Three new historical markers at Clemson are tangible reminders of the University’s full history — a history not as idyllic as the well-manicured lawn of Bowman field and the picture-perfect walk by the library.
In April, University officials, trustees and guests broke ground for three double-sided markers: One at the intersection of South Palmetto Boulevard and Fernow Street Extension to commemorate a site where slave quarters stood on the plantation owned by John C. Calhoun and later by University founder Thomas Green Clemson; the second near Calhoun Bottoms farmland to commemorate the role of Native Americans and African-Americans in the development of the Fort Hill Plantation lands; the third near Woodland Cemetery to mark the burial sites of the family of John C. Calhoun, enslaved people and state-leased prisoners who died during their confinement at Clemson.
“The story of Clemson University’s founding is one of great vision, commitment and perseverance,” said President James P. Clements at the event. “However, it is also a story with some uncomfortable history. And, although we cannot change our history, we can acknowledge it and learn from it, and that is what great universities do.”
The markers are one way Clemson is working to give a more accurate public accounting of its history to acknowledge connections to slavery, segregation or other practices and viewpoints inconsistent with current institutional values.
During the event, Clements praised the work of Rhondda Thomas, associate professor of English, whose research on African-Americans who lived and labored at Clemson prior to desegregation spurred interest in the markers.
One of those stories is about Sharper and Caroline Brown, whose daughter Matilda was born into slavery but lived most of her life as a free woman. Matilda Brown’s granddaughter, Eva Hester Martin, 90, of Greenville, was a guest at the groundbreaking ceremony for the historical markers.
It’s a story Thomas pieced together from personal recollections backed up by photos, newspaper clippings, church and census records, and other documentation. The youngest of 10 children, Martin earned a degree in chemistry from S.C. State University, enjoyed a successful career as a medical technician in Chicago and Los Angeles, and raised four children.
“Our archives are a wonderful resource, and census records are a great help,” Thomas said. “For the convict laborers, however, the pardon records provide the strongest evidence of the men and boys who labored at Clemson, as the documentation specifies when they were released from Clemson College. But in some cases the records are incomplete or missing.”
Thomas hopes the University’s efforts to tell these stories will encourage more family members to come forward with information, photos, family Bibles or other materials that can confirm an ancestor’s connection to the University’s early years.