A Look Into the Preservation of Clemson’s African American History

Rhondda Thomas smiles at the camera and poses in front of a natural background.When thinking of someone who has greatly contributed to preserving African American history at Clemson, Rhondda Thomas should immediately come to mind. Thomas teaches African American literature and is the Calhoun Lemon Professor of Literature. She is also the faculty director of Call My Name, a project which researches and documents Clemson’s African American history from the antebellum period to the present.

Thomas started Call My Name in 2007 on her first day working at Clemson when she was given a campus tour and shown John C. Calhoun’s historic plantation house. For Thomas, seeing the Calhoun mansion was shocking, as she had no idea that Clemson was built on Calhoun’s plantation. This information drove her to look through records documenting enslaved people on the plantation during the antebellum period. Through these records, she learned about 50 enslaved persons who were sold with the plantation in 1845. She vowed to share their names and stories with the world, and thus Call My Name was born.

As Thomas continued looking through University records, she found other groups of African Americans at Clemson with unshared history. This discovery caused Call My Name to grow into a project sharing seven generations of names and stories, including sharecroppers who worked at Fort Hill, convicted laborers that built the University, wage workers who kept the University functioning, musicians from the 1920s who performed for social events, the desegregation generation and 21st-century student-activists. 

While discussing the expansion of the project, Thomas said, “My project went from me just trying to answer the question of what do we know about enslaved people to finding there were generations of African American laborers…who had helped Clemson become the extraordinary university that it is, and their stories were not included in the University’s public history.”

To share this history, Thomas has already written one book titled “Call My Name, Clemson: Documenting the Black Experience in an American University Community.” Initially, the book was meant to only be about Call My Name, but much like the project, the content of the book grew and eventually included the story of Call My Name, her own personal story and the story of how the University gradually became more willing to embrace its complete history. Thomas is writing a second book called “The Voices of Black Clemson: Silenced No More,” in which each chapter is based on a generation and will be introduced by a descendant or someone associated with that particular generation. 

In addition to Call My Name, Thomas coordinates the Woodland Cemetery and African American Burial Ground Historic Preservation project. Thomas assisted two students, Sarah Adams and Morgan Molosso, who started the initiative to clean the cemetery and create a memorial after they found the burial ground overgrown and neglected. However, members of the larger team discovered a 1960 court order that stated Clemson University had received permission to disinter African Americans’ remains from the cemetery’s west side and reinter them on the south side, where the burial ground was located. Upon further inspection, they discovered over 500 unmarked graves in the 17.5-acre area. 

When asked how she felt when she realized hundreds of people were buried in unmarked graves, she stated that learning that such actions were deliberate in the name of “campus advancement” was distressing.  

Thomas said, “I was overwhelmed. I just wept. It was really the disrespect that hurt me.” 

After this discovery, Thomas’ role initially was to help with community engagement and locate descendants of those buried in the African American burial ground, and she was later asked to coordinate the research, too.

Thomas then recalled a moment in her research that was particularly meaningful to her. In a list from 1854 of 50 enslaved persons on the Calhoun plantation, there is a baby named Caty. 

“I talk about her as often as I can,” said Thomas. “The Calhouns sold a baby. She was a newborn. I think about her a lot and hope one day to find her and what happened to her.” 

Thomas also mentioned a 13-year-old convict worker named Wade Foster. 

“He was the first teenager that I came across,” she said in reference to the register of convict laborers in the state archive. “I had expected them to be at least 18 or 19 years old, but there are quite a few teenagers under the age of 18 on that list. I think about them often because they became felons for life. Most of them were convicted of stealing food and clothes, crimes of desperation and poverty. I think about how their work is still very evident on our campus with Hardin Hall, Sikes Hall, Old Main and the Trustee House.”

To those interested in becoming involved in these projects, Thomas says to first go to their respective websites, which are callmyname.org and clemson.edu/cemetery. Each website gives a good overview of the project initiatives and contains contact information for those interested in volunteering or becoming a research assistant. She also encourages the public to respond to stories or share information about people Call My Name is trying to document. 

Thomas says, “It is a public humanities project in the real sense of the word because my team can’t do this work alone. We want it to be very collaborative and want there to be a response.”

By: Alli Jennings

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