A Brief History
On April 6, 1888, Thomas Green Clemson died, leaving his fortune for the establishment of The Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina, the college that became Clemson University. Ranked #24 among all public universities in the United States by US News and World Report magazine, Clemson University is much more than just a college football powerhouse. So happy are Clemson graduates with the education they received there, the school ranks #3 in the US for the percentage of alumni that donate back to the university. And yet this wonderful institution of learning was founded by a man that fought in the Confederate States of America Army against the United States of America during the American Civil War. Although described as a “Renaissance Man,” Clemson was also a slave owner. Today Americans struggle with our Confederate and slave owning past, experiencing sharp debate over efforts to erase that past as evidenced by the recent movement to remove Confederate related statues and memorials from public places.
The “peculiar institution” of slavery remains a bitterly remembered part of the American past and seems to have achieved a rejuvenated level of attention in recent years. The fact that John Carroll, a Jesuit priest and the first Roman Catholic Bishop and then Archbishop in the United States was a slave holder himself has come back to haunt Georgetown University, a renowned college founded by the education oriented clergyman, as well as John Carroll University in suburban Cleveland, Ohio, a Jesuit school named for Carroll. University board members struggle to justify the veneration of a man previously honored for his devotion to the Church and to the education of youth when that same man saw fit to own a slave.
Few institutions and people in the American South with roots that go back prior to the US Civil War have no connection to slavery in some way or at least in support of the Confederacy, a movement founded on the principle of the “right” of the states to allow the ownership of human beings. I remember as a child going to a chain of diners called “Duff’s Rebel Restaurant,” a place that incorporated the Confederate battle flag in its motif (see the sign in the link). (The original diner was called “Duff’s Diner” and became “Duff’s Rebel Restaurant” in 1963.) This loved and hated flag that despite not historically representing the Confederate States has come to be the symbol of the Confederate past of the South, and a sharply debated symbol at that. Flying the Confederate flag is no longer seen as a tribute to the heritage of the South, but as a direct slap in the face of those people descended from slaves. No longer will you see the “Stars and Bars” flown above the statehouse in Southern states, and few commercial establishments risk alienating 1/8th of the American population by flaunting the banner.
African Americans that have lineage that goes back to being brought to the United States as slaves are rightfully bitter about that part of their heritage, and the ensuing stigma that attached itself to the African American experience in the US for generations to follow. The idea that descendants of slaves should be paid “reparations” has occasionally been touted as compensation for the slave holding past of America, but an idea also hotly contested and debated. The idea of reparations has gained traction in the recent past, with the vast majority of the Democratic presidential hopefuls for the 2020 nomination for President claiming to either support the idea or to at least demand the subject to open to formal debate. What kind of compensation, how much, exactly who rates being paid reparations (based on percentage of African DNA?) and how reparations would be paid for by the government are sticky details indeed. Proponents of reparations are faced with either a staggeringly high cost of trillions of dollars, or an insultingly small amount of compensation paid to the descendants of slaves. Should Americans that did not even have ancestors in the United States until after the Civil War be asked to foot the bill? The solution is not so easy.
We also face the past history of our Founding Fathers, many of which were slave owners. Do we need to erase them from any place of honor? Refuse to put their image on our money or their names on our cities? Acknowledging that slavery is repugnant and flat out wrong is easy but trying to retroactively erase its stain on history is not so easy. Virtually no person alive today has no ancestors that were not once slaves. Ancient Romans and Greeks kept slaves, as did almost every civilization throughout history, including African tribes/nations and Native American people. As recently as the 20th Century the last of the feudal systems in Eastern Europe meant many of the ancestors of modern White Americans were virtually slaves. Should we seek reparations from Eastern European countries on behalf of our Americans descended from Eastern European serfs and peasants?
An almost modern example of slavery was the practice of kidnapping men to force them into servitude as crew members on ships or service in an army, a practice called “impressment.” Some would consider the military draft a form of slavery. A less formalized but real method to enslave workers was practiced by the “Robber Barons” and coal mine owners of the American industrial landscape, using company stores and debt to trap workers into life of continued servitude without hope of getting free from such crushing debt. Just ask Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Virtually every country and every culture has some sort of embarrassing and often criminal background in its past. Certainly the various massacres and atrocities throughout history touch us in one way or another, but what to do about it? Do we try to forget such events ever happened? Do we wallow in guilt for something done generations before we were even born? Do we try to erase all traces of the past? How can people ever fairly make up for past atrocities? Making history is not a pretty thing. People have committed so many atrocities over the centuries that one can easily wonder about the true nature of humankind. Should we allow modern people to honor their ancestors for their accomplishments, even though those ancestors may have committed crimes against humanity? Should we keep reminders of the not so savory past in museums, lest we forget?
History is much more than just facts. Any words put to paper (or to digital storage) are by nature colored by human bias and sometimes even more so by an agenda of the historian. Even physical relics can be interpreted in ways to suit a particular point of view. Generally speaking, we believe in allowing the broadest number of viewpoints to be expressed without fear of retaliation or censorship to provide people with the opportunity to decide for themselves what is real, or at least most likely the truth. How about you?
Question for students (and subscribers): What famous people from the past that are revered today were slaveholders? What revered people have a past that perhaps should preclude them from being historically honored? Should Confederate monuments and memorials be destroyed or moved to museums? Should they be left in public places? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Bittker, Boris. The Case for Black Reparations. Beacon Press, 2003.
Carroll, John William. Autobiography and Reminiscences of John W. Carroll. Forgotten Books, 2017.
Coski, John. The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem. Belknap Press, 2005.
Holmes, Alester, and George Sherrill Holmes. Thomas Green Clemson: His Life and Work. Garrett and Massie, 1937.
Riley, Helene. Clemson University. Arcadia Publishing, 2002.
Winbush, Raymond. Should America Pay?: Slavery and the Raging Debate on Reparations. Amistad, 2003.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of Clemson cadets marching on Bowman Field, is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1924.