When I first arrived in Clemson, I knew nothing of South Carolina history. While my parents were house hunting, the realtor tried to interest us in a historic property. A classic two-story white house with four stately columns that John C Calhoun built for his mistress. We inspected the house - I remember its musty smell and period furniture, the lovely view of the Blue Ridge out back, and my parents evaluation of it as a money sink. Coincidentally, I absorbed the information that John C Calhoun was a locally revered big shot who had once been vice president. I knew he was somehow connected with Thomas Clemson who founded the university I would eventually attend.
A few years later, when I was a Clemson student, I was vaguely aware that the stand of old trees between the ‘Tin Cans’ - the boys dorms - and Sirrine Hall screened an old home called Fort Hill, and perhaps I knew it was build by Calhoun. It wasn’t until the late seventies when I was on a visit with my fiancé and we were looking for a way to pass the time that I toured Fort Hill. I learned then that Thomas Clemson inherited the estate from his father-in-law and deeded it to the State on the condition that it would become the site of an agricultural college. I remember that the Clemson heat illustrated the desirability of having a detached kitchen. Perhaps I absorbed the fact that the cook would have been a slave woman. If I did, I didn’t think about it much. At the time, I was still very clear about being German. My guilt lay with the holocaust, not slavery. If the tour guide mentioned that Fort Hill was a cotton plantation with about 100 slaves, I filed that as ancient history.
I visited Fort Hill again just last week. My husband and I were on a trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains with his oldest daughter and her kids, and they wanted to see the place I’d lived. Clemson was in the grip of a heat wave, and Fort Hill is air-conditioned. I’d been thinking about Calhoun’s legacy for a couple of reasons. One of the largest lakes in the city of Minneapolis is Lake Calhoun - it hadn’t occurred to me that it was named after John C until local activists began a campaign to change its name a few years ago. I learned that Calhoun had been Secretary of War when Fort Snelling, the base white settlers used to colonize the state, was built. And, of course, while we were in South Carolina, the fact that the Emanuel AME church was on Calhoun street was much in the news.
The first thing that greeted us inside the doors of Fort Hill were recently added foam core posters titled “The African-American Experience at Fort Hill.” The tour guide was able to supplement the detailed descriptions of particular sales and purchases of slaves, as well as living conditions and punishments. I asked her where the field hands lived, and she pointed toward the south end of campus. “Do you know where the architecture building is?” I did. “That’s where the field hand cottages were.” I had a sudden revelation. I had spent my college years trucking back and forth between classes on a former cotton plantation, walking past the ghosts of slaves and never had a clue.
The final poster showed a picture taken in 1940 of Mr. Greenlee, a handsome white-haired man who started life as a stable slave. I don’t know if he was the great-grandfather or great-uncle of my classmate Harry, who was our sophomore class president in 1970 and who is now a professor at Howard University.
I’m not sure what to do with the knowledge that my college years were spent oblivious, criss-crossing former cotton fields soaked with slave sweat, feeling no trace of my privilege. How pre-occupied I was with how much I didn’t want to be there. For now, I’d love to be able to call our Minneapolis lake Lake Medoza - Loon Lake in Dakota.
|Ron and his daughter and grandchildren at Fort Hill|