Clemson University broke ground Tuesday for a historical marker near where slaves and imprisoned black laborers once lived, symbolizing the start of its effort to come to terms with dark parts of its past that have been glossed over or forgotten.
With the great-granddaughter of enslaved African Americans who once lived on the site looking on, the university acknowledged the part slavery played on the land that became Clemson University, and the only recently discovered role that state prisoners, mostly blacks, played in building the school’s first buildings.
“The story of Clemson University’s founding is one of great vision, commitment and perseverance,” President Jim Clements told a crowd of about 100 gathered under a tent outside Lee Hall. “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.”
He thanked associate English professor Rhondda Robinson Thomas for her research that led to the discovery of how prisoners tore down the old slave quarters of the John C. Calhoun plantation and used the stones to build some of the college’s early structures.
The erection of the marker, and two others that were announced Tuesday, comes a year after a heated debate on campus over changing the name of Tillman Hall, the university’s most recognizable building, because of its namesake Benjamin Tillman’s violent racist views.
The board wouldn’t push for a name change, which would have required an act of the Legislature, but it formed a committee to study ways to acknowledge and express the institution’s history, including the racism of some of its 19th century founders.
“I think it’s a first step,” Thomas told The Greenville News after the ceremony. “You can’t put markers up and expect years of pain to disappear. But I think it’s a good faith effort to say that the university has made a commitment to embrace its full history and to tell the story differently than it has in the past so people like enslaved African Americans or sharecroppers or native Americans are now going to have a prominent place in the narrative of the university.”
The university also will put up a marker at the Calhoun Bottoms farmland, site of a Cherokee Village that was burned by white soldiers in 1776, to commemorate the role of Native Americans and African Americans in the development of the Fort Hill Plantation lands. Another sign will go at Woodland Cemetery to mark the burial sites of the Calhoun family, slaves and state prisoners who died during their confinement at Clemson.
The Board of Trustees last July established a task force on the history of the university, which recommended creating a Clemson history museum, a website detailing the university’s story, and offering historical tours of campus, in addition to putting up the historical markers.
Other recommendations included reviewing and updating the biographies of Clemson founders and historical figures including Thomas G. Clemson and his wife, Ben Tillman and John C. Calhoun and his wife.
“The clear, consistent message was that Clemson must tell its complete, though imperfect, story,” said Trustee David Wilkins, who chaired the task force. “While the work of the task force is complete, our efforts to tell the full story are just beginning.”
The ceremony came, coincidentally, on the 90th birthday of Eva Hester Martin, great-granddaughter of Sharper and Caroline Brown, who had lived as slaves on that site.
“It means an awful lot that I lived long enough to see this,” she told The News. “It’s just so exciting, really.”