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Convict Labor | research and creative discovery | Clemson University

Convict Labor

by Jemma Everyhope-Roser

Leasing convict labor was a common practice in the post-war South. Above: At Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina (photo 1910–1919), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used convict labor to grade Snake Road. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Below: An early twentieth-century photograph shows convict laborers in Florida. Image courtesy of Spartanburg County Public Libraries.

Close reading for clues

Thomas’s fascination with the convicts who built Clemson began shortly after her arrival at Clemson in 2007. When she read university historian Jerome Reel’s The High Seminary, a history of Clemson, she found several mentions of convict labor. The more she encountered the word “convict,” the more curious she became.

“I was interested in the human face of the convicts,” Thomas says. “I wanted to know their names. I wanted to know their ages. I wanted to know as much as I could about them as individuals and as human beings.”

With a host of questions, Thomas inquired at Clemson’s special collections but found only a few letters between the trustees and the State of South Carolina, as well as annual reports written by the trustees. The information she did find resembled databases, citing numbers of convicts and food expenses.

But Thomas wanted more than the numbers—she wanted to know who these men were. So she contacted the state penitentiary office in Columbia. Unfortunately, their records didn’t go that far back, but they did refer her to the state archives.

Writing to the state archives, Thomas received an email reply within twenty-four hours. Thomas says, “When the archivist said, ‘We have names, we have ages, we have where they’re from, we have their crimes, their court dates,’ I was like, ‘Oh, wow. This is what I’ve been looking for.’ And that was the first glimpse I got of who these men and boys were and why they ended up at Clemson.”

Thomas has been able to locate a few of the men and boys in the census, so she’s tracing them in order to learn more about them. She’s attempting to discover who they were before they entered the penal system, and where they went after they left it. Newspapers with obituary columns will help Thomas track down these men and boys’ families. She’s found a few. Exploring family records and oral histories will help her uncover their identities.

With nearly 600 men and boys listed on the farm and contract registers for Clemson, Thomas has her work cut out for her. “It’s going to take a lot of time to track down all of these stories,” she says.

Thomas will have to verify the information and try to uncover more. She’ll burn gas as she travels from state to state. Then she’ll wear out shoe leather roaming between county courthouses, small historical societies, and libraries with newspapers on microfilm. She’ll continue going to the South Carolina archives to examine more records.

“Archival research is very hard work. It’s very difficult and very frustrating,” Thomas admits. “Sometimes I’m on a trail and it seems like I’m going to find something—only to have the trail go cold. Maybe a year later it becomes warm again. Someone will hear about my work and send me an email. Then it picks up again.”

A trail can go cold for many reasons. Records get lost. Fires rage, reducing paper to ash. Boxes stashed in attics go forgotten, moldering. Neglected papers are shredded into mouse nests. Sometimes it’s natural causes. The documents deteriorate, age returning them to dust. And, on occasion, someone will step forward and say, “Yeah, we threw those away.”

Yet Thomas remains determined, saying, “I have to follow the trails.”

Sifting out the bias

Within these masses of data, Thomas faces another challenge. Many of the legal documents relating to these convicts that she’s recovered so far weren’t written by the men and boys themselves. Whenever she quotes a document, she always includes a caveat, stating who wrote the document. Thomas uses her training as a literary historian to sift out bias and determine distortions related to the writer’s perspective. When a clerk takes notes on skin tone for the register of convicts, one person’s chestnut is another’s light brown.

“It just depends on who’s looking,” Thomas points out.

In her search to discover who these men and boys really were, Thomas says, “The only time I’ve gotten a hint of their voices is in a court document, when a court clerk is transcribing the voice of the person who’s testifying.”

But, Thomas says, “The gems are the letters from the men themselves.”

