At USC, unraveling a complicated past on a modern-day campus - DatelineCarolina

At USC, unraveling a complicated past on a modern-day campus

LeConte College, named after brothers John and Joseph LeConte LeConte College, named after brothers John and Joseph LeConte
Thomas Cooper Library, named after Thomas Copper Thomas Cooper Library, named after Thomas Copper


Several times a semester, Karli Wells leads high school students and parents down the University of South Carolina’s Horseshoe, painting a picture of a lively, engaging campus that could be a perfect home for these prospective college students.

As they stroll past aged bricks and buildings that have earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places, Wells, a USC ambassador, recalls the founding of the former South Carolina College in 1801 and then moves on to modern academic and collegiate life at the state’s flagship university.

But Wells doesn’t bring all the history to light.

“There is slave history all over through our campus that we don’t talk about,” she said.

The African-American studies student said she knows many of the historic buildings honor 19th century slaveholders. Many of the structures and walls that line the Horseshoe were built by enslaved African-Americans, and if Wells could devise her tour, she would bring those stories to life. So, she says nothing.

“I avoid it on my own personal trip,” Wells said. “My thing is, if I’m going to say this is what happened, I’m going to tell the truth or I’m not going to say it at all.”

The legacy of a white past

The university tours are designed to inform prospective students of a 21st century USC, but Wells would like the university to more fully acknowledge the university’s past. She led a student protest Nov. 16 to demand the administration address continuing disparities in minority admissions and faculty hiring, a legacy of the university’s white past. One demand called for the school to recognize that enslaved hands built the foundation of the campus, and to acknowledge it during campus tours.

Still, protestors did not call for changing the names on historic buildings in and around the Horseshoe, as has occurred at two other state-supported institutions, Clemson and Winthrop universities.

Among notable USC buildings named after 19th-century figures:

  • Longstreet Theater – built in 1855 and was later named after Augustus Baldwin Longstreet. He was a minister, attorney and a former president of the college. Longstreet also owned slaves, but sold them so his reputation wouldn’t be damaged. He later bought a plantation and slaves again.
  • LeConte College – built in 1952 and was named in honor of John and Joseph LeConte. Both brothers were science professors at the college and owned a plantation together that had more than 60 slaves. They also helped the Confederacy during the Civil War by working for Nitre and Mining Bureau, a manufacturing unit that supplied troops with metals and minerals.
  • Thomas Cooper Library – built in 1959, but it was completed in 1976 and was immediately named after Thomas Cooper. He was the second president of the college, a lawyer and a slave owner who voiced his pro-slavery support through a series of pamphlets.

USC has not seen the kind of vociferous debate over historic buildings that erupted at Clemson and Winthrop universities last year.  The main administration buildings at those schools were named in honor of Benjamin Ryan “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, a 19th century governor and U.S. senator who gained notoriety for his calls to suppress blacks. Protesters have called for the removal of Tillman’s name.

Tillman, a Clemson founder and lifetime trustee, was governor of South Carolina from 1890 to 1894 and presided over a state constitutional convention that stripped newly freed African-Americans of their newly won rights. He went on to serve in the U.S. Senate until his death in 1918 and freely advocated the lynching of blacks to keep the population under white rule.

Tillman Hall, with its iconic bell tower, is the central building on the Clemson campus but went by the name Old Main until 1946, when it was changed to honor Tillman. In Rock Hill, the three-story Romanesque structure known as Main Building was renamed Tillman Administration Building in 1962.

Retired USC historian Walter Edgar said he wasn’t surprised that USC escaped heated scrutiny over its building names. He said that although many buildings in and around the historic Horseshoe were named after slaveholders, those men were not divisive figures like Tillman.

“His actions and his words were considered racist even in their day by a number of people,” Edgar said in an email. “He openly boasted of depriving black Carolinians the right to vote and of being a participant in violent attacks on black Carolinians.”

Telling the whole story

It could be difficult to change the name of any historic building in the state. South Carolina’s Heritage Act enacted in 2000 prohibits changing any local or state marker named after a member of the Confederacy without a two-thirds vote by the state legislature.

While the Heritage Act stalls renaming structures in South Carolina, other states are still debating whether to change markers named in honor of 19th century controversial figures. A Minnesota lake named after former U.S. vice president and slavery endorser John C. Calhoun, may be changed after state officials called Lake Calhoun’s name offensive.

And the school board of a Berkeley, Calif. school is considering changing LeConte Elementary School’s name because it honors renowned science professors John and Joseph Le Conte, who both helped the Confederacy.

Edgar said USC has also been more open about its past, which is reflected in modern histories of the university. A newly published book, “On the Horseshoe: A Guide to the Historic Campus of the University of South Carolina,” written by Elizabeth Cassidy West and Katharine Thompson Allen, offers up a guide to the buildings and the architecture as well as a fuller explanation of the people who lived and worked on the historic campus.

Historians have long called for such openness and reflection. USC professor Christian Anderson tells that history whenever he leads a tour.

“As a historian, I feel it’s important to tell the whole story,” Anderson said. He added, “it’s important for us to understand that this is who we are.”

Anderson’s push for embracing the campus’ history led him to help launch a proposal to honor former professor Richard T. Greener with a statue on campus. Greener, the first black Harvard graduate and the first black professor at USC, was known for reorganizing the South Caroliniana Library after the Civil War.

“We felt that the idea of having a physical presence that represented him as a person is important in representing USC and its past,” Anderson said. “What could be more significant than having an actual statue of Richard T. Greener himself?”

Anderson said it will take roughly $350,000 in donations to build the statue, and the committee over the Greener memorial’s development hopes to unveil it January 2017. The statue would be the first-ever honoring a real person on the campus, although a statue of Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers’s statue was erected at USC’s Williams-Brice Stadium this year.

There is a commemorative garden honoring the three students who integrated USC in 1963, but no building bears the name of a prominent African-American or other minority associated with the university.

Unraveling a complicated history

USC African American studies professor Bobby Donaldson said there’s nothing wrong with the recent surge of conversations emerging about complicated racial subjects like Tillman. While Donaldson said the country’s history couldn’t be erased, he believes that society shouldn’t be quick to sanitize history.  

“This is who we are,” he said. “We’re a nation of complicated democracy and it’s a complicated history that we’re trying to unravel and understand now.”

Donaldson, who is the first black professor to live on the school’s campus since Greener did in the mid-1870s, said he wants the whole history of these slaveholders to be acknowledged.

“I’m not advocating that we should change the name of the buildings,” he said. “But at least we should know the names and the history of the names behind them.”

And Wells said she feels the same way.

“I don’t necessarily believe in erasure,” she said. “I think if you’re going to acknowledge the history you need to tell the truth of it.”

USC Chief Communications Officer Wes Hickman said the university’s efforts to continue embracing the past have been fixed on findings ways to honor it.  

“The focus here has really been on ‘What do we do as a community and as a family to understand the past, to recognize the role that slavery played in the structure of the campus and to honor the memory of that,” he said.  

Hickman added that with the university creating a website detailing the school’s role in slavery, along with its recent announcement to create a Center for Civil Rights History and Research, it’s continuing to show its desire to embrace history – all of it.

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