Call My Name African Americans in Clemson University History

CMN Backstory

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 conduct 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 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.)

Seven 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, and then into the twenty-first century. There are seven 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 and servants, 3) convict laborers, 4) wage workers and cooperative extension service employees, 5) musicians, 6) students, faculty, staff, and administrators, as well as 7) 21st century activism. 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.

To support the work of the Call My Name: African Americans in Clemson University History Project, please click here to make a donation through the Clemson Foundation. Thank you.

More details about the six generations are provided below the photographs.

Photographs (l to r): Matilda Brown, who was enslaved on the Fort Hill Plantation, and her thimble (circa early 1900s); Harvey Gantt registering for classes on January 28, 1963; Sikes Sit-in in April 2016 (Sources: Eva Martin Personal Collection, Harvey Gantt Papers, Clemson University Libraries' Special Collections & Archives, and Edith Dunlap).

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 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 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 enslavers and the institution of slavery in Upstate South Carolina.

Photograph: Thomas and Franny Fruster, former enslaved persons (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 & Servants

Between 1868 and 1874, at least 44 freedmen and women—formerly enslaved—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.

Thomas Green Clemson also hired African Americans as servants to work for him at Fort Hill.

CMN is conducting research about these sharecroppers 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 the home place.

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).

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 work detail. The majority of convicts assigned to work at Clemson College were under the age of 25.

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 several 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 cemetery for enslaved persons.

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 & Cooperative Extension Service Employees

Beginning in the late 1800s, Black Americans were hired as wage workers on the land that became Clemson University as domestics, cooks, farm hands, barbers, garbage collectors, groundskeepers, construction workers, 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 throughout South Carolina.

Photograph: South Carolina 4-H Club, Clemson College Extension Program (Source: Documenting the Clemson African American ExperienceClemson University Libraries' Special Collections & Archives.)

Generation V: Musicians

As early as 1920, African American musicians performed for dances 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. In 1955, the CDA hired Duke Ellington and his orchestra for three performances. 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 pay Black musicians to perform 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 decade immediately after integration and to document their varied experiences at the institution during and after the Jim Crow era.

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 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 administrators and a marked increase in the number and variety of staff at Clemson, as well as honor 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).

Generation VII: 21st century activism

During the 21st century, African American students and their allies and accomplices became increasingly vocal about changes that Clemson University needed to make in order to address systemic racism and implement changes that would enable it to become a more inclusive and welcoming academic community.

A.D. Carson, then a graduate student in the RCID program, composed a powerful poem titled "See The Stripes" that drew much needed attention to the oft glossed over "stripes" of Clemson's history--namely, slavery, sharecropping, and convict leasing--and issued a much needed call for change.

Students also became involved in the Black Lives Matter movement begun after Trayvon Martin's murderer was acquitted and Black people like Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and many others were murdered, and more recently Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Brianna Taylor, and George Floyd, often by police.

More than a year before the Sikes Sit-in in April 2016, students submitted grievances and demands to Clemson's executive leadership team to address their concerns.

Through a steady stream of marches, forums, meetings, and protests, African American students and their supporters are continuing to demand changes that Clemson University must make to create a diverse, inclusive, and welcoming community.

Photo: Sikes Sit-in, April 2016.

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 Black American life stories in early Clemson history. Some Clemson historians were also consulted for the project. After we secure Board of Trustees approval, these markers were installed on Clemson's campus in April of 2016: 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 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 (Credit: Rhondda Thomas, 2016).

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 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 both the John C. Calhoun and Thomas Green Clemson families. After the Civil War, she 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)

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 record interviews of people associated with the project. Participants included descendants of enslaved people 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 and digital archive. (Photos: Call My Name archive)
In March of 2019, CMN faculty director Dr. Rhondda R. Thomas gave a TEDx talk in Greenville, South Carolina, titled "The Power in Calling a Name."
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).

Call My Name Tours

Professor Thomas conducts 2-hour tours of Clemson University that focus on Black history and heritage. Stops include Calhoun Bottoms, the last piece of Fort Hill Plantation land, originally the location of the Cherokee town of Esseneca, 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 Cemetery for the Enslaved and Convict Burial Ground located adjacent to Woodland Cemetery. Most tours end with conversation over a meal featuring cuisine from the African Diaspora.

Tour Schedule


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 callmynamecu@clemson.edu

Photograph: Descendants of Franny and Thomas Fruster who were enslaved on the Fort Hill Plantation. (Source: Clemson University Creative Media Services, Ken Scar)

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

Call My Name: The African American Experience in the South Carolina Upstate from Enslavement to Desegregation is a traveling museum exhibition that functions as a case study that explores how Upstate South Carolina, particularly the greater Clemson community, became part of the African Diaspora. The exhibition will begin with free Africans in their homeland, and then trace their and other Black peoples’ journeys through slavery, freedom, emancipation, segregation, and desegregation in the Greater Clemson University community. Their stories include those of free Africans and enslaved people of African descent prior to Emancipation; freed men and women who labored as sharecroppers during Reconstruction; incarcerated laborers, aged 13-67, 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 draw a connection between Clemson University history and the stories of Black people and the development of institutions in local communities by/for Blacks, such as the King's Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church organized in 1865 and the Abel Baptist Church established in 1868; Littlejohn's Grill, a nightclub-restaurant-hotel where musicians like James Brown and Count Basie performed; the Calhoun and Cadillac Heights neighborhoods; and the Silver Spring School, Calhoun Elementary School, and Seneca Institute.

Key project partners are the Call My Name Coalition, the Bertha Lee Strickland Cultural Museum of Seneca, SC; the Clemson Area African American Museum; the Lunney Museum of Seneca, SC; and the Pendleton Foundation for the Study of Black History and Culture. Other collaborators include Clemson University Libraries Special Collections and Archives; the Clemson University Humanities Hub; and the Upcountry History Museum of Greenville - Furman University, a Smithsonian affiliate.

The exhibition reclaims these forgotten stories that are essential for understanding the intricate connections between the history of Black folks in Clemson and the region, state, and nation.

Gifts, Grants, and Awards, Sponsors, & collaborators

Gifts, Grants, and Awards

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

Public Humanities Exhibitions - Implementation with co-PI Professor Lee Morrissey, director of the Humanities Hub, Clemson University, National Endowment for the Humanities, 2020

Common Heritage Grant, "Documenting Your Roots" Community Digitizing Event with co-PI Professor Lee Morrissey, director of the Humanities Hub, Clemson University, National Endowment for the Humanities, 2018 (co-PI Professor Lee Morrissey, director of Clemson Humanities Hub)

Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship, 2018-19 (for exhibition project)

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 exhibition project), 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


Clemson Libraries' Special Collections & Archives

Pearce Center for Professional Communications, Department of English, Clemson University

Historic Properties, Clemson University

Clemson University Art Majors

Clemson Athletics Creative Media Team

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. Credit: Ken Scar

Make a Gift to Call My Name

To support the research for the Call My Name: African Americans in Clemson University History Project, please click here to make a donation through the Clemson Foundation. Thank you.


Instagram: callmyname_clemson


If you have information about people, organizations, events, etc. in any of the seven generations or in the Greater Clemson, Pendleton, Seneca, and Central South Carolina, communities, 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 faculty director or the source cited.

Created By
Rhondda Thomas