Clemson University's convict connection

Greenville NewsApril 18, 2014 

— He was 13.

Convicted of stealing clothes from a woman in Pacolet, Wade Foster was sent to the South Carolina Penitentiary, which in turn sent him back to the Upcountry to a former cotton plantation that would become one of the state’s most lauded universities.

There he would work beside men who had robbed and murdered. They constructed the first buildings on the Clemson University campus.

It is a piece of university history not well known, said Rhondda Thomas, an assistant professor of English at Clemson who has studied the use of convict labor on the campus from 1899 until 1908. So far, she has documented the names of 572 men, all but 29 of them African Americans.

They made a million bricks to build Tillman Hall. They built Hardin Hall, the oldest classroom building, and Trustee House, home to the first chemistry professor. They cleared the land and built dikes. The oldest was 67, the youngest 12.

“They made it possible for South Carolina to get back on its feet, to educate young men to make a contribution,” Thomas said.

They were but a step away from the sharecroppers and slaves who preceded them, Thomas said. Some likely were former slaves and most certainly the sons of former slaves.

“Their labor was valued but not their lives,” she said. “It is carrying on the slavery institution.”

In fact, she said, the convicts were legally known as slaves of the state.

History and race

Clemson’s relationship with its past, like many universities, both Southern and not, has been at once embraced and ignored, glossed over and celebrated.

The land on which Clemson was built was settled by the Cherokee Indians. They were forced off the land and a parsonage for Stone Church was built. John C. Calhoun began living on the plantation (owned by his mother-in-law) in 1825, when he was vice president of the United States. He renamed it Fort Hill, which remains as it did then and is open to the public for tours of its period furnishings.

Calhoun grew cotton, owned slaves and, as a U.S. senator, he called slavery a positive good. In the years leading up to the Civil War, he was one of its most outspoken advocates.

Thomas Green Clemson, Calhoun’s son-in-law, ultimately owned the property and leased it to sharecroppers. He deeded it to the state for an agricultural college. Because the state had limited resources in the years after the Civil War and already had three colleges, members of the General Assembly were not interested in spending money on another.

The remedy was to use convicts to build the school. To be sure, Clemson was not the only school to do so. Winthrop and Claflin did, as did a number of businesses throughout the South, Thomas said.

But Thomas said her research has shown no other state pressed convicts into service for higher education as did South Carolina.

The official history of the university records the contribution of the convicts and recounts Calhoun’s slave-owning past. Maps of the property from when Calhoun owned it show where the slave cabins were located.

The most visible official marker that refers to the racial past cites the year Clemson was integrated, 1963, under court order.

The search

Thomas said she became interested in the stories of the convicts when she came to Clemson six years ago. She had heard about making bricks by a stream and read the accounts of Jerome Reel, a history professor and university historian.

“The more I read, the more there seemed to be questions that weren’t being answered,” she said. “How many were there? What crimes did they commit?”

But it wasn’t until last October that she had a true lead. She stumbled on a website that caused her to write the state archivist to see if prison records were available. The response was, give him two weeks. The answer came the next day. Yes, a list of inmates was available.

Then came another response. A second set of records had been found that not only listed names but also height, skin color, age, birthplace, occupation, sentencing records and any physical identifying marks.

“These men and boys began to come alive,” she said.

She learned most were farmhands. Some had never worked. Others were skilled laborers. Their offenses included assault and battery, manslaughter, fornication, forgery and carrying a concealed weapon, but the largest number of crimes involved theft.

The descriptive record for the 12-year-old had been destroyed, but there were several legal documents available for 13-year-old Wade Foster, including the statement he gave about the crime, which he signed with an X. He said in the statement that he went to the home of Victoria Caldwell. Foster was black, Caldwell white. The door was partly open, he said, and he went in and took a pillow case from a bed and stuffed it with clothes.

The record says he took a boys suit, two pairs of boys pants, a vest, two shirts and a pair of shoes. He said he walked around a while with the bag, then stuffed it in some weeds. Spent time at the railroad track and other places during the two days before he was caught.

Caldwell’s statement says she noticed things missing over the course of the afternoon after she returned home. Her 10-year-old son said he bolted the door when they left that Saturday morning.

The value of the clothes was $6. Foster was sentenced to six months of hard labor.

Typically there were 50 convicts on site at any one time, but during the brickmaking period it swelled to 150, Thomas said. They lived in a stockade, not far from where the slave cabins of Calhoun’s day were located. The financially troubled college was also responsible for food and clothing.

