Edith Dunlap was so excited when she saw another African-American student in each of her classes last fall at Clemson University that she tweeted the news to friends.
“I’m usually the only piece of pepper in the salt shaker,” said the junior English major from Chester.
Clemson’s lack of diversity is not just a classroom problem for the school, which has the smallest share of African-American students of any public four-year S.C. college.
Events this year, including a street gang-themed fraternity party and hateful social media comments, have stirred demands from some Clemson students and faculty for administrators to act on the school’s racial shortcomings.
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The demands include recruiting more minority students and professors, building a multicultural center and increasing spending on student organizations for minorities.
Protesters also want Clemson — a national top-20 public college, according to U.S. News and World Report’s rankings — to better acknowledge publicly the school’s history. The state’s second-largest university sits on a former cotton plantation tilled by slaves. The first structures on campus were built by the labor of African-American convicts.
And they want to rename the school’s most iconic building, Tillman Hall, to end the link to former U.S senator and former Gov. Ben Tillman, a renowned segregationist and participant in the massacre of black militia members during Reconstruction.
Last week, the Clemson graduate student government Senate voted to support renaming Tillman Hall, known as Old Main for 50 years until 1946. The school’s faculty Senate tabled a similar resolution last month.
“Students love to talk about, ‘This is Clemson tradition,’ ” said Briana Ryans, an African-American majoring in bio-engineering. “So if you’re going to talk about the tradition of (that) building, please understand that when I bring up who (Tillman) really was, that’s part of the tradition that you’re choosing to ignore.”
Clemson leaders said they realize the school has problems with diversity. They say they have started to take steps to address those problems under the leadership of president Jim Clements, who just completed his first anniversary since arriving from the University of West Virginia.
Clemson held its first monthly diversity dialogue with students last week and is developing a diversity council that includes students, staff and alumni. The 21,000-student college already offers need-based grants to recruit minority students and says it has stepped up its efforts to hire more minority faculty.
Renaming buildings, though, appears unlikely.
Any changes would require the blessing of Clemson’s trustees and the approval of two-thirds of state legislators, under a law passed after the Confederate flag was removed from the State House dome in 2000.
“We cannot rewrite history. But we want to recognize and respect that history on campus,” said Clemson trustee chairman David Wilkins, a former S.C. House speaker. “We all should respect those views. But, at same time, I do not believe right now there’s an appetite on the part of the board on renaming buildings.”
Student protest leaders say they will try to leverage growing discontent on campus to get action.
“There is a recognizable (black) community here now,” said A.D. Carson, a doctoral student who has led diversity-awareness efforts at Clemson. “There is a collective resistance and a collective struggle, and there are people who are allies to that resistance.”
Yik Yak and ‘Cripmas’
The land for Clemson University, located in Pickens County, was willed to the state in 1888 by Thomas Green Clemson, the son-in-law of former Vice President John C. Calhoun, one of South Carolina’s most prominent political figures. The school opened five years later. One of its first buildings was the clock-topped Old Main.
The plantation where the university was built was home to more than 120 slaves at one time before the Civil War, said Will Hiott, curator of the estate. Most left Fort Hill, Calhoun’s white-columned home, after the Civil War.
Clemson’s will required the university to keep open Fort Hill, which now sits in the middle of campus. Public tours are available daily as students walk on paths cut in front of the 212-year-old home.
A tour provided by the Clemson visitor’s center last week did not mention the land’s plantation past.
Clemson’s first black student, Harvey Gantt, enrolled in 1963 after the school lost court battles to remain segregated. Gantt was admitted without the mayhem experienced at other Southern college campuses. A plaque honoring “Integration With Dignity” was placed in front of Tillman Hall in 2003, a source of irony for current protest leaders.
Since Gantt’s arrival, the school, located in a rural northwestern corner of South Carolina, has struggled to attract a large number of African-American students.
For the better part of 20 years, African-Americans have comprised about 6 percent of the student body. The average African-American student population among all of the state’s four-year colleges is 22 percent, while African-Americans make up 28 percent of South Carolina’s population.
