Small things matter

Old Main

Here is a photograph I made some time ago. I liked it for a number of reasons. It was iconic. It was probably unique, because those foreground trees are gone now. I liked the clouds, and I liked the black and white  treatment of the Bronica medium format negative. But over time I became less happy with it.

It is still iconic, but has a different meaning to me in its iconicism. And that meaning is because of its name and all that goes with it.

I have observed and listened over the past few years, and considered the points on the many sides. The idea that a name or other symbol can be significant to people is very much at the heart of recent events, in Charlottesville for example. Symbols do matter, because they engage us at an emotional as well as rational level.

Another symbol on campus is the area found by researchers where slaves were buried. An historical marker at the entrance to Woodland Cemetery on the campus says “African Americans enslaved at Fort Hill were buried along the hillside below the Calhoun family plot in graves marked only by field stones.” From 1890 to 1915, deceased convict laborers, most of whom were African American, were buried here as well. My cemetery plot, on a steep slope and suited only for cremains, lies between these two burial areas. Calhouns on the up-hill side, slaves and convicts down the slope.

This is new to many of us who worked or studied at Clemson. Associate Professor Rhondda Thomas, of the Clemson Department of English, has been engaged in some fascinating research on our cultural history, going back to when it was all Cherokee land. It was through her research that we learned these new aspects of our history, and I commend her to you. There is much more to this than a slave and convict burial ground.

But that burial ground is my personal connection to Clemson’s history and, by association, that of Ben Tillman, one of Clemson’s founders who was also a politician and avowed racist. So when I began to consider making some new prints, I balked at putting Tillman’s name on them. So they are going into the gallery named Old Main, the name of the building until 1946. While there is some sentiment on campus to change the name, that would need to be approved by a legislative super-majority, due to an interesting law passed when people began getting serious about taking the Confederate battle flag off the state house.

All this is leading up to my recognition that my late wife’s cremains are interred between Calhouns and slave families, and mine will be, too. It is not just that I think about this when I go near the cemetery. I think about it when race comes up in conversation or social demonstration. I don’t like what is going on in so many ways, but I feel helpless to change it. But I want to do something, even if it is something small.

If you like this photograph, you can buy a copy of it, but if you want the official name of the building on it, you will have to write it yourself. I am calling this photograph “Old Main”. It’s a small thing, but it matters to me.