The school has now hired a full-time historian to assist a professor working to document the lives of those buried there, and promised to work with local Black leaders to decide how best to memorialize the site.
“We are committed to taking all the critically important actions to enhance these grounds, preserve these gravesites and to ensure the people buried there are properly honored and respected,” Smyth McKissick, chairman of Clemons’s board of trustees, said in a statement.
The discovery adds new pressure on Clemson to further acknowledge its deep-rooted connections to slavery. The university is built on the Fort Hill Plantation, which belonged to Calhoun, a politician who vehemently defended slavery throughout his career. In June, after pressure from students and graduates, including two NFL players, Clemson removed Calhoun’s name from the honors college, and voted to rename another building honoring Ben Tillman, a senator and governor who was a white supremacist and helped found Clemson.
The university says it’s making concerted efforts to bring transparency to its history.
“Clemson is dedicated to developing and sharing a full and accurate history of this area and to develop a preservation plan to protect it and those who rest here,” McKissick said in the news release.
When he wasn’t in Washington serving as a vice president, secretary of state or in the Senate, Calhoun was at Fort Hill Plantation, where he owned 70 to 80 enslaved people, according to Clemson’s history. Calhoun was outspoken about his support of slavery, calling it a “positive good.” When he died, the plantation and enslaved people were passed down to his children. His daughter Anna Maria married Thomas Green Clemson, a politician who fought for the Confederates. The two lived at Fort Hill and when Clemson died, he left the plantation to the state, requesting that it establish a college there in his name.
The Calhoun family is buried in the center of Woodland Cemetery, which now sits next to Clemson’s football stadium. In 1922, the cemetery expanded to include faculty.
It is unclear how long the university knew enslaved people were also buried there in unmarked graves. In September 1960, Clemson got court approval to move buried remains that were marked with fieldstones, which were typically used as grave markers for African Americans, several hundred feet south. According to the news release, the university attempted to identify and preserve the original gravesites in the early 1990s and again in the early 2000s, but the efforts were “inconclusive.”
The latest project at the cemetery began in February when students who were touring the campus through a program called “Call My Name,” which chronicles the history of African Americans at Clemson, visited the disheveled gravesite, south of the Calhoun family plot, which was sectioned off by a fence.
“They came to me very distraught, very upset and asked what could be done,” Rhondda R. Thomas, a professor of 18th and 19th-century African American literature who started the program, told WYFF.
Thomas encouraged the students to talk to the university’s historian, Paul Anderson. By June, Anderson formed a team to start surveying the area, looking out for groups of fieldstones and marking them with a small flag. But they soon found stones outside the fenced-in area that was designated as the slaves’s burial site.
“That got us curious.” Anderson told WYFF.
So his team expanded the search, exploring the land south and west of the site, eventually making their way around the three-acre cemetery. On July 28, they received a copy of the 1960 court order, explaining why they found fieldstones in other areas of the cemetery. The following day the site team used ground penetrating radar to locate the unmarked graves. In all, the team found 215 graves and expect to find even more.
In addition to enslaved people, sharecroppers and laborers are also buried there, alongside some prisoners who helped build the school. All of the people in the unmarked graves are African American, the school said.
“Testing shows disturbed soil roughly five feet beneath the surface indicating possible burial sites,” the news release said. “Continued investigation of the cemetery could identify additional potential burial sites in the coming weeks and months.”
The discovery has forced the university to accepts its past failings in preserving the graves. On the website chronicling the project, the team says “the university has failed to properly honor, mark, or protect this burial ground despite some attempts to do so since 1946.”
They added: “What we know now is disturbing enough to raise significant and uncomfortable questions that will likely take several years of research to answer.”
Clemson also plans to erect new signage to properly identifying the areas of the unmarked graves, to build better fencing and to better maintain the area. The university also enlisted Thomas to work with the local Black community to decide how best to honor the people buried in Woodland Cemetery.
“We know that people want answers now that the discovery is known,” Thomas told WYFF. “And we want to assure the public and the local African American community that the work continues and that we will continue working on this as long as it takes to get the answers that we need.”