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 whose research focuses on 18th & 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 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 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.
Photograph: 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. (Source: Clemson University Creative Media Services.)
Six Generations of People of African Descent
in Clemson University History, 1737 onward
The Call My Name team is researching and documenting the stories, acknowledging the contributions, and honoring the legacy of six generations of people of African descent 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 Black people in early Clemson history and inviting the public to assist us in making their stories accessible locally and internationally. 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.
While some higher education institutions established during the colonial and antebellum periods initially focused on the history and legacies of slavery in the founding and flourishing of their universities, CMN adopts an approach for Clemson University that reaches back to Africans who lived freely before they were captured, sold into slavery, transported to the British colonies and eventually forced to migrate to John C. Calhoun's Fort Hill Plantation that had been established in the South Carolina Upstate in 1825. The story traces 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. There are six generations of Black people connected to early Clemson University history during this time period: 1) Free Africans and enslaved persons of African descent, 2) sharecroppers, 3) convict laborers, 4) wage workers, 5) musicians, as well as 6) students, faculty, and staff. Their stories will increase our understanding of South Carolina and America's complex history including that of families and plantations, and black labor and race relations and higher education.
More details about the six generations are provided below the photographs.
Generation I: Free Africans & Enslaved Persons of African Descent
At least 129 enslaved Blacks lived and labored on the Fort Hill Plantation, established by American statesman John C. Calhoun in 1825 near Pendleton, South Carolina. 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 slavers 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 before John C. Calhoun relocated his family to established his own plantation. Enslaved persons worked on Fort Hill 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 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 enhance our understanding of the Calhouns and Clemsons as slaveholders and the institution of slavery in Upstate South Carolina.
Photograph: Thomas and Franny Fruster, former slaves (foreground) and Mary Prince, caretaker (on porch) at the Fort Hill Plantation House (Source: Thomas Green Clemson Papers, Clemson University Libraries' Special Collections & Archives).
Generation II - Sharecroppers
Between 1868 and 1874, at least 44 freedmen and women—former slaves—signed annual contracts to labor as sharecroppers for Clemson University founder Thomas Green Clemson and his agent on the Fort Hill Plantation. Sixteen children worked alongside them 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.
CMN is conducting research about these former 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 Articles of Agreement signed by freedmen and women, along with children, 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).
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 13 to 67. Convicted of crimes 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 buildings and a dike, farmed crops, and built an extension station for Clemson College, a land-grant 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 within the Fort Hill slave 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 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
Beginning in the late 1800s, Black 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 "Negro" 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 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 essential role of black labor for Clemson's growth and success. We will also tell stories about the impact of extension workers on the development of Black communities in 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.)
Generation V: Musicians
Prior to and after the integration of Clemson in 1963, the student-run Central Dance Association (CDA) hired prominent Black musicians to perform for a variety of dances and concerts at the College. In 1939, Jimmie Lunceford became the first Black musician to perform at Clemson. In 1955, the CDA hired Duke Ellington and his orchestra for three performances. While Clemson College administrators sought unsuccessfully to legally bar Black architecture student Harvey Gantt from enrolling at the institution in 1963, the CDA continued to pay Black musicians to perform at dances for white Clemson students on campus.
CMN seeks to identify all Black musicians who performed at Clemson prior to and in the decade immediately after integration and document their varied experiences at the institution during and following desegregation.
Photograph: Duke Ellington autographed this photo for the Clemson Dance Association (Source: George Bennett Papers, Clemson University Libraries' Special Collections & Archives, ca. 1955).
Generation VI: Students, Faculty & Staff
On January 28, 1963, Harvey Gantt became the first Black student to enroll in Clemson after winning a class-action lawsuit for admission without regard to race. Harvey 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 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 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 a marked increase in the number and variety of staff at Clemson, and we will honor to their accomplishments.
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).
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 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 Clemson University founder Thomas Green Clemson and Harvey Gantt who integrated Clemson in 1963 as renaissance men, 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 Kali's research.
Photograph: CI team member conducting research in the South Carolina state archives (R. Thomas, 2016).
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 (R. Thomas, 2016).
Call My Name Tours
Professor Thomas conducts 2-hour tours of Clemson University that focus on the Black experience. Stops include Calhoun Bottoms, the last piece of Fort Hill Plantation land where Clemson's organic farm is currently located; the site of the Fort Hill slave quarters and convict stockade near Lee Hall; the historic district that includes buildings built by boys and men on the predominately Black convict labor crew (Hardin Hall, Trustee House, Sikes Hall, and Old Main [Tillman Hall]); the Fort Hill Plantation House; and the Fort Hill Slave Cemetery and Convict Burial Ground located adjacent to Woodland Cemetery. Most tours end with conversation over a meal featuring cuisine from the African Diaspora.
- Check back for schedule.
- 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 email@example.com.
Photograph: Descendants of Franny and Thomas Fruster who were enslaved on the Fort Hill Plantation. (Source: Clemson University Creative Media Services.)
Black Clemson traveling Museum Exhibition
based on research conducted for Call My Name
Sponsors, Gifts, Grants, and Awards
Gifts, Grants, and Awards
Common Heritage Grant, "Documenting Your Roots" Community Digitizing Event, National Endowment for the Humanities, 2018
Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship, 2018-19 (for Black Clemson)
Creating Humanities Communities Grant, National Endowment for the Humanities with co-investigator Professor Lee Morrissey, director of the Humanities Hub, Clemson University, 2017-2022
Mini-Grant, South Carolina Humanities (for Black Clemson), 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 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
Photograph: Descendants of Franny and Thomas Fruster who were enslaved on the Fort Hill Plantation attending History in Plain Sight Day at Clemson University on November 14, 2016.