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History in Plain Sight

Students and faculty were busy over the summer, unearthing remnants to help tell the stories of the men, women and children who lived and worked as slaves during the antebellum era on the Fort Hill property, today a part of Clemson’s campus.

The historic Fort Hill property was home to South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun and later the University’s namesake, Thomas Green Clemson, and his wife, Anna Calhoun Clemson. While their time on the property is well-recorded, the lives of enslaved African-Americans are largely undocumented.

David Markus, an archaeologist and visiting lecturer, provided training in archaeological excavation and analysis methods to a dozen students enrolled in his six-week summer course in anthropology. They have carefully moved dirt in areas between Fort Hill and nearby residence halls where a kitchen once stood in the house. Historians believe domestic slave quarters and other outbuildings existed in the space.

“We hope to understand more about the daily lives of people who were enslaved at Fort Hill — how they lived and worked — and interpret their stories in a respectful way,” Markus said. “The University has made a commitment to tell its history more completely, and we hope our work will help support that effort.”

Will Hiott is the director of historic properties at Clemson. He said historical archaeology can be a new conduit to the important task of reinterpreting Fort Hill by relocating long-lost plantation buildings where African-Americans once toiled.

“The long-range plans would be to bring that hidden history back to plain sight as the foundations of the kitchen yard, spin house/weave room, laundry — along with the smokehouse and cook’s residence — are excavated,” Hiott said. “Unfortunately, not everything can be unearthed in one summer session, but we see this as a first step in seeking foundations, artifacts and material culture.”

Landmarks & Legends: Marking History

Landmarks Legends-Sign InstallationThree 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.”

Landmarks - Fort Hill property wp2The 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.

If you have information for Thomas’ research, email her at rhonddt@clemson.edu.