2 centuries of complex history
A lot has happened at the university in the past 220 years, and the Presidential Commission on University History endeavors to make the story more complete.
By Chris Horn, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-777-3687
In his first official action as the university’s 29th president, Bob Caslen established the Presidential Commission on University History and charged the group with researching “the complex history of the university.”
It’s a timely and difficult endeavor for a university whose 220-year history is the very definition of complexity, shaped as it was by the social and political codes of the antebellum South, the Civil War and decades of state-sponsored racial segregation.
“What we’re doing is much larger than where UNC, UVA and Brown University started out,” says Val Littlefield, an associate professor of history and co-chair of the university history commission. “They began researching a section of their history as it pertains to slavery and some later broadened their focus to encompass a more comprehensive documentation of their history. They have also worked on the slavery documentation for the past five to eight years. We’re looking at our institution’s entire history — we’re starting with an expansive scope.”
Expanding the scope of the university’s official history to make it more inclusive of marginalized groups is a broad aim of the commission and one that will require an ongoing effort for many years, Littlefield says. Based on its charge from President Caslen, the commission plans to recommend ways to develop and share that enlarged history through educational and outreach efforts while also evaluating and making specific recommendations on building and place names across campus.
The commission last year recommended renaming the J. Marion Sims residence hall, one of the women’s quad dorms — a resolution endorsed by President Caslen and the entire Board of Trustees at their June 21, 2020, meeting. Sims was a student at South Carolina College in the early 1830s and went on to become a surgeon and garner fame as the “father of modern gynecology.” But historical documents show that he conducted experimental operations on enslaved women without the benefit of anesthesia, which later generated widespread condemnation from medical ethicists.
Other building names, including but not limited to the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center, the Thomas Cooper Library and the Wade Hampton residence hall, are being evaluated by the commission. That process has attracted the lion’s share of attention from members of the public who have weighed in at online forums held this past fall.
“We’ve been getting information from people about their different points of view,
and that’s been very helpful, but
we need to have dialogue, and that’s been hard to do because of COVID,” Littlefield says.
Renaming buildings is itself a complex process because the 20-year-old state Heritage Act prohibits such actions without approval from the legislature.
The commission anticipates delivering a final report with a formal set of recommendations this summer to President Caslen, who, in conference with the Board of Trustees, will determine a course of action.
Nearly 30 students, faculty, staff members and public citizens comprise the commission. Carolinian talked with five of them about their approach to the commission’s work. The following forum features excerpts from those conversations. Visit the Presidential Commission on University History website to learn how you can offer input.
Presidential Commission on University History
This is a microcosm of the broader questions around things like fairness, race and gender.
Todd Shaw is an associate professor of political science and African American Studies. He joined the university faculty in 2003 and recently was chair of the political science department.
"There’s a lot that has been written about the university’s history, but we’ve been asked to bring to the table some voices that have not been included. Our job is to be the body that gives consideration as to how we as a university tell an expanded history.
"This commission’s work is in some ways an invitation to the university to have a re-engaged discussion and sometimes even a debate about these questions. Historians tell us that what is written about history is simply the most recent draft of a set of ongoing questions. There are always new books about Lincoln and Washington, revisiting some part of American history more broadly. So, we’re simply inviting ourselves — our alumni, students, faculty, staff and other stakeholders — to a conversation about the university’s history.
"The names of campus buildings give the sense that the person was so noteworthy that we will venerate their legacy and their contributions to the university. But most students, most faculty members and many administrators are unaware of the history of the individuals for whom these buildings are named. And I don’t say that glibly — it’s just in the course of daily life we very rarely have the ability to go deeper to discover those histories. It is quite important to tell that broader history about some of these individuals, at the very least. And there will be recommendations, I’m sure, that the commission will make about names being removed.
"Those recommendations may or may not be accepted by the trustees, by the legislature, and whatever else is required for change to occur. However, I think that our charge to make students, faculty and the broader community aware of the legacy of these names is key.