“We are proud of all of our students, but we’re not so proud of those numbers,” said Almeda Jacks, Clemson’s interim vice president for student affairs. “We need a big jump (in minority enrollment) to be reflective of our state.”
Protests by minority students at Clemson are not new. Calls for renaming Tillman Hall have flared for decades. Clemson also is not the only S.C. school with a slavery-tinged past. Many buildings on the University of South Carolina’s Horseshoe were built with slave labor.
This year’s protests at Clemson were not provoked by campus issues alone.
As talk about how to make Clemson more inclusive were underway in the fall, in part with a yearlong series examining race relations on campus, police officers in Missouri and New York were not tried for the deaths of unarmed African-American men.
In response, Some Clemson students marched. And those demonstrations generated hate-filled messages on social media. Most of the comments came on Yik Yak, a popular college mobile phone application that allows anonymous posts.
The comments on Yik Yak were followed by revelations of a “Cripmas” fraternity party, where white Clemson students dressed as street-gang members and flashed hand signals in pictures.
Graduate student Carson says a cultural tone-deafness infects the campus.
In a statement sent campuswide after the Cripmas party in December, new Clemson president Clements said he did not want rallies to “cross the line into lawlessness,” a statement that upset protesters who felt they did nothing to provoke such concern.
Hours after Clements sent the message and met with students on the campus library bridge, a meeting to cool tensions after the Cripmas party became awkward when a large number of fraternity representatives arrived to meet a small number of African-Americans.
“It felt intimidating,” said Carson, who attended the meeting.
Last month, on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, some Clemson students held a rally in support of keeping the Tillman name on Old Main.
Those acts make promises from the administration seem hollow, Carson said.
“It feels more political,” he said. “It feels like, ‘I’m saying the right kinds of things,’ as opposed to doing things that will make people feel better.”
Clements was not available for an interview last week, Clemson officials said. But a pair of administrators said actions are underway, though they will take time.
‘See the Stripes’
Carson has become a leader on campus in asking questions about the school’s past.
When he arrived at Clemson from southern Illinois in fall 2013, Carson said he was surprised to find a plantation home in the middle of his new campus.
“I realized the irony that I lived a half a mile from Lincoln’s historic home in Springfield (Ill.) and now I live a half-mile from John Calhoun’s historic home in Clemson,” he said.
Carson started a diversity effort called “See the Stripes,” a reference to the black stripes on the Clemson Tiger mascot.
Ian Bateman, an Irmo native who leads the Clemson Black Student Union, said an event Carson organized at the beginning of the school year opened his eyes to Clemson’s past.
“I don’t like to point blame on anyone, but I feel like part of the history should have been told,” the senior said. “It’s not something I should have to go out on my own to find out. I learn other things about Clemson’s history. I should know the good and the bad.”
Bateman became a leader the Coalition of Concerned Students. That group sent a list of demands to Clements, including renaming Tillman Hall and monitoring of social media sites for racial comments.
“That takes away from the family aspect we have here,” Bateman said.
The protests have awakened a segment of campus.
“Before it would just be us friends having lunch and just talking about it. Now, we’re talking about it in public,” said Ryans, a senior from Charlotte. “We’re making moves on campus where it’s no longer hidden from the majority.”
Carson said the protests could help minority enrollment, which stands at about 1,300 African-Americans, boosting its reputation as a place where “concerned students are encouraged to speak up.”
Black students are not the only frustrated members of campus.
African-American literature professor Rhondda Thomas says Clemson’s administration is not doing enough to recruit and retain minority faculty. Less than 4 percent of the school’s full-time faculty is African-American. Thomas said she does not know about openings in other departments to share with minority candidates.
Despite hearing from friends that Clemson had a reputation as a school with diversity problems, Dunlap, the Chester native, said never encountered overt racism until last year when Yik Yak debuted.
“I was like, ‘Oh, this is how they really feel,’ ” Dunlap said. “These are the people in classes with me and smiling in my face. But they’re on Yik Yak telling me to go back to Africa. ... I don’t know who to trust out here to be real.”
Still, African-American student protestors said they would recommend Clemson to African-American friends.
“No one is saying Clemson is a bad place,” said graduate student Carson. “The fact we are here — to create a better space for us to exist here — it’s testament to our investment in Clemson.”
