The slaves who built USC are virtually unknown. How the college is trying to fix that

How libation was used to honor USC slaves who built the college

A libation offering was used during a ceremony at the University of South Carolina in recognition of enslaved people’s contributions to the campus.
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A libation offering was used during a ceremony at the University of South Carolina in recognition of enslaved people’s contributions to the campus.

On campus, he only was known as Sancho, “a household word to every old student of South Carolina College.”

Brought to South Carolina from Africa in 1808, Sancho was one of the last slaves to enter the United States before the country banned the international slave trade that year.

Sancho and his wife Lucy became the property of Thomas Cooper, president from 1821 to 1833 of what was then South Carolina College, with Sancho becoming a well-known figure on campus.

Today, however, Sancho Cooper, as he was known in later life, and an unknown number of other slaves who worked on USC’s campus from 1801 to 1865, building parts of the campus still in use, largely have been forgotten by history.

On Tuesday, USC took a step toward acknowledging and honoring those who worked to build and maintain the college from its 1801 founding until the end of the Civil War.

“Enslaved people were an integral part of the operations of South Carolina College, visible on campus yet invisible,” said USC president Harris Pastides. “They sustained the college, yet were not recognized as fellow citizens or even, by the government, as full human beings.”

Two new historic markers recognizing the contributions of enslaved workers were unveiled Tuesday on the Horseshoe, where the first buildings were built with slave labor using slave-made brick, university records show.

The 16 workers in those records only are listed by their first names: Abraham, Amanda, Anna, Anthony, Charles, Henry, Jack, Jim, Joe, Lucy, Peter, Sancho, Simon, Toby and Tom. One is only listed by the abbreviation “Mal.” Sancho Cooper’s wife isn’t named, only referred to after her husband as “and his wife.”

In a ceremony at Rutledge Chapel – one of the oldest buildings on campus, constructed by enslaved builders in 1805 – Pastides offered a “long-belated thanks to those who toiled at the beginning of the college.”

USC’s board of trustees approved the new plaques in April, 17 months after a group of mostly black students marched on campus, demanding the state’s flagship university make a stronger effort to promote diversity.

University of South Carolina student walk out due to lack of diversity in November of 2015.

The group, called USC Vision 2020, called for recognition of slavery’s role at USC, as well as efforts to increase diversity among the school’s faculty and student body.

In addition to the markers honoring the enslaved workers, USC plans to unveil a statue of Richard T. Greener, the college’s first African-American professor.

Enslaved workers served meals, maintained buildings and lived on campus, including in an outbuilding — now marked by one of the plaques — that still stands behind the president’s house.

The slaves were owned by the college itself, by faculty including president Cooper and hired from private citizens to work on campus – with their pay going to their owners, not the workers themselves.

The markers are “important corrections to the institution’s history,” said University of South Carolina history professor Bobby Donaldson, who studies African-American history in the South.

Research by Donaldson and his students helped highlight the role of Sancho Cooper, who was freed on Thomas Cooper’s death in 1839.

Sancho Cooper’s 1874 obituary hailed him as “an excellent servant and a Christian leader among his own race.” While the college president from whom he took his last name once wrote that Africans were incapable of “mental improvement,” Sancho Cooper’s obituary called the onetime slave “uncommonly keen.”

“Today,” said Donaldson, “we know Sancho and Lucy were not the exception.”