Kimberly Washington filed this report
Two descendants of people once enslaved at Clemson were on-hand Monday as university officials, trustees and special guests broke ground for a new historical marker commemorating the site where slave quarters stood.
“The story of Clemson University’s founding is one of great vision, commitment and perseverance,” Clemson President James Clements said in the groundbreaking ceremony. “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.”
The site on the historic Fort Hill plantation at the center of Clemson’s campus. The home was once owned by John C. Calhoun and later by university founder Thomas Green Clemson.
One marker will note that 70 to 80 enslaved African-Americans lived at Fort Hill in 1849, the date of the earliest known written description of the slave quarters, with the number rising to 139 by 1865. The other side of the marker indicates that a nearby site was later used for a stockade to house convict laborers, most of them African-American, who cleared land and helped build some of the university’s first buildings.
Trustees appointed a task force last July to gather input from a wide variety of constituents and recommend ways to tell the full story of Clemson’s history, good and bad.
“The clear, consistent message was that Clemson must tell its complete, though imperfect, story,” Task Force Chair David Wilkins said. “While the work of the task force is complete, our efforts to tell the full story are just beginning,”
The task force also recommends that the university’s historical narrative should include all of Clemson’s racial history, the universities roots in agriculture, its transition from a military school to a civilian school and the transition from an all-male college to a co-ed institution.
Clements said another historical plaque will be erected at the Calhoun Bottoms farmland to commemorate the role of African-Americans and Native Americans in the development of the Fort Hill Plantation lands. A third will be placed at Woodland Cemetery to mark the burial sites of the family of John C. Calhoun, slaves and state-leased prisoners who died during their confinement at Clemson.
Markers are one way Clemson is working to give a more complete and accurate public accounting of its history after some faculty and students pushed the university last year to address racial aspects of its heritage.