‘We’re not in their skin’
White students interviewed last week said they empathize with the concerns of African-Americans on campus, but they don’t see widespread problems. All condemned the Cripmas party.
“Personally, I don’t see any racial tension,” said Eric Moore, a junior from Greenville. “It really hasn’t affected me. ...”
“It’s really crazy, this whole ‘rename Tillman Hall’ thing,” Moore added, suggesting naming new buildings on campus after minority leaders instead.
Some white students see Tillman Hall as a teachable moment.
“In general, you have to bring attention to history. That’s how people learn about it,” said Haley Mckay, a freshman from Roswell, Ga. “You just can’t rename it because it’s a part of history, just like all the bad things in history.”
William Harrison Sipe, a third-generation Clemson student from Greenville, said media reports overhype racial divisions on campus. Buildings on older campuses, like Clemson, are going to have names of people with checkered pasts.
“That’s kind of the way it was, and there’s no way around that,” Sipe said.
While renaming buildings might be a tough sell, Clemson leaders should work to boost minority representation, protestors said.
Administrators said they are working on a plan to recruit more minority students.
Leon Wiles, Clemson’s chief diversity officer, worked to build minority enrollment while working at the University of South Carolina-Upstate, a process that took a decade.
That Spartanburg school’s non-white student population grew third-fastest among public four-year S.C. colleges over the past decade — higher than Clemson or USC-Columbia.
“We have to continue to listen to what the students are saying,” student affairs vice president Jacks said. “We’re not in their skin.”
Administrators are checking the funding of student groups to ensure minority groups get their fair share. Meanwhile, Wiles said he plans to meet with student leaders to discuss a multicultural center after examining one at Penn State. He also is looking at the use of existing space until a new building is constructed. No timetables were given.
“Higher education moves at a slower pace than the business world,” Jacks said.
One change that will not happen is banning Yik Yak.
The smartphone app is available outside campus – so some comments might not come from students, Wiles said. And blocking access would raise free-speech questions.
“It’s not something we could effectively do,” Wiles said.
Neither administrator suggested changing Tillman Hall’s name.
“I hate that the person that it’s named for offends any student,” said Jacks, an alum who has worked for three decades at Clemson. “I feel for them, but I am probably not in favor of changing the name because it’s part of history.”
Wiles said only that he favors having a conversation over the building’s name.
“That’s a community decision,” he said.
‘Real turning point’
Better acknowledgment about Clemson’s history with African-Americans is coming.
Thomas, the African-American literature professor, who took a teaching job at Clemson seven years ago, found tours of Fort Hill did not mention the slaves. She learned later about the African-American convict laborers who constructed the campus.
Her research led Clemson to hold a series of events this school year discussing race on campus. Fort Hill also added an exhibit about the experiences of African-Americans at the home.
Thomas’ work also help her win a $100,000 grant to develop a website and book with the information about Clemson’s African-American history.
“Clemson history is American history. It’s history that’s a complicated story,” Thomas said. “Some people want us to leave more complicated stories in past. But for me, as an educator, I believe my job is to provide a more comprehensive portrait.”
Most students have no clue about who Tillman was, Thomas said. She asks students in her class to look up information about Tillman on their smartphones and read aloud what they find.
“I’m watching their faces and their faces are becoming contorted,” she said. “Nobody wants to read. And I say, ‘I’m listening and waiting. Read what you found.’ And they start reading, and they’re horrified.”
Tillman was a complicated character. For example, Thomas’ research found that, when he was governor, Tillman pardoned some African-Americans convicts who worked to build Clemson.
Still, Thomas thinks the school should revert Tillman Hall back to its old name, Old Main.
Thomas said she has heard concerns that talk about slavery and convicts will tarnish Clemson’s reputation. But she thinks the effect could be the opposite as the country becomes more diverse, requiring people to deal with people from different ethnic backgrounds.
“What if that’s the kind of Tiger that we graduated,” she said, “not just with your degree, but with a very practical skill that enables you to get along with and work with and cut business deals with all kinds of people across the spectrum.
“I think this is a real turning point for the university.”