"In this particular age we’re in I can understand concerns or even cynicism about whether this is really going to produce a result. I hope this will be one of many dialogues in the years to come on these difficult questions, while understanding that we will not resolve these questions completely.
"But quite frankly, we are confronting questions that the broader discourse in South Carolina and across the nation has to confront. This is a microcosm of the broader questions around things like fairness, race and gender.
"But I think we shouldn’t shy away just because the task is difficult. And I know we won’t."
You really have to be honest in the way that you’re looking at past behaviors of individuals and not just brush it off as a product of their time.
Robin Waites, ’96 master’s, is executive director of Historic Columbia, an advocacy and educational nonprofit focused on city and county historic sites.
"Every institution of higher education, particularly in the South, should be exploring and expanding the conversation about their histories. Here’s an example of what that might look like. Historic Columbia has managed the Woodrow Wilson Family Home since the late 1960s, and for decades we focused on telling only the story of Woodrow Wilson, whose family built the home at the height of the Reconstruction Era.
"But the story around that site is much broader than the Wilsons. We made a shift in 2014 to turn it into a museum of Reconstruction. We’re still exploring Wilson’s experience in Columbia during that time, but we’ve really turned the focus to something more relevant to a broader community. In the past six months, we made a shift in the site’s official name, which is now the Museum of the Reconstruction Era at the Woodrow Wilson Family Home. I think there are similar opportunities that can come out of the conversations we’re having at the university.
"Once a name is on a building, that person automatically is perceived as an honorable human. But that is not necessarily the case when we dig into some of these stories. It really begs people to ask deeper questions about, for example, what it meant to be an enslaver. There is some level of complicity in the modern day if we are not honestly addressing what those experiences were like, not just for the people in power, but for the people who were subjugated. You really have to be honest in the way that you’re looking at past behaviors of individuals and not just brush it off as a product of their time. They all certainly had the capacity to make different choices.
"I think it would be important for the university if they decide to rename a building to document that decision well and explore every potential challenge. It’s unclear if that sort of sensitive thought was at work in selecting names that were put on campus buildings 50 years ago or more. We know who was in power at that time, we know who was making decisions and who they were privileging. So it’s important moving forward that there are people coming to the table with different viewpoints and perspectives who can help provide more equitable recommendations moving forward."
Even if a building is not renamed, it’s important that we provide a more nuanced account of who that individual was.
Myisha Eatmon is an assistant professor of history who focuses on Reconstruction and African American legal history, particularly in the Jim Crow era of segregation.
"I think that there’s always going to be a subset of the population that’s unwilling to see anything beyond what they want to see. To the cynic, I would say that we can’t rewrite history, but we can make more sources available. It is important for people to read primary sources because they were produced by people who lived through the history.
"When we look at the words of Wade Hampton or we look at the words of Strom Thurmond, we see how they felt about people of color, people that look like me.
"We have been working to come up with criteria to determine whether a building should be renamed, based in part on whether these individuals lived up to the Carolinian Creed. If the people who we named our buildings after don’t live up to our creed, then why should their names be on our buildings?
"If someone for whom a building is named doesn’t pass our test, then any name submitted to replace that name would have to be vetted by that same criteria. Even if a building is not renamed, it’s important that we provide a more nuanced account of who that individual was.
"One of the reasons that renaming buildings or offering a more thorough account of who these individuals were is important is that our future students, our future faculty members, our future visitors will be able to see that we have a very complicated history at the university, but we recognize it — and we’ve got to learn from those mistakes to move forward. That will be not only the type of acknowledgment and reconciliation we want to see in our communities outside of the university, but also the type of acknowledgment and reconciliation we want to give the country.
"I think the commission creates space for the types of conversations that we need to be having at the University of South Carolina and also the conversations that we need to be having as Americans — if we ever want to find a way to reconcile our differences and move forward as a country or as a community or as a state. The historians and the people who really care about the Carolinian Creed and want to challenge bigotry are invested in making sure that this is a long-term project that doesn’t end with just renaming buildings."
