Clemson University’s Forgotten Foundation


Discovery of artifacts at Clemson University points to the contributions of African Americans–enslaved and free.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 20.5 million students will enroll in colleges and universities across the United States this fall. That means that 5.2 million more American students are in college now than there were in 2000 – and that by the end of the school year, 4 million college degrees could be issued by U.S. institutions.

Most of the credit, of course, goes to the students, faculty and staff who study, teach and work at these institutions of higher learning. But in many cases, the foundation for their success was laid by people who lived and died two centuries ago. These were the slaves, sharecroppers and leased convicts who helped build and sustain many U.S. campuses for free – mostly nameless, faceless and forgotten.

Clemon’s first black Ph.D. James Bostic pledged $50,000 of his own funds to examine the contributions of enslaved persons to the building of Alma Mater.

In Plain Sight

“It’s just everywhere,” said Dr. James Bostic about the hidden relationship between American campuses and the victims of institutional racism who helped build them. “All over the country.”

Bostic was the first African-American to earn a PhD at Clemson University. Immediately afterward, he was selected in 1972 to be a White House Fellow during the Nixon administration. From there he had a successful career as a business executive.

His ties to his alma mater made him very interested in the stories about slaves and free blacks on the campus discovered by Clemson English professor Dr. Rhondda Robinson Thomas.

“It’s an important piece of Clemson history that nobody knew anything about,” Bostic told Message. “Or if somebody knew something about it, they weren’t saying anything.”

The history was there in plain sight, Thomas told Message. But it wasn’t dusted off for public display until she launched her multi-media project Call My Name: African Americans in Clemson University History.

“It’s history they didn’t want to share,” Thomas said. “They just weren’t interested.”

Treasure Trove of Artifacts

“They,” in this case, refers to former administrators and some current educators. But when Bostic embraced Thomas’s mission – and pledged $50,000 of his own money to support it if the university agreed to a matching donation – any institutional resistance disappeared.

Thomas has uncovered a historical treasure trove of artifacts that document the contributions of blacks – both the enslaved and ostensibly free — to the establishment and development of Clemson. She is posting photos and images of documents to the Call My Name Facebook page, ensuring that they will be enshrined on-line and never lost or overlooked again.

Dr. Rhondda Robinson Thomas, Clemson English Professor, seeks to uncover and acknowledge the contributions of African Americans, some enslaved, some free.

The mission of Call My Name also includes finding the descendants or family of these people so that they can know more about their ancestors. Thomas discovered, for example, that 13-year-old Wade Foster was part of a crew of African-American convicts who helped build Clemson. She hopes to find members of his family in nearby Spartanburg, just over an hour north of the university of Interstate 85.

“Higher education was built on the backs of black labor,” Thomas said. “Without black labor, higher education would not be what it is today.”

History Of Higher Education Includes “Free Labor”

Clemson’s history is not unique. Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Georgetown and the University of Alabama all have a documented connection to slavery or the questionable use of free black labor.

“A lot of students came to college in those early days and they brought slaves with them to look after them, to take care of them,” Bostic explained. “That’s what they had at home.”

The importance of telling these campus-slavery stories only rises when the full context of slavery in America is understood. Ava DuVernay’s new documentary 13th makes the compelling case that while the 13th Amendment to the Constitution outlawed slavery, it also provided a loophole for its perpetuation found at Clemson and other institutions.

The 13th Amendment says: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” But it is the phrase “except as a punishment for crime” that DuVernay points to as the legality that allowed the “leasing” of convicts such as young Wade Foster to Clemson and other institutions.

Today’s Institutional Labor

And in this era of mass incarceration, the essence of the convict leasing practice is still very much in use. DuVernay cites corporations such as Victoria’s Secret and J. C. Penny who used convict labor until recently. In 13th she makes the case that weapons systems, household goods and other products and services are made and conducted by prisoners for pennies – an extension of the forced labor practices of two centuries ago.

“There are a lot of institutions with blood on their hands,” Thomas told Message. The Clemson English professor was talking about colleges and universities. And it might be time for our society to realize that they aren’t the only ones.

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