In recent years, hundreds of unmarked graves have been found at Clemson University’s Woodland Cemetery — some even near the final resting place of John C. Calhoun’s family members.
In February, Clemson officials announced that some of these graves may even predate Calhoun’s Fort Hill Plantation. Calhoun was an American statesman in the first half of the 19th century, serving as a congressman, a secretary of war, the seventh vice-president, a senator and as a secretary of state in his political life. He promoted states rights’ and supported the institution of slavery. He called Fort Hill home. The land eventually became the university.
Experts believe many of the unmarked graves belong to enslaved people who worked the plantation and were later laborers and possibly even convicted laborers that helped build the original university.
University presidents, trustees and staff have been buried in the cemetery since the early 1920s starting with former university president Walter Merrit Riggs who championed its creation.
Rhondda Thomas, Calhoun Lemon Professor of Literature at Clemson, has been consulting with local African American communities in the Upstate about those buried in the graves. Thomas continues to work with a community board to preserve and memorialize the site.
“It appears to me that it was always known that there was an African American burial ground in the same area,” says Thomas. “But attention was paid more to preserving the Woodland Cemetery than the parts the cemetery that were thought to be where the remains of African Americans have been buried.”
Thomas remembers assisting students interested in the graves. Their work brought to light various attempts through Clemson’s history to try to memorialize the site — some going back to 1946, Thomas says.
There’s an importance in remembering those buried in the unmarked areas. So far, the team has found 667 unmarked graves thanks to ground-penetrating radar.
“Clemson was a plantation,” Thomas says. “It’s easy to forget that.”
Communities should know the history of the land they’re on, Thomas explains. Not only were enslaved people forced to work the plantation, the sharecroppers of those same fields years later were emancipated enslaved people and their descendants — people with family in the unmarked graves in Woodland Cemetery.
And even before the plantation era, members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokees lived on the land, notes Thomas.
“As a university, we have a responsibility to be educators,” she says, “and part of that education, for me, is making sure our students, our community, as well as the public know the history of the land.”
Future plans for the African American burial ground include a preservation plan to protect it from erosion and vandalism. A historian has already been hired by Clemson to conduct long-term research as well.