By Karen Land
Photography by Craig Mahaffey ’98,
Ashley Jones & Sydney Lykins ’19

Rhondda Robinson Thomas is bringing to light a more complete Clemson history

A dozen years ago, Rhondda Robinson Thomas was gliding on a dream. Clemson University had just offered her a three-year stint as a visiting professor. This campus would be her campus.

A colleague from the English department walked her around various sites on the central campus, then paused near the edge of a manicured lawn. From where Thomas planted her feet, she looked up the hill and caught a glimpse of white. To her, the clapboard house with columns was unmistakable.

“I cannot believe I am working on a plantation,” Thomas thought.

When Thomas and her husband, William, moved to South Carolina, she thought they would only stay long enough for her to complete her contract. But on that first day at Clemson, as Thomas stood near John C. Calhoun’s Fort Hill home, her professional life pivoted in ways she could not yet fathom.

The specialist in 18th- and 19th-century African American literature soon focused on a new set of stories. Thomas began her tenacious research into the history of African American laborers at Clemson University, starting with those enslaved there and continuing generation by generation to the present day.

She is telling their stories, and she is calling their names.

1831

LETTER FROM THE JOHN C. CALHOUN PAPERS

In the lower left hand corner of the letter, Calhoun mentions Aleck, an enslaved laborer who had run away from Fort Hill, seeking his freedom. In a later letter, Calhoun gives instructions to punish Aleck with a week of bread and water and 30 lashes.

Courtesy of Clemson Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.

A sixth-generation South Carolinian, Thomas was born in Spartanburg and raised in Georgia and North Carolina. She is soft-spoken, smiles easily and speaks with eloquence and passion.

Both of her parents, Earle and Naomi Robinson, were teachers. She recalls growing up with her siblings Donald, Carlton and Monika in a home filled with books.

Her father was a mathematician who brought his family to California over three summers as he continued his graduate studies courtesy of the National Science Foundation. The experience left quite an impression on Thomas, then in middle school.

“I was leaving this tiny little segregated town and seeing the whole United States, and spending the summer at Stanford,” Thomas says. “I just thought, ‘This is such a wonderful life.’ You work on beautiful campuses, you get to engage with your students and their families, and in my little mind I decided I wanted to be a college professor.”

Thomas began her studies in journalism several years later, first as an undergraduate at Washington Adventist University, then completing a master’s degree at the University of Georgia. She then earned two degrees in literature, a master’s from the University of New Hampshire and a Ph.D. at the University of Maryland.

She was preparing to embody her dream.

When Thomas first arrived at Clemson, it was a time when universities across the country were taking a hard look at their ties to slavery. Many institutions were examining their own histories, reckoning with the past and rewriting their public narratives.

As a new professor, Thomas began taking her classes to Fort Hill as a way of complementing assigned readings about slavery. They visited John C. Cahoun’s house and his office. On their first guided tour, they heard detailed accounts of the rooms and their furnishings, paintings and china. However, “There was no mention of slavery,” Thomas says.

She requested that for subsequent visits to Fort Hill, the story of slavery be included. In her first years at Clemson, Thomas said on each visit to Fort Hill “it was a different tour, different information.”

Thomas wanted to know more. And she wanted to know another thing: “Why aren’t people talking about this?”

On one tour of Fort Hill, the guide mentioned inventories – the 1854 and 1865 inventories of slaves. Thomas took notice: “My goodness, we have names.”

She immediately searched the Special Collections and Archives at Clemson University. Thomas was leafing through the papers of Thomas Green Clemson when she encountered a register of 50 names.

“We know who they are,” she realized. “Why aren’t we talking about them?”

Without John C. Calhoun, his land and the will of his son-in-law, a university would not have risen up from the soil in this rural region of Upstate South Carolina.

Perhaps these hills would still be covered with lush forests, grassy pastures or tidy rows of corn. And in Death Valley, on an autumn Saturday, no one would call out the name of Clemson in chants of glory.

The history of Clemson University is inextricably tangled with the triumphs and transgressions of its founders. Thomas Green Clemson was a European-educated engineer who inherited the estate of his wife’s father. Calhoun himself was a prominent planter, a former vice president under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and one of slavery’s most passionate proponents.

