Legacies of Fort Hill

April O'Brien, Eric Stephens, Stephen J. Quigley & Brian Gaines

Artists’ Statement for “Legacies of Fort Hill” [1]

Clemson University was founded on the principles of Thomas Green Clemson’s vision of creating a seminary of higher learning. According to the university’s mission statement, Clemson’s vision “is focused on the future while we remember where our roots were first planted” (“The College”). The roots of the university are thickest at Fort Hill, house of Clemson’s father-in-law, John C. Calhoun, the fiery American statesman who defended slavery and states rights while laying the foundation for the eventual secession of the South and the subsequent Civil War. Before the Civil War, Calhoun’s beloved Fort Hill functioned as a plantation house serving the cotton industry with approximately 70 slaves at any given time.

While Clemson was created as a “high seminary of learning” for all people of South Carolina, the implied inclusiveness of Thomas Green Clemson’s words is at best problematic. A singular history bestowed by the university’s administration and Board of Trustees privileges a straight white male dominant culture. Meanwhile, the story of slavery and the subsequent Jim Crow-era convict labor that functioned to amass wealth and construct labor has been omitted. While Clemson University has moved towards a better future as a top 100 university, it has done little to address the complexity of Fort Hill’s past. There are currently no memorials on the lawn of Fort Hill reminding us of the slaves who worked and died there. [2]  Instead, the memorials on the lawn are devoted to Calhoun’s accomplishments and to the white philanthropists who donated sufficiently to the university. Fort Hill is neither a place of memorial for the wrongs committed on this land nor a healing place that orients us towards a better way of living. Instead, superstition reigns: many Clemson undergraduates believe they will not graduate if they pass the threshold of Fort Hill. Instead of a seminary devoted to learning, we look away through our ignorance.  

Perplexed, five first-year Ph.D. students in Clemson University’s Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design (RCID) program sought to address the issue with the theoretical underpinnings of Gregory Ulmer by creating a Konsult. The Konsult is a natural outcome of electrate discourse in that it allows egents to express themselves within new media and digital modes without being constrained by the boundaries of orality and literacy. Similar to the way that Plato used dialogue in his Academy, electracy uses the Konsult within the digital apparatus. In Ambient Rhetoric, Thomas Rickert writes: “Digital production . . .  not only impact[s] our environment and how we interact with and within it but transform[s] our knowledge about self and world” (1). Our project team combined archival research, rhetorical analysis, and digital production to create a Konsult calling attention to the multiple histories to help transform the rhetorical memorialization of Fort Hill.

One way to call attention to these multiple histories is through the lens of materiality, most notably through architecture. Lebbeus Woods, in his essay, “Walls,” describes architecture through the lens of these most primordial of structures. It is through these primordial structures that Woods argues that the essence of contemporary culture, which he decries as being in a state of crisis, can meet at these edges and peripheries. While he maintains the edges are where the these crises are met fully, the core is where it is cleverly disguised (13). Fort Hill, John C. Calhoun’s plantation home, as an architectural structure and symbol, being both the physical and the historical core of Clemson’s campus, meets at a rather acute angle against the crises of racial unease, covert and overt bigotry that is swept asunder, and an intentional ignorance of the “African-American Experience” in a Reconstruction and Jim Crow South. 

On the outset of this project, we had many questions guiding our research: Why does Clemson memorialize Fort Hill the way it does? Why don’t students tour the house? How can we dememorialize/rememorialize the house better recognizing all of our mistakes as well as all of our legacies? We had heard students quote the superstition: “You won’t graduate if you walk through Fort Hill.” But why not? Why were students avoiding one of the most important parts of their Clemson education? And why did the university also seem to be avoiding the issue?

Our task as archival researchers was complicated because the power structures that selected, organized, and controlled the archival information did so through a white patriarchal hegemony that has controlled the university since its inception. How can one find any truths under such circumstances? Our archival research methodology followed Foucault’s thinking in that “[a] discursive” formation will be individualized if one can define the system of formation of the different strategies that are deployed in it; in other words, if one can show how they all derive” (Archeology of Knowledge 68). Foucault argues in favor of including a variety of sources and perspectives as we uncover historical events: “It is in these vicissitudes, these reframings that we find the truth” (28). This task involved reading through collections of newspapers and scraps, board minutes, press releases yearbooks, once private collections, and other miscellany. To understand the rhetorical nature of Fort Hill, we sought to understand the multiplicities of histories, and as Vygotsky explains, "To study something historically means to study it in the process of change . . . To encompass in research the process of a given thing's development in all its phases and changes fundamentally means to discover its nature, its essence, for it is only in movement that a body shows what it is” (64-65). While difficult to face, these marginalized histories could not be ignored. One interviewee in our project, Rhondda Thomas, Associate Professor of English and founder of the project, Call My Name: African Americans in Early Clemson University History reminds us that “It’s easy to look away. Looking away we can remain blissfully ignorant.” 

