The University of South Carolina on Dec. 5 officially thanked the people who made the school what it is: slaves.
In the years leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation, slave labor was largely responsible for the construction and upkeep of South Carolina College, the university’s predecessor. Two bronze markers were unveiled in a ceremony at USC’s Rutledge Chapel on the Horseshoe.
The first marker recognizes the sole remaining slave quarters on campus, located behind the President’s house.
The second marker notes that enslaved people largely built the original campus of South Carolina College, which was located on the Horseshoe.
This marker reads, in part: “Its buildings and historic walls were substantially constructed by slave labor and built of slave-made brick. Enslaved workers were essential to the daily operations of the college, whether they were owned by the faculty or the college itself, or hired from private citizens.”
The fact made for what USC President Harris Pastides acknowledged was an awkward public event.
The day’s belated honorees “did not toil or build or serve freely,” he said. “They were enslaved. I don’t know how to give thanks or how to give recognition in this context.”
Expressing gratitude to ghosts from the university’s haunted past may not be enough, he suggested.
“The people we come to thank and recognize are so long gone, and were so abused, it may be too little, too late. Still, we must try, and we must do it together.”
USC Associate Professor of History Bobby Donaldson said in his keynote address that enslaved people lived, worked, and cleaned in the very environment where the event was taking place. When Rutledge College caught fire in 1832, enslaved people were the ones who helped put it out.
It was also the place where they were rendered inferior.
In this chapel, “slavery and the bondage of women and men was legitimized and justified as the will of God,” he said. In classrooms, slavery “was debated and rationalized among students and faculty.”
In 2004, Graham Duncan — who is now interim curator of manuscripts at the South Caroliniana Library — was a student in a Southern Studies class researching the role of slaves at South Carolina College.
Duncan provided the groundwork for an extensive project, led by USC Professor of History Robert Weyeneth, that began about seven years ago. His students, with the help of USC archivist Elizabeth West, combed college records, unearthed historical receipts, financial reports and other documents about slavery at South Carolina College.
The results of their work can be accessed at the website Slavery at South Carolina College, 1801-1865: The Foundations of the University of South Carolina.
One of their great discoveries was “hiding in plain sight,” as Weyeneth put it. The building long labeled as the “carriage house” behind the president’s home is also the last remaining campus kitchen and slave quarters.
“We found how the system operated,” Weyeneth said. “The president could bring family slaves, faculty could bring family slaves, students were not allowed to bring family slaves. The college owned slaves and then hired them out, which was essentially a form of rent. They would pay rent to the owner, and the slave would obviously perform the labor without any compensation.”
College records from 1816 tell of one leased slave named Jack, who was put to work in the science laboratory. His job was to look after the “Philosophical apparatus,” which seems to be an archaic term for scientific instruments. He apparently did his job so well the faculty wrote a letter to the governor, asking if the school could buy him outright.
“He has acquired a tolerably good knowledge of this business and is enabled thusly to aid some of the professors considerably in the mechanical parts of their duties,” according to official request. “He has also been uniformly honest, sober and civil, which are well known to be rare qualities in a servant.”
Research also revealed multiple accounts of mistreatment.
“One of the more striking things is when you get into the faculty records, and the disciplinary records with the students,” Duncan said. “The students were, time and time again, called before faculty committees for abusing the enslaved people.”
The incidents were plentiful and ugly.
“Hitting them with a brick, tying them up and beating them, cutting them with knives in the face in the dining hall. And the students were not punished at all, really.”
For Weyeneth, the preservation of USC’s antebellum architecture is a reminder of the past that makes it unique among American colleges. Stand on the steps of McKissick Museum, look toward Sumter Street, and everything you see looks the way it did before the Civil War.
“It is,” he said, “a remarkably intact landscape of slavery.”