Benjamin Tillman was a powerful politician and advocate for the founding and advancement of the new college that would bear the Clemson name. He was an innovative agronomist and a steadfast supporter of education in agriculture and practical science, even before he served South Carolina as governor and a U.S. senator. He was also an avowed white supremacist who spent his life systematically and sometimes violently separating African Americans from power, votes, wealth, land and even their lives.

Calhoun and Clemson were both slaveholders. Tillman, in his teens, helped his widowed mother manage the family’s inn, plantation and enslaved workers.

The campus of Clemson University stands on the same plantation land where people enslaved by Calhoun and Clemson toiled; where some were born, bought and sold; and where some of their bones now rest.

1854

INVENTORY OF SLAVES

Part of an 1854 deed included in the papers of Thomas Green Clemson. The register lists 50 persons and their ages, ranging from Baby and Daniel at 1, to Phebe at 100.

Courtesy of Clemson Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.

During her TEDx talk in Greenville last March, Thomas made the point that “stories about specific people can help us talk about topics we’d rather avoid — topics like slavery, sharecropping and convict leasing.”

Her ongoing research project at Clemson is titled “Call My Name: African Americans in Early Clemson University History.”

Names are critical to Thomas. Calling a person by name is an affirmation of humanity.

Names can be given but they, too, can be taken away. In the case of enslaved laborers, Thomas stresses that “these people didn’t get to choose their own names.”

Yet even an imposed name provides identity. “If we have identities, then that’s a starting place to see if we can trace the storylines of some of these individuals,” Thomas says.

“You know, my job is to call people’s names,” Thomas says. “As a faculty member, I call the names of my students, and they respond. We call the names of students as they walk across the stage at graduation. Everybody’s name is called at Clemson, at least once.”

And, a call is something that invites a response. “If you are singing a song, then people are responding to that song, and that music becomes something else because the audience becomes involved in creating that experience,” Thomas says.

“I knew that I couldn’t tell these stories by myself.”

Since her arrival at the University, Thomas has been unravelling the history of six generations of African Americans who lived and labored at Clemson.

The ground below today’s orange and purple banners once nourished a Cherokee town called Esseneca. The land was later planted thick with green fields of white cotton that pricked brown hands. In the years before emancipation, those hands belonged to the enslaved. Between 1868 and 1874, those hands were attached to sharecroppers — bound by contract and debt to Thomas Green Clemson — and in 1890, to convicts who were bound to the state and the University by crimes or minor trespasses.

The same rusty earth beneath the feet of today’s students was long ago scooped up by smooth-faced teens and hardened old men, all convicts who lived in stockades on the campus. Under the South Carolina sun, they pressed the damp putty into millions of bricks that raised up a University, including the present buildings of Sikes Hall, Tillman Hall and Trustee House.

Convicts also tore down the plantation slave quarters, moving massive granite stones some distance to form the foundation of Hardin Hall. Those rough boulders stripped from simple quarters are still visible from some rooms in the brick building that — appropriately or ironically — now houses the Department of History, The Rutland Institute for Ethics and the Department of Philosophy and Religion. If visitors lay their hands upon those stones, they can feel their coolness — and the chill of their history.

As generations passed, other brown hands at Clemson moved lunch trays and brooms, tools and papers. Deft hands moved across the keys of pianos, the valves of trumpets and the strings of guitars.

African American workers and visiting musicians earned praises and earned pay, but for many decades they were not invited to dine at the same tables, not welcome to live in some parts of town and not permitted to take classes on the same campus where they labored.

Thomas shares their compelling stories on the “Call My Name” Facebook page and also on a webpage, callmyname.org.

One name that has propelled Thomas through her research and difficult findings is that of Wade Foster.

“He was the child that pulled me into this project,” Thomas says. “If I had not found the convict records, I’m not sure there would be a project.”

Foster was sentenced to six months of hard labor in 1891 as one of the nearly 700 convicts assigned to Clemson College between 1890-1915. He had taken a toy drum, pillowcase and several pieces of boys’ clothing. He was 13 at the time.

