Painting of South Carolina College, circa 1850

Slavery at South Carolina College, 1801–1865:

The Foundations of the University of South Carolina

Campus Slaves & Slavery

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.

Slaves 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.

The 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.

Detail of black man from painting of South Carolina College, circa 1820
Earliest portrayal of a black man at South Carolina College, ca. 1820, SCL