Uncovering and Documenting the Black Experience in Clemson
In 2007, Rhondda Robinson Thomas started her career as an English professor at Clemson University, which sits on what was once American statesman John C. Calhoun’s Fort Hill Plantation. In 1889, Thomas Green Clemson—Calhoun’s son-in-law—bequeathed the land and his fortune to establish the college, and the plantation home still sits central to the now sprawling campus. Thomas was quickly inspired to join and grow efforts to uncover the identity and contributions of laborers who worked on the plantation and who built the campus. Their lives and their stories were absent from memorializations and narratives of Clemson’s history. With support from the NEH, this initial effort has grown into a multifaceted project to research, document and share the commonly excluded contributions of Black laborers across generations—all foundational to the founding and ongoing prosperity of the University and the surrounding area.
Call My Name is titled to honor both the call-and-response African American cultural tradition and roll calls that take place in academic spaces like Clemson. It serves as a guiding principle for creating a public project. When speaking about the people whose names were initially recovered in her research, Thomas said, “they still have family members living in communities all around the university. And I need them to help me tell the story.” The project began to recruit participants for digitization projects by leveraging partnerships with local cultural organizations and supporting existing community events—like local Black History Month and Kwanzaa celebrations. Through an NEH Common Heritage grant, community members introduced to the program were offered a free service to help digitize and preserve family heirlooms and invited to learn about the project and their various options for participation. And as relationships were built through the process, more community members were invited to respond to help make their legacies and stories accessible.
Recently, these efforts have culminated in a book titled Call My Name, Clemson: Documenting the Black Experience in an American University Community, as well as the development of a traveling exhibition that will take a three-site tour before finding a permanent home in Clemson. Ongoing NEH support has helped strengthen the relationships that are foundational to the project itself, and encouraged support from the university to continually pursue and honor the histories uncovered through Call My Name. Thomas also sees these efforts as deeply connected to her role as an educator as she brings the principles of call and response to Clemson’s students: “I’ve been telling stories as long as I can remember and am just wanting to make sure people could have a voice. And that’s what happens in my classroom. My students ask some questions that I think other people run away from, but I run into those questions.”