We thought we were here for the friends but if you look past all the football paraphernalia stores, you see people working for civil rights and the restoration of history.
When we visited our friends Peter and Jane in Clemson, SC, we assumed the visit would be heavy on the friends part of the tour and light on the civil rights. But due to Peter’s career as a professional historian, we did find a civil rights—or maybe “human rights” is a better term—connection.
It all began when Peter (or Jane—I forget)said that the university had probably built its football stadium over the graves of enslaved people.
Peter then told us an African American literature professor on campus had led the effort to remember the lives of enslaved people who lived on the John C Calhoun plantation, which became the campus of Clemson University, built by convict labor. The graves of these slaves and convict laborers are marked by flags, or spray-painted circles on walkways around the campus.
Next day, we accompanied Peter to the Clemson Campus to check out what was going on there. Peter was the perfect tour guide to explain, in the era of Black Lives Matter, how the school was navigating between its Board and its faculty what to do with buildings named for enslavers and racists.
When Peter suggested we tour the home of virulently pro-slavery John C. Calhoun, my first reaction was I didn’t want to be one of those people who toured plantation homes. But Peter encouraged me, saying the exhibits inside were not that kind of Old South nostalgia. We were both surprised, however, by how not-that- kind-of-nostalgia they were. Peter hadn’t been on campus for a while so the narrative of enslaved people who had lived on the plantation/campus was new to him.
At the end of our Clemson campus/plantation/forced labor camp tour,
we paused to reflect on what we had learned next to a building name for
Strom Thurmond. Some people think he had a conversion experience later in life. Others
beg to disagree.
Another important thing I learned that day: my ankle, broken at the end of June,
could now walk more than four miles.