CLEMSON, SC (AP) – On the sloping side of a cemetery on the Clemson University campus, dozens of small white flags with pink ribbons have replaced the beer cans that once littered a hill where fans of football were having tailgate parties outside Memorial Stadium.
The flags are a recent addition, marking the last resting places of the enslaved and doomed African-American laborers who built the school, and before that, the plantation on which it sits. Hundreds of other flags are dotted among the existing tombstones, and until recently most visitors unknowingly walked over their remains.
“Cemetery Hill” served as the final resting place for some of Clemson’s professors and administrators for nearly a century. Today, researchers have identified more than 600 previously unmarked African-American graves, some overbuilt by White Marked Graves, dating to the early 1800s.
The revelation prompted Clemson to reconsider the function of Woodland Cemetery on campus amid a nationwide account by universities to properly recognize their legacies of slavery and forced labor.
Rhondda Thomas, professor of African-American literature at Clemson, leads a team working to piece together the identities of the dead in this “sacred space” and to commemorate “those who have been so dishonored and despised over time,” a- she declared.
“As a university, we have a responsibility to teach our students and our university community how to embrace a complex, painful and disturbing history, and we have to start with our own,” Thomas said in an interview.
The Fort Hill Plantation was established by John C. Calhoun in 1825, the same year he became the country’s 7th Vice President. Calhoun later became a United States Senator and zealously defended slavery before the Civil War. His family bequeathed the plantation to South Carolina in 1888, which led to the establishment of the university. The state then built the campus using convicted laborers, many of whom were arrested on petty charges for forcing them to work without pay.
Thomas has spent much of his tenure documenting the experiences of African Americans in college history through a project called “Call My Name”. A related tour she designed includes a fenced area where the university moved a few dozen African-American graves in the 1960s.
“The story tells the story of Clemson’s debt to black labor for his existence,” Thomas said. “I thought it was very important for the public and for the campus community to be able to access this story.”
Campus records and court documents show the school has known for decades some of the unmarked graves on top of the hill where the Calhouns buried their first family member in 1837.
A college committee recommended honoring them with a permanent marker in 1946, although none were installed. In 1960, Clemson was authorized by a judge to dig up some of the remains to facilitate “the orderly and proper development of the campus.” A 2003 planning document indicated that parts of the site may contain unmarked burial plots.
But Clemson didn’t begin to investigate seriously until last year, after two undergraduates, shocked by the condition of the graves, approached Thomas.
Sarah Adams, now elderly, said she became distraught after taking one of the campus tours Thomas created because of the glaring gap between the carefully maintained graves of professors and administrators and the state overlooked African-American plots.
Thomas put Adams and another concerned student, Morgan Molosso, in touch with cemetery staff and academic historian Paul Anderson, prompting a cleanup and commemoration of the site. They obtained funds from the provost’s office to search for graves with radar penetrating the ground. Three rounds of research have now brought the number to 667, in January 2021.
“We don’t want to hide anything,” Anderson said. “We are telling the truth.”
Documents posted online by the university show that after Calhoun’s death in 1850, the U.S. census recorded 50 slaves on the plantation. Inventory of assets when her son bought Fort Hill four years later, they ranged from a 100-year-old woman named Phebe to several children under two. A dozen years later, towards the end of the Civil War, 139 slaves were living on the plantation.
Fieldstones and archival documents had provided an indication of the number of people buried, but seeing the hundreds of flags interspersed among the graves of Clemson employees left Thomas speechless as she struggled with the evidence of a cemetery desecrated over time.
To visit the site, you must now carefully walk around dozens of white circles spray painted on the ground. In some places, graves were paved to create walkways. In others, many flags are clustered around each other, possibly marking the spot where extended families have buried their dead for generations, researchers said.
There is no way to know if Clemson’s football matches are played on slave remains. Construction of the stadium would have destroyed all the graves, said tour guide La’Neice Littleton, postdoctoral fellow. But the white circles extend a few steps from the stadium wall.
The initial discovery of 215 unmarked graves amid the Black Lives Matter movement last summer has led some students and faculty to call for broader changes in the way the school treats black students and surrounding African American communities. . Clemson is South Carolina’s second largest university, but only 6% of its students are black, in a state where about 27% of residents live.
Thomas suggested that the repairs could take the form of scholarships for the descendants of those buried in the cemetery, similar to a program launched by Georgetown University in 2019.
Already, some teachers are incorporating the uncomfortable history of the cemetery into lessons. Guides from the admissions office include it in campus tours. Thomas said she had also assembled a council of members of the surrounding community to help shape a monument to the men, women and children whose forced labor made Clemson what it is today.
Liu is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative corps. Report for America is a national, nonprofit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on secret issues.