At the time she discovered Foster’s story, Thomas had not yet earned tenure. Some close to her were concerned that if she went public with information about the convicts, her prospects might be harmed. Thomas did it anyway.

“I did it because I felt Wade Foster didn’t have a choice. He and other teenage boys were caught up in circumstances beyond their control,” she says. “His labor created an opportunity for me to work at this University that he couldn’t attend. So, I could not act from fear. I had to do the courageous thing, and that was to tell his story and deal with the consequences.”

Thomas has not only earned tenure at Clemson University; she also has been named the Calhoun Lemon Professor of Literature.

At times, her work can be emotionally wrenching. “I allow myself to fully experience a range of emotions when researching the unsettling parts of Clemson history, including joy, sadness and anger,” Thomas says. “I persist because I believe we must honor the humanity of Black people who were subjected to slavery, sharecropping, convict leasing, economic exploitation, and segregation on the land where Clemson was built and in nearby communities.”

Her work continues for people like young Wade Foster, whose life after Clemson remains largely a mystery.

1874

AGREEMENT WITH SHARECROPPERS

A page from an agreement between Thomas Green Clemson and sharecroppers working the land at Fort Hill. Their names are written in the hand of the writer of the agreement, with an “X” labeled “His mark.”

Courtesy of Clemson Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.

It might seem like destiny that Rhondda Robinson Thomas came to Clemson to discover these stories, and that she arrived in a moment when she could not only uncover deep truths about the past but also discuss them openly as the University aspires to share a more complete history.

She almost didn’t get the chance.

Long before Thomas became a Clemson professor, before she earned four university degrees, and before she graduated from high school, she faced a life-threatening illness.

She mentioned the crisis in a matter-of-fact way, as another part of her complete history: “During my senior year of high school, I got cancer.”

Doctors placed her odds of surviving her diagnosis of a rare sarcoma at 50/50.

“I’ll take that 50; I’ll take that chance,” she recalls thinking.

At the time, Rhondda was focused on graduating from high school. She still had dreams of working at a university.

“I think it’s pretty extraordinary that not only did I survive,” Thomas says, “but that my childhood dream came true.”

In her efforts to share a more complete Clemson history, Thomas has not been alone.

Research assistants, English majors and alumni, and interns from the Pearce Center for Professional Communication assist her with developing media and planning events for the project.

Undergraduate students in Creative Inquiry classes have participated in aspects of the “Call My Name” research. Beginning composition students will be given opportunities to contribute to online and multimedia aspects of her project.

In 2015, she received a grant from former trustee and Clemson alumnus James E. Bostic Jr. ’69, Ph.D. ’72 of Atlanta and his wife, Edith, which was matched by Clemson University.

As Thomas’s history and storytelling initiative has developed, it has expanded into the City of Clemson, where generations of African American employees have lived — at least in the neighborhoods where they were not specifically banned by deed.

Thomas has spent the past year participating in monthly meetings with African American leaders and community officials in Seneca, Clemson and Pendleton. She is collaborating with Clemson’s Humanities Hub and local institutions, including the Clemson Area African American Museum, the Bertha Lee Strickland Cultural Museum and the Pendleton Foundation for Black History and Culture, to develop and share programming and resources. This work is being supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, as part of its Creating Humanities Communities program.

Through a prestigious Whiting Fellowship and other support, Thomas has been developing an interactive traveling museum exhibition about the history of Clemson called “Black Clemson: From Enslavement to Integration,” which builds upon “Call My Name.” Once it is complete, the exhibition will travel to sites around South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina.

She also has a two-day “Documenting Your Roots” event in the works for February 2020, where community members will be able to digitally preserve photographs and records, and if desired, share that information with the “Call My Name” project. The upcoming event is being funded through an NEH Common Heritage grant.

Clemson is bringing its history out to the community, and also inviting the community in.

In February, Thomas hosted a “Call My Name” campus tour, which was fully booked.

This spring, she launched the latest phase of her “Call My Name” initiative during a public event held at Memorial Stadium, an area of campus that once was the site of primitive housing for the University’s African American workers.

On display were heavy books from the archives that were filled with convicts’ names.

In attendance were several descendants of people enslaved at Fort Hill.

