Black women Extension Agents. Source: Clemson University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.
Generation 4 (1890 onward):Wage Workers & Cooperative Extension Agents
Laundry workers, in what is now known as Dillard Hall, sometime in the mid-twentieth century. Source: Clemson University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.
From the earliest days of Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina, numerous Black people were employed as domestics, cooks, barbers, farm hands, and a multitude of other essential positions that helped build and maintain the school. The US census repeatedly shows that in many cases they labored and resided in the households of the College’s first professors and administrators—figures for whom buildings on campus are now named. In addition to these workers, the Cooperative Extension Service employed Black agents who labored across the state, reporting to Clemson through their headquarters at the historically Black South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. Through these disparate modes of employment, generations of Black people were directly involved in the founding and development of the College that later became a university. Their experiences illustrate the various ways in which Black people contributed to the growth of the college while working for a school that would not accept them as students, faculty, or administrators.
Thomas Green Clemson had hired Black people to labor as cooks and house servants, including people who would become local legends like “Uncle Bill” Greenlee. Greenlee began working in Clemson’s household as a child before becoming a waterboy for the College football team in its early days. He gained popularity by driving his horse-drawn carriage through the town and the school, even after automobiles became the primary means of transportation for most Americans. Greenlee would give dignitaries and visiting administrators a ride around Clemson in his carriage to show them the area. He was popular among white Clemson cadets who viewed him as an oddity or an attraction. Greenlee was also staunchly opposed to desegregation, stating flatly in the 1960s that he thought Harvey Gantt had no business attending Clemson College as the court case dragged on. Despite his stance against desegregation, Greenlee remains a venerated figure in Clemson history for his contribution to the school in its early years.
Other Black laborers helped build the college’s infrastructure during years of discrimination and segregation. One of these workers, a barber named Means, received special mention from Clemson President Walter Riggs in a letter written in 1911 and addressed to an individual who sought to become the College’s barber. Riggs commented favorably about Means, lauding his excellent work as the college barber and making it clear that he “has the confidence and good will of the students and faculty.” While little else is known about Means, except that his brother owned a prosperous barber shop in Columbia, South Carolina, his story suggests that some Black workers were valued depending on the quality and nature of their work. In stark contrast to the letter about Means, during the 1930s, a page in the Taps yearbook was dedicated to ridiculing a boy employed by the College as a mess hall worker because of the supposedly poor quality of the food he cooked. Despite the outward expressions of approval from the administration, as employees in an all-white school during the Jim Crow era, Black workers at Clemson faced discrimination constantly.
One other major employer of Black men and women at Clemson was the Cooperative Extension Service. Throughout the early twentieth century, it employed dozens of Black men and women as “county agents” and “home demonstration agents,” respectively. These agents were tasked with supporting the growth of Black farmers’ agricultural production in their respective counties across the state. Many of the county agents assisted in building barns, giving soil demonstrations, and repairing farm equipment, and the women agents taught residents in numerous communities throughout the state about varied topics such as food preservation, food production for the war effort, upholstering furniture, and sewing clothes.
Another Cooperative Extension Service employee, Delphenia Wilkerson, was a Home Demonstration Agent for over three decades, serving primarily in Greenville County, South Carolina. She was paid a fraction of what her white counterparts earned throughout her tenure at the College.
Delphinia Wilkerson changed positions once during World War II, becoming an Emergency War Food Production Agent until 1945. Less than a year after the war ended, she married Moses Arnold, and changed her name to Delphenia Arnold. She received pay increases until she left the College in 1954. She died at 100 years old in 1990. Her story is illustrative of most Black Extension Service employees, many of whom served in the same role for long periods of time, demonstrating a dedication to their respective communities despite inequitable treatment by their employer.
Black men Extension Agents. Source: Clemson University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.
Roscoe Bacote is yet another Extension Service agent whose story Call My Name has recovered to a greater extent than most. He was appointed as Berkeley County’s “Negro Agricultural Agent” in 1939 and worked in that role until 1942. At that time, he was granted a leave of absence to serve in World War II. His is the only non-white name mentioned by the student newspaper The Tiger in its list of Extension employees who served in the war. Upon his return from the war, he was granted permission to resume his post in Berkeley County, where he worked until the 1950s. Bacote received both pay increases and pay decreases; his salary never came close to matching those of his white counterparts in that county.
These stories, along with many others like them, illustrate the substantial differences in pay and treatment of Black employees versus their white counterparts at Clemson College.
There are also stories of employees like Bill Greenlee that show how Black employees were objectified and commodified in their roles on campus and eventually became symbols of a nostalgia for a sanitized antebellum past. However, like every other generation, these stories help us to understand the individuals inhabiting these roles within their respective time periods and power structures and are useful in uncovering the lives behind the names and pictures of mess hall employees, barbers, cooks, Cooperative Extension agents, and many others, instead of merely defining their lives in relation to their job title.
Cooperative Extension agents performing soil demonstration. Source: Clemson University Libraries’ Special Collections & Archives.
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Walter M. Riggs Presidential Records, Clemson University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives, Clemson, SC.