Several African American convicts who labored at Clemson wrote letters to Governor Tillman for pardons. The men who were pardoned often have thicker files, sometimes containing letters from themselves, as well as supporters and detractors in their hometowns. But Thomas can sometimes hear, like a distant melody, a refrain of the men and boys’ voices as they explain why they committed crimes, as they profess their innocence, as they confess at the indictment, as their neighbors tell their stories. Thomas assembles this information along with her knowledge of nineteenth-century South Carolina with the ultimate goal of telling these stories as accurately and fully as possible.

After applying her exhaustive archival detective work and her literary savvy to her findings, Thomas turns to another source of inspiration to gain understanding of these men and boys: her imagination.

“You have to think about that twelve-year-old boy,” Thomas says. “He’s scared. He’s in this court system. The judge says, ‘Can you tell me anything that will convince me not to send you to jail?’ and he may be thinking, ‘Here I am, without my parents, about to be sentenced and sent off to the penitentiary.’ So what can he say that will change this man’s mind?”

When an exchange like that takes place in a court document, imagination unites historical context with individual experience. Thomas says, “I try to gain as much insight into how to interpret those texts to the best of my ability and do right by all the participants, not just the African Americans in the penal system, but also the judges, the lawyers, the plaintiffs, and the police.”

“We owe it to them.”

Thomas thinks this research may take her a decade to complete. The preliminary research alone took her about two years until she found the first stash of documents, and in the last year she’s devoted more attention to the project. But Thomas is up to the challenge.

“If that’s how long it takes to tell this story correctly and accurately,” Thomas says, “then I’ll have to spend ten years doing it. I want to be true to these men and boys. We owe it to them.”

In the cultural history Thomas plans to write, she wants to present the complex, contradictory story of Clemson’s involvement in the convict leasing system in the South. Weaving together three strands—the building of Clemson, the history of South Carolina, and the stories of the men and boys—Thomas wants to express a fully nuanced history. But, as she says, “I want to be very up front about this. I’m at the initial stages. I expect to learn more and find more documents and stories.”

She rarely shares her research at such early stages, but due to the high level of interest, she has spoken to the Greenville News and also written an article for the South Carolina Review. When she learns more, she’ll make presentations at conferences or write a second essay for another academic journal. Thomas says, “As I learn more I’ll be able to speak more. That’s the danger of talking early about your research. I’m still trying to figure out where this project will take me.”

But wherever the trail leads her, Thomas says, “The men and boys’ stories are still waiting to be found.”

Rhondda Robinson Thomas opens the record to find those who helped build a campus and a state.

Clemson campus possesses the elegance of the modern blended to the stateliness of the historical. The concrete columns stand Grecian above a reflection pool. Oaks stud the green swathes of lawn. Squirrels chitter at sunbathing students. The electronic bells in Tillman Hall’s clock tower chime “Under the Sea” in the humid air.

More than the distant drone of the cicadas, the named buildings around us hint at Clemson’s origins as a Southern institution. Calhoun. Clemson. Tillman. Thurmond. Strode. Hardin. Bowman. But other names don’t stand in bronze outside of brick-and-granite buildings. Wade Foster. Frank Taylor. Andrew Williams. Gabe Anderson. Jack Givins. There are about six hundred more where those came from.

If you’re wondering who these individuals were, you’re not alone. Rhondda Robinson Thomas, associate professor of English and a literary historian, wants to find out. But before we dive into the detective work (see sidebar), let’s steal a page from H.G. Wells and travel back in time.

When the Americas were young to the colonials and old to the Native Americans, Cherokees walked the tracts of longleaf pine forests. The village of Essennaca stood but one mile from our modern-day campus. The Cherokee fought for the British in the American Revolution, attacking the Scots-Irish colonists in Fort Rutledge. After the war, the Reverend James McElhenny, rector and slaveholder, bought the land and expanded it to make Clergy Hall. Seventeen years later, Floride Calhoun purchased it. In 1825 John C. Calhoun, a slaveholder and the vice president of the United States, rented the land, renamed it Fort Hill in honor of Fort Rutledge, and ran a plantation on its grounds. Eventually, the estate went to Calhoun’s son-in-law Thomas Green Clemson in 1875. By 1886 Clemson had drawn up a will to establish an agricultural college in Upstate South Carolina.

