I go to school on a plantation. I wish this was a metaphor or some creative way of saying something that should be interpreted otherwise, but it’s not. It’s located in South Carolina, on property that was formerly owned by former U.S. Vice President and Secretary of State, John C. Calhoun. Calhoun’s plantation, named Fort Hill, was willed to the state of South Carolina in 1888 by his son-in-law, Thomas Green Clemson, to establish the institution that would become known as Clemson University. The main house at Fort Hill remains open today—a condition of Clemson’s will—and sits atop a hill that overlooks one of the university’s other main attractions: Memorial Stadium, which, if you’re in Clemson and know any better, you call “Death Valley.”
Football is religion in The South, I’ve come to understand, and in that regard, Clemson has not, as its founder wished, only become “a high seminary of learning,” but it’s a high seminary of college football, which is evidenced not only by the allegiance Clemson fans have to the team, but also the pandemonium that surrounds games in this college town. Fridays are “Solid Orange,” and if you aren’t wearing Clemson Orange, then you’re either new in town or not in the know, both of which will be quickly remedied if you’re around for any amount of time.
I didn’t know any of this information before I decided to move south. I knew Clemson to be a good school, and I knew I was admitted to a great program. It’s unlikely I would have declined, opting not to accept and attend Clemson knowing the history of the university and its ties to slavery. I would not have decided against attending simply because the land was a plantation and the man [as well as his family] whose legacy is honored by its centerpiece, Fort Hill, benefitted from slave labor here. I would have still attended if I’d known its Institute of Government and Public Affairs was named for an avowed segregationist who, as a U.S. Senator, changed his political party affiliation because of his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and never renounced his stance on the issue, though the revelation came to light after his death that, at the age of 22, he fathered a child with his family’s 16-year-old black maid. I would not have been deterred by the fact that Clemson has an academic hall named for a white supremacist and murderer who so happened to become governor of the state during an era when killing black people was not only a crime not often not pursued or prosecuted, but it was a crime that helped him gain favor with the voting public and eventually win the election to the chief executive office of the state.
Atrocious as it may sound, these and stories just as sinister are common in American History. We know them to be true, to have happened, in some far-off, backward place we’d like to think doesn’t exist anymore, disconnected from us except to show us how far we’ve come from when we collectively knew no better so we just did what everybody else was doing because “it was the way things were.” Perplexed as I may be by some of those stories from History that surface and show me just how bad things were, especially in places like this, to people like me [historically, I mean], I’d like to think I would have considered it—talked with friends and family, explained that I knew where I was going and what I planned on doing here: getting a degree from a great program. Even knowing the legacy of slavery, sharecropping and convict labor, perpetuated by the slave owners, supremacists and segregationists who are honored with their names on the buildings, I would have thought hard about it, but I think I would have made the same decision. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to make that decision knowing this information.
Of course I knew about the football team and tradition, but only in the way that any casual fan of sports who watches ESPN knows of teams that are consistently successful. I had no idea the sprint down The Hill, which Brent Musburger famously referred to as “The most exciting 25 seconds in college football” has been, since the tradition started, the football program—the coaches, the staff, the athletes—running down a hill that has a plantation house standing at its summit. The “Most Exciting 25 Seconds In College Football” is literally the Clemson Football Program running downhill, away from the university’s slaveholding past and a relic standing as a symbol of it, onto the field that generates significant amounts of money for the school and a large part of it’s reputation. And, yes, to be clear, I am making a connection between the fields the slaves worked for Master Calhoun and the field on which student-athletes give their time, talent, blood, sweat and tears for The Program.
I go to school on a plantation. I wish this was a metaphor or some creative way of saying something that should be interpreted otherwise, but it’s not.
As with religion, in sports, anything that goes against the commonly told narrative borders on heresy. I’m not anti-Clemson Football. I just find the juxtaposition of the Clemson Tiger mascot and the widely embraced “Solid Orange” spirit ironic. We’ve chosen to ignore one of the major defining characteristics of our mascot. Similarly, we’ve embraced a narrative about our collective history that ignores [or barely mentions] major defining characteristics that contributed to what Clemson University is today. I’d just like for that history of the university—the things unseen or not spoken about and the markers that are physically present on campus—to be openly and honestly discussed as part of that grand narrative told to students that help us buy into the idea of being a “Solid Orange” Family. I’d like for students to feel included in “Family” discussions, and for those discussions to be representative of the diversity of the student body. I’d like for the differences that make us each unique to be celebrated as one of the reasons people choose this university, this Family, over others. Because we are The Tigers, I’d like for us to, along with the Orange we wear with such pride, think of The Stripes we so easily forget or neglect to acknowledge. The Tiger is an effective mascot for us for this reason, especially. We all possess some version or another of stripes as part of who we are, and we can all identify as the stripes in some way or another in the groups in which we find ourselves. We all have them; we all are them.
Until we each at least try to see all aspects of our collective past and our present reality, that dream of truly being a Family remains deferred, and is just another of the stories we will continue to tell ourselves on our way to a future no different from now, yesterday and the day before. You can paint a tiger solid orange, but that won’t remove its stripes. Besides, what reason does a tiger have to hide its stripes anyhow? Without fundamentally changing a tiger’s DNA its stripes will never disappear, just as American History won’t disappear, but it’s important to understand the stripes and the role they played and continue to play.
I guess I can’t say I’m really against any one thing the university is doing, actually. I’m simply for us opening our eyes, taking a long, hard look at ourselves, The Clemson Tiger we are, and making that acknowledgment: that we See The Stripes.
Football season begins August 30.
For more information about the campaign go to