The Daily Gamecock

Students shed light on slavery's role in USC's past

Building and maintence were once handled by slaves during the 19th century

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When walking around USC's historic Columbia campus, the controversial topic of slavery may not immediately come to mind.


 But ask yourself "Who built that wall?" and wonder "Who lived in that building, back in the 1800s?" — you might get a fascinating answer.


A group of students dedicated last year to exposing and studying the use of slave labor at universities across the south, particularly here at USC, through the use of a website that was launched at the end of last semester. The project has been entirely student-run and funded.


"Most people don't understand how buildings came to be here," said public history doctorate student Evan Kutzler. "They just kind of assume that these buildings have always been here or they're told by a marker that it was put up in 1801. I think knowing a little bit of a backstory is important to have a whole understanding of history."


Kutzler, along with eight other graduate students, spent a semester doing intensive research to create the website — which is on the university's server — during a graduate class taught by Robert Weyeneth, director of the public history program. Undergraduate students in a senior seminar, which was also taught by Weyeneth, conducted the early research used in creating the site.


"In the past five or six years being here at the university, I had begun to wonder why nobody talked about the role slavery almost certainly must have played at an institution of higher learning in the south before the Civil War," Weyeneth said. "As a public historian, I finally decided to do something about it, but — because slavery isn't my area of expertise — I thought it would be great to get university students involved in it."


Many of the buildings on the Horseshoe were built by slaves, including some of the most notable and well-known in USC's landscape. Such buildings include Longstreet Theatre, Rutledge College and the South Caroliniana Library, all of which were originally constructed between 1805 and 1855.


Outside of construction, slave labor was used on a day-to-day basis for everything from custodial duties to wiping the dust off books and shelves in the library.


The first owned person at USC, then known as the South Carolina College, was named Jack, according to the website. Unlike most slaves on campus, Jack was university-owned instead of "hired out," according to the website.


"They paid $900 for Jack in 1815, and they bought a few other people in the late 1820s," Kutzler said. "Most commonly they rented labor. The term they would use is 'hiring out,' which is sort of a euphemism. They were paying the owner of the slaves for the slave labor."


The slaves who were owned directly by the university or faculty lived in one of the two 'brick kitchens' that were located on the Horseshoe, the website says. Today, the only standing slave quarters can be seen behind the President's House.


Students were not allowed to bring slaves with them, but paid a yearly servant fee for the upkeep of their rooms and laundry, according to the website. The few documents that have been found mentioning students in relation to slaves were due to disciplinary matters of the students abusing the slaves, the website says.


Although slavery can be a sensitive and difficult topic to discuss, Kutzler believes that it is important to be taught and thoroughly studied in an academic environment.


"I think that students do really well looking at complex topics," he said. "I don't think professors or historians should be afraid to really tackle the dirty issues of the south. I think that most people are mature enough to know that having a understanding of history and the horrible, inhumane treatment of others, is important — as well as what can be looked back on positively."