Their names aren’t recorded anywhere in the college’s history, but they made a central piece of the Wofford College experience possible.
Main Building was built by enslaved men.
Every Wofford College graduate takes at least one class in Main Building before graduation. After a 2007 renovation, a portion of brick was exposed in the building’s east tower and a poem by the poet Nikky Finney was dedicated to the men.
“John Lane (a Wofford professor emeritus) called saying he was on a committee that wanted to publicly commemorate what had never been spoken about,” says Finney of how she accepted the task of writing “The Thinking Men.”
She received a box that included a history book about Wofford and documents related to the construction of Main, including specifications for the size of rooms.
“These men were enslaved in South Carolina,” says Finney, who is the John H. Bennett Jr. Endowed Professor of Creative Writing and Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina. “We don’t know their names, and I had to piece together what it would have emotionally been like to be an intellectually curious person building a school that you could not attend.”
Saturday is Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the official end of slavery in the United States, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Earlier this week, the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives passed a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.
Finney looks back at “The Thinking Men” and sees the work as capturing the history of the United States while still having relevance today.
“When will we get to the point of seeing Black people as people who gave and sacrificed to create spaces that this country still holds onto, and still don’t give credit to for their human desire to be seen as human,” Finney says.
She thinks back on the past year, which included protests across the country and calls for social justice. She’s spent her life studying history and telling the stories of Black people. She understood at a young age that she had to accept the responsibility of learning and teaching herself a more complete history of South Carolina and the United States. Yet, she has been disappointed to recognize the country has not made as much progress as she thought it had.
“The great thought that I have had and continue to have is that I thought we were trying harder,” says Finney, who compares the move toward justice to mountain climbing. Some of what she’s witnessed makes her think society has not progressed as far up the mountain as she thought.
Finney’s father, Ernest Finney Jr., was a civil rights attorney, and he represented the Friendship Nine, college students in Rock Hill, South Carolina, who protested a segregated lunch counter in the city. He was appointed to South Carolina’s Supreme Court and served as chief justice from 1994-2000. He received an honorary degree from Wofford in 2000.
“I watched him leave the house every day fighting for a stronger and more just society, and that’s still not a society that we have,” says Finney, a 2017 honorary degree recipient from Wofford. She says today’s discourse largely taking place electronically is partly to blame for hindering progress.
She’s reminded of her mountain climbing metaphor.
“We’re mountain climbers,” Finney says. “We slip down three to four pegs, and we have to start back.”
In 2008, a convocation was held to remember the men responsible for building Main Building. Finney read “The Thinking Men” with her parents and her brother, Ernest Finney III, a 1977 Wofford alumnus, in attendance.
“I could hardly leave the room without students walking over to talk to me saying they didn’t know that history,” she says.
She hopes the poem will continue opening eyes and hearts.
“I want people to take it off the wall, not physically, but spiritually and metaphorically, and do something with it as a new brick,” Finney says. “Don’t just read it. Embody it. That will be the greatest gift to me and to yourself.”