It’s time to tell the story, not with guilt, but with honesty and openness.
Harris Pastides served as the 28th president of the University of South Carolina from 2008 to 2019, and previously was the university’s dean of the Arnold School of Public Health and the university’s vice president for research. Along with Val Littlefield and Elizabeth West, he is a co-chair of the Presidential Commission on University History.
"We didn’t wake up one day and say, 'Let’s decide on changing the names of campus buildings.' The commission is responding to a highly specific charge from President Caslen. Central to that is the president’s question, 'Who is the University of South Carolina today?' Put another way, how does the university express its values or write its history by the names of places on campus? And how do we espouse the Carolinian Creed? That’s really where we’re coming from.
"Central to all of that is how do students, faculty, staff, the community and visitors reflect on who we are by the things we do and the things we say. The unveiling in 2017 of two Horseshoe markers that acknowledge the role of enslaved people in the early history of this institution and the Richard T. Greener statue in 2018, which pays homage to our first African American professor, started us down the road of expressing our history in a much more open way.
"The commission’s history subcommittee is doing primary research on people who were excluded or who couldn’t attend the university because of earlier restrictions on race and gender, and also on people who were part of the Columbia community when the university took down neighborhoods, both school buildings and houses, in the 1960s and early 1970s. And it’s time to tell the story, not with guilt, but with honesty and openness.
"There ought to be new books and articles that stem from this activity — let’s make films about it and have cultural representations of it. That, to me, is very exciting and will feed people’s impressions of who we are as a university community. The issue of renaming buildings also has to do with that and how one believes we feel about those people relative to who we are today.
"We can’t deny our history and we can’t paint over every blemish of racism that existed at Carolina from Reconstruction through Jim Crow segregation and toward 1963 and beyond.
"And so the alternative is to be more open, to tell the story of those people and of the vibrant communities of people whose lives were deferred. I think the work of the commission is about coming to terms with history in ways that the university hasn’t always done, or in ways it hasn’t deeply or thoroughly done before."
Historical interpretation and understanding come from how the present generation asks new and different questions about the past.
Robert Weyeneth is a professor of public history and practicing public historian. Ten years ago, Weyeneth guided undergraduate and graduate students in groundbreaking research about the university, which resulted in the “Slavery at South Carolina College, 1801-1865: The Foundations of the University of South Carolina” website.
"To those who say history can’t be rewritten, I would say all history is revisionist and history is fundamentally interpretive. Historical interpretation and understanding come from how the present generation asks new and different questions about the past.
So when somebody says, 'I don’t believe in revisionist history,' they’re revealing they don’t understand the fundamental nature of history — that it is always changing and responding to concerns in the present.
"In an introductory course for history majors I focus on historical monuments and point out that every such monument or plaque is a tale of two eras — the first being the event or person being commemorated and the second being the era in which the monument or plaque was dedicated.
"Think about the historical plaque mounted on Sumter Street about the University of South Carolina. I have my students read the text that was written in 1936 when Columbia was celebrating its 150th anniversary. I tell them every statement on that marker is accurate as far as I know.
"I then ask them to think about the point of view behind the text. They ask, 'How come it says the whole student body volunteered for Confederate service in 1861? How come it says the university was under "radical" control during Reconstruction?' What the students come to realize is the marker’s pro-Confederate sentiments are based on the facts the marker highlights, to the exclusion of other facts.
"The point is, how we would write a history of the university in 100 words today
is going to be fundamentally different from how the City of Columbia’s Sesquicentennial
Commission did in 1936. Students understand that history
is fundamentally interpretive and each generation asks new questions. But that is not the way most members of the public look at the nature of history.
"That said, I think this marker should not be removed from Sumter Street because it is a valuable teaching resource for what it says about the second era: the racialized perspective of the white Columbians in the 1930s who erected it. Instead, we should supplement it with a new marker that interprets the history of the university from the perspective of the 21st century."
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