“As a faculty member, I call the names of my students, and they respond. We call the names of students as they walk across the stage at graduation. Everybody’s name is called at Clemson, at least once.”

One reason Thomas is reaching out to local communities is so she can connect with descendants of the convicts, sharecroppers and people enslaved on Clemson land.

She is calling their names — and hoping for a response.

Thomas hopes that members of the community will explore the Clemson records, find familiar names from their own family trees and share their information. “I have met and talked to at least three families,” she says. So far, she has been in touch with the Fruster family, the Shaw family, the Martin family and descendants of people enslaved by Calhoun relatives.

Thomas caught up with Eva Hester Martin just in time. “One of my community partners from the Clemson Area African American Museum was like, ‘You need to talk to this lady,’” she says.

As it turned out, Martin lived nearby. When Thomas finally met her at the age of 90, Martin’s house was packed up in boxes for a move to Atlanta.

Martin’s grandmother, Matilda Brown, had been born into slavery at Fort Hill, but was freed as a child when the Civil War ended. Matilda’s parents, Sharper and Caroline Brown, had been enslaved by the Calhouns.

“When I walked into Mrs. Martin’s house, she had a family tree of sorts made of photographs on her dining room table,” Thomas says. “At the top was a picture I had seen of a woman named Matilda and then her mother, Anna, and then the 10 siblings, and then the grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren. I just was overwhelmed.

“I was like, ‘I have been looking for you for nearly 10 years!’”

By now, the early history of Clemson is in Thomas’s  blood. Little did she know, it had been there all along.

Her paternal great-great-grandmother, Lucretia Earle, had a light complexion and long, straight hair that reached her ankles. One family member described her as white, while another insisted she was enslaved. Her death certificate categorized her as “Non-White.”

Thomas was puzzled by the contradictions.

“While I was conducting this research, I found out Lucretia was born a Wannamaker,” Thomas says.

Lucretia was born in the Orangeburg District of South Carolina and shared a surname with one of the seven original lifetime trustees of Clemson College, John E. Wannamaker.

In her TEDx talk, Thomas said she is trying to verify the connection between her direct ancestor, Lucretia, and the Wannamakers: “DNA testing suggests a link between me and the white Wannamakers of South Carolina. A genealogist I consulted believes Lucretia was enslaved. Indeed, the history of South Carolina is written on my skin, a history of slavery and its legacies in my family.”

1904

CONVICT LABORERS

Two photos of convict laborers, some of the nearly 700 men and boys sentenced to hard labor and assigned to Clemson College between 1890-1915.

Courtesy of Clemson Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.

At Clemson, Thomas sees the stories of its past as an opportunity for dialogue but also as an obligation.

“This is our history now, because Clemson was built on this plantation,” Thomas explains. “As a higher education institution, I think we have a responsibility to share that story, and to make resources available to the public so that they can better understand the history of plantations and slavery in the Upstate region, where we don’t talk about it very much.”

Her wish is that each time Clemson University tells its story, it will be as forthright and comprehensive as possible: “I think we’re still too timid in the way we tell the story. We must study Clemson history fully, honestly and openly and learn from it, especially the parts some want to justify, avoid or gloss over simply due to personal discomfort or willful ignorance.”

“Avoiding this history would dishonor thousands of Black Southerners like my great-great-grandparents, who were enslaved in South Carolina and gained freedom after the Civil War, only to face the devastating setbacks of the end of Reconstruction and the establishment of a Jim Crow society,” Thomas continues.

“Truth-telling is essential for healing the wounds still festering in America due to slavery and its legacies.”

Karen Land is public information director for the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities.

3 replies
  1. Ken says:

    As a graduate of Clemson 87’ I’ve found these stories to be remarkable. During my time at Clemson we often walked around campus and wondered loudly The Who, The What, The How Many and The Stories that filled the little increments of history that was made available to us as people of color. I will follow and engage in this story and educate all those who inquire the learn more about Clemson underbelly of slavery and it’s founders. More importantly, the people by which the names are coming to light that I can follow and proudly say their name in accordance with Clemson University. Thank you, thank you so very much for your work.

    Reply

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