At Clemson, unmarked graves prompt reckoning with slavery legacy

The discovery of over 600 unmarked African American graves at Clemson University has prompted the institution to consider reparation efforts, amid a national reckoning by universities to properly acknowledge their legacies of slavery and forced labor.

Michelle Liu/AP
Flowers adorn a fence marking an African American cemetery site at Woodland Cemetery at Clemson University, South Carolina, Feb. 28, 2021. Students who found an unkempt graveyard on campus last year sparked the discovery of over 600 unmarked Black graves.

On the sloping side of a cemetery on the campus of Clemson University, dozens of small white flags with pink ribbons have replaced the beer cans that once littered a hill where football fans held tailgate parties outside Memorial Stadium.

The flags are a recent addition, marking the final resting places of the enslaved and convicted African American laborers who built the school, and before that, the plantation on which it sits. Hundreds more of the flags are dotted among existing gravestones, and until lately, most visitors stepped unknowingly over their remains.

“Cemetery Hill” has served as the final resting place for some of Clemson’s faculty and trustees for nearly a century. Now, researchers have identified more than 600 previously unmarked African American graves, some overbuilt by the marked graves of white people, dating back to the early 1800s.

The revelation has prompted Clemson to reconsider the Woodland Cemetery’s function on campus amid a national reckoning by universities to properly acknowledge their legacies of slavery and forced labor.

Rhondda Thomas, a professor of African American literature at Clemson, leads a team working to piece together the identities of the dead in this “sacred space,” and memorialize “those who have been so dishonored and disrespected over time,” she said.

“As a university we have a responsibility to teach our students and our campus community how to embrace complex, painful, troubling history, and we need to start with our own,” Ms. Thomas said in an interview.

The Fort Hill plantation was established by John C. Calhoun in 1825, the same year he became the United States’s 7th vice president. Calhoun later became a U.S. senator, and zealously defended slavery before the Civil War. His family bequeathed the plantation to South Carolina in 1888, leading to the university’s creation. The state then built the campus using convicted laborers, many of them arrested on petty charges to force them to work without pay.

Ms. Thomas has spent much of her tenure documenting the experiences of African Americans in the university’s history through a project known as “Call My Name.” A related tour she designed includes a fenced-off area where the university relocated a few dozen African American graves in the 1960s.

“The narrative tells the story of Clemson’s indebtedness to Black labor for its existence,” Ms. Thomas said. “I thought it was very important for the public, and for the campus community, to be able to access that history.”

Campus archives and court documents show the school has known for decades about some of the unmarked graves below the hilltop spot where the Calhouns buried their first family member in 1837.

A college committee recommended honoring them with a permanent marker in 1946, though none was installed. In 1960, Clemson was allowed by a judge to disinter some of the remains to facilitate the “orderly and proper development of the campus.” A 2003 planning document noted that parts of the site could contain unmarked burial plots.

But Clemson only began investigating in earnest last year, after two undergraduates, upset over the graves’ condition, approached Ms. Thomas.

Sarah Adams, now a senior, said she’d become distraught, after taking one of the campus tours Ms. Thomas created, over the stark discrepancy between the neatly maintained graves of faculty and trustees and the unkempt state of the African American plots.

Ms. Thomas connected Ms. Adams and another concerned student, Morgan Molosso, with cemetery grounds staff and University Historian Paul Anderson, prompting the effort to clean up and memorialize the site. They secured funding from the provost’s office to search for graves with ground-penetrating radar. Three rounds of searches have now increased the number to 667, as of January 2021.

“We don’t want to hide anything,” Mr. Anderson said. “We’re truth tellers.”

Documents posted online by the university show that after Calhoun died in 1850, the U.S. Census recorded 50 slaves on the plantation. Inventoried as property when his son bought Fort Hill four years later, they ranged from a 100-year-old woman named Phebe to multiple children under two. A dozen years later, near the end of the Civil War, 139 enslaved people were living on the plantation.

Field stones and archival documents had provided some indication of how many people were buried, but seeing the hundreds of flags interspersed among the graves of Clemson employees left Ms. Thomas speechless as she grappled with the proof of a burial ground desecrated over time.

Touring the site now requires stepping gingerly around dozens of white circles spray-painted onto the ground. In some places, graves have been paved over to create walkways. In others, many flags are clustered around each other, possibly marking where extended families buried their dead for generations, researchers said.

There is no way to know whether Clemson football games are played over the remains of enslaved people. Construction of the stadium would have destroyed any graves, said tour guide La’Neice Littleton, a postdoctoral fellow. But the white circles extend to within steps of the stadium wall.

The initial discovery of 215 unmarked graves amid the Black Lives Matter movement last summer led some students and faculty to call for broader changes in how the school treats Black students and surrounding African American communities. Clemson is South Carolina’s second-largest university, but just 6% of its students are Black, in a state where some 27% of residents are.

Ms. Thomas has suggested that reparations could come in the form of tuition scholarships for descendants of the people buried in the cemetery, akin to a program Georgetown University launched in 2019.

Already, some professors are incorporating the cemetery’s uncomfortable history into classes. Admissions office guides include it in campus tours. Ms. Thomas said she’s also assembled a council of surrounding community members to help shape a memorial to the men, women, and children whose forced labor made Clemson what it is today.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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