson University
Clemson University Art Majors
Photograph: Descendants of Frances and Thomas Fruster who were enslaved on the Fort Hill Plantation attending History in Plain Sight Day at Clemson University on November 14, 2016. Seated far left is Eric Young, Clemson grad 2005, who discovered his family roots and ties to Clemson history after graduating from the University. (Credit: Ken Scar)