Slaves served as the
unseen but vital work force that kept South Carolina
College operating on a daily basis. Official histories and remembrances of the
college do not mention slaves, only occasionally referencing “servants” who
chopped wood or cleaned student living quarters. Presidents and professors
rarely mention slaves in their memoirs or personal correspondence, and most
mention of their interaction with students appears as disciplinary reports of
students abusing or taunting slaves. The importance of slaves to the college’s
antebellum years deserves to be acknowledged, as incomplete as our records are.
quite literally built the college, providing the labor and skilled knowledge
necessary to work under contractors who received credit for each building’s
completion. They also performed daily maintenance work by building fences and
making repairs, as well as domestic tasks like cooking and tending gardens.
Professors were provided with outbuildings in which to house their personal
slaves, and although students were forbidden from bringing slaves to campus,
hired-out or college-owned slaves cleaned student living quarters and served
their meals. Slaves even played a role in the college’s educational mission by
cleaning library books and taking care of laboratory equipment. Working in a small
community situated within the growing town of Columbia, slaves at South Carolina
College would likely have been aware of the activities of enslaved and free
blacks in the city, though we cannot know much of any specific involvement.
incomplete, fragmented nature of records of college slaves makes recreating
their world a challenge. In many cases, we are left with straightforward
descriptions of tasks and occasional first names. Still, an understanding of
southern urban slavery and the daily work slaves did can help us imagine how
they might have lived. As you think about the Horseshoe on today's campus, try to
picture slaves chopping wood or repairing buildings as students and professors
stroll across the grounds. This perspective offers a new and sometimes
challenging way to consider antebellum college life, but it ultimately leads to
a richer, more accurate portrait of South Carolina College.
Earliest portrayal of a black man at South Carolina College, ca. 1820, SCL