In our archival research, we worked from two collections: the Littlejohn Collection and the Fort Hill Files. These were the basis of our “mapping” of what Foucault would call the “discursive practices” (116). In doing so, we discovered what we suspected--that Fort Hill is a great symbol of racial disparity--but we also identified subtle shifts in language, and a circuitous route, revealing certain points in history the university changed its narrative to protect the institution and control its perspective and perception. We discovered Fort Hill was once a monument to John C. Calhoun and the vanquished South, a memorial to the “ideals” of the South. Thomas Clemson perpetuated the Calhoun legacy, but left the house in disrepair. After some time, the Daughters of the Confederacy restored the house as a memorial to Calhoun and the Old South. This romantic memorialization continued until the 1980’s when the the University reframed the house as an example of historic preservation and an example of philanthropic legacy. The old racism seems to disappear, but a new question arises in the subtext: what has the university done to undo the damage--to undo what Fort Hill has long memorialized?

In conjunction with our archival research, we recognized that we needed to interview staff, faculty, and students to uncover a genealogy of Fort Hill. Our film focuses on several key on-campus figures: the aforementioned Thomas; Will Hiott, director of Clemson’s Historic Properties; and A.D. Carson, doctoral candidate and founder of See the Stripes: Clemson University. In particular, “Legacies of Fort Hill” contrasts the perspective of Hiott, who positions Fort Hill as a “diorama about the families and events that took place,” with Thomas and Carson, who argue that Clemson’s handling of the house is indicative of how the University evades the more unpleasant aspects of its history. Where Hiott contends that historians must “stick to the facts” and avoid “interpreting” events, our interviews with Thomas and Carson contest the notion of a single history. In addition, we questioned several undergraduate students, and these interviews revealed that many students believe the superstition surrounding Fort Hill, or that they are ignorant of Fort Hill and find it irrelevant to their education. These student interviews, juxtaposed with the statements by Thomas, Hiott, and Carson, compelled us to reveal the many histories of Clemson University in our film and to argue for students to be educated about Fort Hill’s place on our campus.  

As with any divisive situation, the healing process can be long and arduous. Woods’s concept of the scar, both as a trope and as a piece of architecture, can exist as both a mark of pride and honor, but also what has been lost and gained (31). The scar, Woods posits, cannot be erased, except by the most cosmetic means. The scars left behind by Calhoun, Fort Hill, and Clemson are indelible, but as Woods also points out, these scars can be a symbol of acceptance. While Clemson University should not and cannot forget its formative years in the agrarian Antebellum South, it can choose through bold and long overdue notions of a more complete history and actual progress towards healing these 191-year old wounds, to proudly brandish its scars, the emblem of healing that has joined what was previously different into a cohesive, and ultimately beautiful and stronger transformation of the connective tissue of this institution.


[1] The authors contributed equally to this publication.

[2] On April 12, 2016, Clemson University broke ground on new historical markers near Fort Hill. One side of the marker notes the presence of slave quarters, and the other side of it pays tribute to the convict laborers who participated in erecting many of the buildings on campus. Two additional markers indicate the role of Native Americans and African Americans on Fort Hill as well as the place where many slaves and convict-laborers were buried. These markers are not on the lawn of Fort Hill, nor are they on paths frequently traveled by most students. They reside approximately 0.3 miles away from the house.

Works Cited

“Appraisal of the Slaves (Property) of Andrew P. Calhoun Files in the Pickens County Clerk of Court and Probate Court.” 1865. Black Heritage in Upper Piedmont, Clemson Cooper Library. Mss 282, Box 6, Roll 27, 8-13. Copy accessed in Fort Hill File, Strom Thurmond Institute, Clemson University, 20 Nov. 2015.

Foucault, Michel. The Archeology of Knowledge. Translated by Sheridan Smith. New York: Vintage. 1972.

Rickert, Thomas. Ambient Rhetoric. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.

Sams, Cathy. “Markers Signal New Effort to Tell Clemson’s Full History.” The Newstand. 12 Apr. 2016. <http://newsstand.clemson.edu>.

“The College of Business 2016 New Faculty Handbook.” Clemson University. 12 Apr. 2016.

Ulmer, Gregory L. "Konsult." Theopraxis. 16 May 2015. 11 Nov. 2015. <http://theopraxesis.blogspot.com/p/konsult.html>.

Vygotsky, Lev. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Woods, Lebbeus. Pamphlet Architecture 15. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011.

- - -. Radical Reconstruction. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997.



Brian Gaines, a recently appointed member of the Digital Creative Faculty Program within Clemson University’s Center of Excellence, is a Ph.D. student in the Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design program. His research interests include Digital and Visual Rhetorics, Activism through Design, Culture Jamming, Electracy, Electronic Civil Disobedience, and New Media Writing.

April O’Brien is a Ph.D. student at Clemson University where she studies Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design. She was recently appointed a member of the Digital Creativity Faculty Program within Clemson University’s Center of Excellence. Her research interests include Digital and Visual Rhetorics, Feminisms, Identity Studies, and Electracy.

Stephen J. Quigley is an artist, writer, and teacher from Bloomington, Indiana. His research interests include Digital, Visual, and Cultural Rhetorics and he is currently working on a Ph.D. in Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design (RCID) at Clemson University.

As a Ph.D. student, Eric Stephens’ research interests include Social Justice, Pedagogy, Big Data, Schizoanalysis, and Rhetorics. His overall research seeks to add to Critical Incarceration Theory to better understand the roles of prisons in society.