At one point, historian Reel wrote in “The High Seminary,” trustees had to personally pay for the convicts’ food.

Thomas said the conditions were likely worse for them than for slaves. Slaves were property and as such had monetary value. The convicts were only useful as long as their prison sentence.

And some died during the work.

William Mack, 22, a black farmer from Union County, was sentenced to two years for stealing livestock. Prison records show he was killed by earth caving in on him in May 1894. Convicts began working on a dike the month before, Thomas said.

Conversation continues

All of this happened more than 100 years ago, but the conversation about race and history continues.

Consider that a building built by convicts is named for Ben Tillman, a former governor who as a U.S. senator in 1900 said in a speech in Congress, “We of the South have never recognized the right of the Negro to govern the white man, and we never will.”

Yet Tillman, as governor, pardoned some of the African-American convicts who worked at Clemson, including Charles Jackson, a 38-year-old African American who had been convicted of arson in Hampton County. In 1890, Jackson wrote to Tillman.

“I have no one to intercede for me as you told me you would look over my case,” he wrote. He’d been in prison for 12 years and two months and signed his letter, “Your humble servant, Charley Jackson.” A year and a half later Tillman issued the pardon.

Another case involved Wesley Bolling, who had been convicted of manslaughter in the death of a man who tried to get Bolling’s wife to run away with him to Florida. Bolling had followed the man to a field where the wife was working. Bolling watched as the man attempted to get the wife to have sex with him. He jumped out of his hiding place and stabbed the man, the records show.

But his case was far from over. All the jurors wrote in support of a pardon. One said, “I believe any honest man placed in those circumstances would have done what he did.”

By law, they had to convict, but as men they felt he was justified.

Tillman pardoned him.

“He doesn’t seem to have discriminated against African Americans in doing his job,” Thomas said. “It complicates our understanding of him.”

Other areas of history are just as complex.

The school’s archives are held in an institute that bears the name of Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina senator who while running for president on his Dixiecrat Party in 1948 said, “There’s not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and accept the Negro into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”

Thurmond apologized in later years.

The Strom Thurmond Institute was built on the site of the stone cabins used by slaves of John C. Calhoun. The walk they took to the main house is now a lushly landscaped brick path. There is nothing to say any of that, Thomas said.

And the stones from the cabins were used by convicts to build the foundation for Hardin Hall, which was the chemistry building, one of the most vital classroom buildings because of the research being done on fertilizer. The first head of the department, Mark Hardin, had served as a colonel in the Confederate Army.

Clemson’s first president, Henry Strode, served the Confederacy and his name adorns the building Thomas works in.

Memorializing the work

Thomas said she would like to see the university add to its story some mention of the work the convicts did, a marker on the Hardin Hall foundation, a memorial sculpture, a marker where the slave cabins stood.

“History is hidden in plain sight,” she said.

Robin Denny, Clemson director of media relations, said the university is not aware of any proposal or plans to add a memorial.

In the fall the university is bringing Craig Wilder, author of “Ebony and Ivy,” in as part of a symposium on Clemson’s relationship to slavery.

Wilder’s book recounts the stories of the benefits obtained by America’s oldest universities because of slavery. Perhaps the best known introspective look was a three-year study conducted by Brown University. Rhode Island was the northern hub of the slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean. Historians have counted 1,000 voyages that brought 100,000 slaves.

In addition, 30 members of Brown’s governing board at the time owned slaves or were captains of slave ships and the Brown family owned slaves.

The university responded by strengthening research and scholarships and its official history was rewritten.

This summer or fall, a sculpture designed by Martin Puryear, will be erected on the front lawn, said Courtney Coelho, a Brown spokeswoman.

“The schedule is dependent on the artist himself,” she said. “The design has been kept under wraps as well. It’s up to him to interpret.”

Puryear is known for work that illuminates an idea rather than portraiture, as shown in his “Ladder for Booker T. Washington,” a ladder made of maple and ash that does not touch the ground and is crooked and grows smaller the closer it gets to the light. It’s on display at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas.

Thomas said that sort of openness and soul searching would broaden Clemson’s understanding of itself, not tarnish the image. It would provide a full picture and be made whole.

“History is a lot more complicated that what’s shown here. If this isn’t the place where we can talk about it as educators then who can?” Thomas said.

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