Built by slaves and plantation wealth, South Carolina colleges look to tell their own stories fully


By Paul Bowers, The Post and Courier

The man’s name was Abraham. In a grainy 1889 photo of the plantation home belonging to Furman University’s namesake family, he appears standing by the portico with his face obscured in foliage and shadows.

Under the system of apartheid and chattel slavery that defined the United States economy from its early days, Abraham had lived part of his life as the legal property of James C. Furman, the university’s first president. Researchers only know his first name because someone wrote it on the back of the photograph. The rest of his life remains hidden from view.

In the fall, faculty and students at Furman University began sifting through their own history to more fully tell the stories of Abraham and other slaves like him whose labor helped establish the school. They will present their findings and recommendations in the spring.

“We wanted to reclaim some humanity for him. We don’t know who he was,” said Steve O’Neill, a professor of history at Furman.

With the announcement of its Task Force on Slavery and Justice in May 2016, Furman joined a nationwide reckoning. Since Brown University became one of the first prominent schools to launch an inquiry into its history of slavery in 2003, schools including Georgetown University have begun making public atonement and renaming buildings after former slaves.

The movement has spread to South Carolina. The Citadel, Clemson University, Furman and the University of South Carolina have all joined the Universities Studying Slavery Consortium, based at the University of Virginia. Each school’s history is unique, and so is its approach to telling it.

A student effort

At Furman, the movement started with a student’s voice.

Writing an opinion piece in The Paladin student newspaper in October 2016, student Marian Baker provided a cursory overview of the university’s past. She called on the school to look back so it could move forward.

“Simply put, the history of your school influences its culture in the present day,” Baker wrote.

Some of the history was well-established. As at many universities with antebellum roots, enslaved people built some of Furman’s historic buildings. Slave labor propped up Furman in other ways, too, as wealthy plantation owners donated large sums to establish the school in 1826.

The Rev. Richard Furman, who served as pastor of First Baptist Church in Charleston, led the push for Baptist higher education in the Upstate while also providing a theological justification for the institution of slavery. In a widely circulated 1838 letter to the governor after Denmark Vesey’s failed 1822 slave rebellion, Furman wrote that a slave owner ought to be “the guardian and even father of his slaves.”

Other pieces of history are still being unearthed. According to O’Neill, while Furman and his son James espoused pious and paternalistic views on slavery, they rarely mentioned the people he owned in diary entries, and they even sold some slaves to other owners.

Andrew Teye, a third-year communications student at Furman, conducted archival research in the school’s library this fall. He wrote in a blog post for the university that he became interested partly because some of his ancestors in Ghana were deported and sold into slavery across the Atlantic. In the course of his research, he unearthed the names of three Greenville-area contractors who sold either slave or freedman labor for the construction of an early Furman campus at a rate of 50 cents per day.

History on the Horseshoe

Students also led the way at South Carolina’s largest university.

On Nov. 16, 2015, University of South Carolina students donned all black clothes and walked out of classes in silence as part of the USC 2020 Vision activist movement. They marched to the Horseshoe, the historic common area at the heart of the Columbia campus, and read a list of 12 demands regarding equity and recruitment of minority students.

Their first demand was about history:

“We demand that our university acknowledge that this institution was built on the backs of enslaved Africans.”

University leaders met the students in the Horseshoe and listened. Some took notes. Eventually, some of the demands came to pass.

The first demand became a reality Dec. 5 when USC unveiled two large plaques about the role of slave labor in the university’s history. A crowd of more than 200 overflowed the Horsehoe’s tiny Rutledge Chapel for the dedication.

USC plaque (copy)

One of the plaques was installed by the president’s house and a building that once served as a slave quarters and kitchen. It lists enslaved workers who could only be identified by first name from available records.

“We are here as students, as teachers, as colleagues, as neighbors, united in desire and united in need to give far belated thanks and recognition to those persons who toiled during the foundation of the college and during its first 64 years,” university President Harris Pastides said during the dedication.

Logan Smith, a 2009 graduate of USC, said he was pleasantly surprised by the news. Smith works for the Raleigh-based nonprofit group Progress North Carolina and moonlights as the manager of the popular anti-racist Twitter account @yesyoureracist, and he was glad to see his alma mater own up to its past.

“There will always be more to be done, more to be said,” Smith said. “I do think that plaque was a really great first step — one that frankly I had no expectation would ever happen.”

Under the beauty

Visitors to the College of Charleston’s downtown campus can’t miss the stately architecture and massive oaks dripping with Spanish moss. A banner near the historic Cistern Yard boasted of a new accolade from Travel + Leisure magazine this fall: “Most Beautiful College Campus.”

Historically, Charleston’s immense wealth was built on the backs of enslaved people. The college is no exception, and some professors are pushing the school to publicly recognize the fact.

“I think somebody walking through our campus might not recognize the contributions of African-Americans to our campus. It might seem from the outside as if we don’t realize that,” said Julia Eichelberger, a professor of English and Southern studies at C of C. “Our campus is sort of a classroom for our students, and we want our students to understand the beautiful environment that they’re walking around in and why it’s here.”

Eichelberger has been working with faculty in historic preservation, African-American studies and other subject areas to come up with a plan for the college to publicly recognize its own history. She says part of the plan will likely include updating historic markers on campus to reflect the legacy of slave labor.

“We’re an academic institution, and we believe in telling the truth. It’s kind of a quaint idea perhaps,” Eichelberger said. “And the truth is complicated and hard to understand sometimes.”

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