1886. Almost twenty years after the end of the Civil War, the North had tired of Reconstruction. The South, still devastated, could see its loss echoed in shattered buildings and shoddy infrastructure. Slowly, ex-slaveholders and opportunistic businessmen developed systems to utilize the massive labor force of emancipated blacks. Sharecropping. Peonage. Convict labor.

That’s what piqued Thomas’s interest. She says, “I wanted to better understand how the legacy of slavery played out in the use of convict labor in South Carolina.”

As a source of revenue, the states leased convicts in groups to various industries. Convicts worked in mines, loading up tons of coal by the day. Convicts built roads, railroads, and bridges. Convicts molded bricks, harvested crops, and drained sap from trees to make turpentine.

How easy was it for a business to lease a group of convicts?

“Very easy,” Thomas says. For a minimal fee, a business could rent men and boys, as well as women and girls, from the state, then pay for food, board, and transportation. It cost a fraction of paying a fair wage to free citizens. Legally, Thomas says these individuals were slaves of the state.

Thomas wants to be clear: “This wasn’t an invention of the state legislature for Clemson. The trustees took an opportunity to participate in a system that was pretty pervasive—and normal, frankly, in the South after the Civil War.”

When Thomas first came across references to convict labor being used to build Clemson University, she envisioned hardened men. But, after uncovering her first cache of data, Thomas discovered that the convicts weren’t only men but also included boys as young as twelve. The nineteenth century didn’t have a juvenile court system, so adolescents were lumped in with sixty-year-old men.

What was more, the laws changed constantly, heightening offenses that are now misdemeanors to the level of felony. Many convicted men and boys pressed into labor at Clemson had been charged with theft. Thomas explains that these thefts were often petty. “One little boy stole women’s clothing. What’s he going to do with women’s clothing? He’s likely going to take it home to his family. So you see them stealing things that they needed.”

Thomas calls these “crimes of desperation.” At the time, much high-wage labor was forbidden to blacks, resulting in a culture of poverty. Like many communities with a large unemployed labor force, these men and boys did what they had to in order to support their families. Thomas says, “If you don’t have work, if you don’t have money, if you’re living in a culture where it’s very dangerous just to walk down the street if you’re a person of color, then you see some very desperate people trying to survive because the conditions in South Carolina were just so dire for African Americans at that time.”

For most people, Thomas says, their interest becomes keen when they hear of the youth of many of the convict laborers who worked to construct the Clemson campus. The labor was hard; the living conditions harsh.

The convicts lived in a stockades, located on the site of the current Strom Thurmond Institute. Strom Thurmond himself stands as a figure that embodies much of South Carolina’s complicated history. An avid proponent of segregation, the politician had a daughter he did not publicly acknowledge, Essie Mae Washington, by his family’s black maid, Carrie Butler. Now a nonprofit policy research facility at Clemson bears his name.

Although Thomas knows the location of the stockades, she hasn’t found records that indicate the conditions for Clemson’s stockades in particular. In stockades in Columbia, South Carolina, dysentery and tuberculosis ran rife among the men, slaying nearly one in six. In a camp in Edgefield County, the men slept on vermin-infested shelves and suffered from scurvy. Stockades, unheated and primitive, barely protected the men and boys from the elements.

“I have lots of questions about the conditions,” Thomas says. “Were they segregated racially? Were they segregated by age? Because there were some fairly young boys, thirteen-years-old, mixed in with convicts who were in their sixties and fifties, both black and white.”

Unfortunately, Thomas has not yet dug up the document that would tell us more about how these men and boys lived on day-to-day basis. And, although she is aware that after a few escapes early measures were taken to secure the convicts, what those were, she just doesn’t yet know.

