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Historical Eye of the Tiger: Clemson v. SC State

A History in Black & White

Deshaun Watson vs. SC State, 2014

The Clemson University Tigers and South Carolina State Bulldogs have little gridiron history between them, having met just three times, all coming since 2008 and all resulting in convincing Tiger victories (54-0 in 2008; 52-13 in 2013; 73-7 in 2014). That short history of football supremacy, as evidenced by the combined score of 179-20, mirrors in many ways a much longer history of white supremacy as the linchpin connecting—or more pointedly, removed and separating—these two South Carolina institutions of higher education.

South Carolina State University, founded 1896 in Orangeburg, SC

South Carolina State University traces its origins to one of the most racially prejudiced periods in the history of South Carolina, the American South, and the nation as a whole: the decade of the 1890s. The American Civil War had accomplished the abolition of racial slavery in the United States and the emancipation of black slaves from bondage in 1865 with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, but the nature of this black freedom became the subject of heated debate and often violent conflict throughout the nation in the postbellum era. With the vast majority of the African American population in the U.S. residing in the South, those debates and those conflicts were hottest and fiercest in that region. Most freedmen and women sought to drink fully from the fount of American liberty and freedom, but most white southerners sought to curtail these liberties, limit this freedom, and maintain as much control over black labor as possible.

Racial violence persisted into the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era throughout the South

This dichotomy produced much of the racial tension that pervaded the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877). Despite the efforts of “Radical Republicans” in Congress to promote and protect black rights in the postwar South through a “military rule” designed to uphold and enforce the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and their combined promise of full citizenship and political participation regardless of race, many whites in the South resisted. By the late 1870s, whites nationwide were growing weary of the South’s ongoing “race problem,” and proved increasingly eager to forego the cause of black rights in favor of white reconciliation and its attendant “peace” and “harmony.” The reality behind these euphemisms was the return of “white supremacy” throughout the South in the 1880s and 1890s, as white southerners regained control of southern state politics. Southern blacks were disfranchised politically and segregated socially across the South as these state governments enacted “Jim Crow” laws to reassert white supremacy and black dependency throughout the region. All of it received national “sanction” with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which declared the prevailing system of “separate but equal” public facilities for blacks and whites to be constitutionally valid.

In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the U.S. Supreme court upheld the constitutionality of “separate but equal” public facilities and services for blacks and whites. But such equality never materialized throughout most of the South.

South Carolina State was born into this tumultuous era, as in 1896 the SC Assembly, in accordance with the Plessy ruling, created the “Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural, and Mechanical College of South Carolina, located in Orangeburg, SC (it would be renamed SC State University in 1954). Eighteen ninety-six was also the same year that Clemson College, an all-white, all-male military institute founded just seven years earlier in 1889, fielded its first football team. Professor Walter Riggs, Clemson’s first football coach and later University President, even employed his electrical and mechanical engineering expertise to assist in the design of SC State’s campus infrastructure. Both Clemson and what would eventually become SC State were land-grant colleges, made possible by the 1862 Morrill Act, and both embraced military education as an integral part of student education and development on their campuses. As historian (and current Clemson history professor) Rod Andrew has shown in his work, both colleges operated from a fundamental belief that the “benefits of military training in the education of the young were ‘moral, mental, and physical,” and ‘valuable to the citizen as to the soldier,’” and “southern educations enthusiastically embraced it as an ideal way to instill the traits of manly bearing, courage, loyalty, patriotism, and morally correct behavior in the character of future engineers, farmers, teachers, and attorneys.” (Andrew, 2)

As detailed in these recently erected historical markers on campus, African Americans played a pivotal role in the less sanguine early history of the institution, first as slaves on John C. Calhoun’s Fort Hill Plantation (later inherited by Thomas Green Clemson) and then as convict laborer’s on the early Clemson College campus.

But deeper connections of a far more sordid sort existed between these officially separate state institutions . Much of the Clemson campus was built by black convict-laborers, men incarcerated for various crimes (many of them of dubious and/or specious credibility) and hired out by the state to private contractors. One of the key figures in the founding of Clemson College, then-SC Governor and later U.S. Senator Benjamin Ryan Tillman, was a notorious racial demagogue, spewing vehemently racist epithets to blatantly assert white supremacy and all of the recent means by which that supremacy had been secured as well as the current means by which it was being maintained. Violence against blacks had been an integral part of that process, and Tillman himself served on the front lines, serving as one of former Confederate General Wade Hampton’s “Redshirts,” a paramilitary political organization designed to intimidate the black vote and secure Hampton’s election in 1876. During his own political rise to Governor and Senator some ten or so years later, Tillman frequently touted his conspicuous role in the “Hamburg Massacre” of 1876, in which these “Redshirts” attacked an all-black company of the South Carolina National Guard stationed in Hamburg, SC, sparking an infamously violent riot that was replicated across the state that year en route to a resounding victory for Wade Hampton in the gubernatorial election. (Simkins, 393-407; Kantrowitz, 120-121)

“The Hamburg Riot, July, 1876” as depicted and published in Harper’s Weekly during the era.

Once in office himself little over a decade later, Tillman frequently defended the lynching of blacks by white mobs as a necessary means of “protecting” white feminine virtue from black male brutality and “preserving” white supremacy at large. All this only served to fan the flames of rampant racial violence during the era, much of it prosecuted by white mobs against black victims, with white perpetrators going untried and unpunished for the very public mutilation and murder of black bodies. Not surprisingly, Tillman opposed most efforts at black education, and generally opposed both Claflin College (founded in 1872 to provide industrial education to black men in affiliation with the private Methodist-affiliated Claflin University) and what would later become SC State. (Simkins, 393-407; Kantrowitz, 156-197, 211-222).

Benjamin Ryan Tillman (b. 1847 in Trenton, SC, d. 1918 in Washington, D.C.), SC Governor 1890-1894, U.S. Senator 1895-1918, and notorious racial demagogue

Undoubtedly the racial tensions pervading the histories of both in-state schools long prevented their meeting on the field of play. This was certainly the case before the desegregation of Clemson University in 1963 with the admission of Harvey Gantt, and the subsequent desegregation of the Clemson football team in 1971 with the signing of Marion Reeves. Perhaps the recent gridiron history between the Tigers and Bulldogs will serve a dual purpose, commemorating the significant strides made in race relations since 1896 while also reminding all of us of the issues that remain, with both hopefully spurring us to collective action toward their resolution in ways that unite rather than divide.

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney & SC State head coach Buddy Pough



Rod Andrew Jr., Long Gray Lines: The Southern Military School Tradition, 1839-1915, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001)

Stephen Kantrowitz, Ben Tillman & the Reconstruction of White Supremacy, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000)

Francis Butler Simkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman: South Carolinian, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002 ed., originally published by LSU Press in 1944)