In the early years, the grounds of campus were forested, so the convicts cleared the land before they built. They erected a dike. Since Clemson was an agricultural station, the convicts also planted and harvested the crops. As Thomas says, “Any kind of labor that had to be done for the erection of this college was predominantly done with convict labor.”

When I comment that it seems like the convicts were involved in building nearly every historical aspect of campus, Thomas says, “Yes, they were.”

The convicts molded a million bricks—bricks that now make up Tillman Hall, which is yet another historical site on Clemson that embodies Southern history.

When Thomas teaches literature classes, students often know Tillman Hall but are unfamiliar with Benjamin R. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman as a human being. Thomas says, “So I’ll usually stop class and say, ‘Pull out your phones. Google him.’ And my students will go to websites and start reading descriptions of Tillman. He was a racist politician. No doubt about it.”

But here’s what intrigued Thomas about Tillman: He responded to personal pleas from African American convicts who met him on his visits to campus. He also acceded to political pressures, as when a jury of prominent white citizens begged lenience for an African American convict who’d murdered a man attempting to abduct his wife. In his role as governor, Tillman was the architect of Jim Crow but he was also beholden to his constituency on some matters.

Men of contradictions

Thomas believes it’s important when looking at a figure like Tillman to keep in mind his complex, contradictory nature. “On the one hand,” she says, “he sets in motion the laws that really set South Carolina back, almost resetting them to the time of slavery as far as African Americans are concerned. But on the other hand as governor when it comes to the pardon he responds favorably to some African Americans as well as to the pressure of politics.”

When faced with these facts and overwhelmed, people will say to Thomas, “Well, take the names off the buildings then.” But she says outright: “I do not want that, except in cases where buildings have been renamed, especially Tillman Hall. I don’t believe Clemson should have its most prominent and recognizable building named in honor of a politician and trustee who was an avowed white supremacist.”

Yet Thomas is careful to say that what she wants is recognition and balance for all involved in Southern history. “Most institutions in the South have a fairly complex history as far as African Americans are concerned,” Thomas says, “and that’s my area of research so that is what I focus on the most.” But she’s also interested in recovering the local Cherokee history as well.

As for what kind of labor the convicts did: Hard might be an understatement. Because the convicts did not have “resale” value in the way that a slave would, overseers had little reason to preserve their health or look after their wellbeing. Some overseers could—and did—work the convicts past exhaustion and into death.

“I stress,” Thomas says, “that Clemson isn’t unique in using convict labor or in having conditions that led to the deaths of convicts. It was pretty brutal work.”

At Clemson, the convicts did a huge variety of labor, some less dangerous—and some more. Thomas has been able to document the death of one convict because it was recorded in the S. C. Department of Corrections Central Register of Prisoners after the man died in a mud cave-in, likely while building the dike.

“The value of African American rights was not as it is now,” Thomas says, “so if someone died on a worksite they were often put in an unmarked grave. There didn’t seem to be any effort to have a funeral, to have a marker, to contact family. That just wasn’t done.”

The exact location of the Clemson gravesites for the convicts remains unknown.

When I hear of the unrecognized graves on campus, the question of a memorial comes to mind. When I ask Thomas about that, she says, “It’s a community decision. My goal is to initiate a conversation about how we should acknowledge our complex history.”

But she does hope that if a memorial is created, it will include details about why men and boys were caught up in the penal and convict labor systems at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She would like to put a face to the name of each convict. She knows individuals who would be grateful to have their ancestors’ contributions to Clemson included in Clemson’s story.

However the Clemson community decides to pursue this discussion, Thomas says that she hopes “we will be courageous in our efforts to uncover and talk openly about the full story and to preserve it for future generations.”

Rhondda Robinson Thomas is an associate professor and literary historian in the Department of English, College of Architecture, Art, and Humanities. Sources of funding for her work include a Lightsey Fellowship provided by Clemson University’s College of Architecture, Arts, and Humanities. Jemma Everyhope-Roser is the assistant editor of Glimpse.

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