In the years before emancipation, South Carolina College students interacted with slaves every day: at meals in Stewards Hall, in the tenements (their dormitories), and on the grounds. Between 1801 and 1860, the South Carolina College campus was small and close-knit. In 1808, for example, enrollment was 100 students, and there were only three professors and a tutor. There were 142 students by 1836 and 221 in 1848.
The young male students, many the sons of wealthy plantation-owning families, sang and recited poetry in the dormitories together, sometimes skipped chapel, classes, and recitations, and fought over food in Stewards Hall. Extending their misdeeds into town, they drank at taverns, sometimes to excess, and stole townspeople’s turkeys. To try to keep the students on campus, the college erected a brick wall, which still surrounds today’s Horseshoe. This did not solve the problem.
During the first few years, students could bring family slaves to campus to serve them, but the college forbade the practice after 1808. The college owned and hired slaves, and each student paid a servant fee each year. During their studies and social interaction in their rooms, the young men would have watched and sometimes spoken with the slaves who made their beds and swept their floors.
Slaves also washed students’ clothes; records document the hiring of a slave named Anna in 1846 who was a washerwoman. Sometimes slaves caught students disobeying college rules in their rooms. A Charleston senior named Frederick Belser beat a slave on one occasion because he believed the slave had told a professor about a card game in his room. Belser met with the faculty but was not punished for the misdemeanor because he apologized.
Students spent a great deal of time in Stewards Hall, where they met daily at 8:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., and 7:00 p.m. for required meals. The food was frequently below the students’ expectations: meat was salted rather than fresh, there was very little chicken or beef, few fresh vegetables, and the biscuits had vermin. Considering the fare, perhaps it is not surprising that two young men fought a duel over a dish of trout.
Students sometimes threatened the steward in person and bombarded him with letters demanding more wholesome food. Students complained that slaves who attended the dining hall were poor waiters and that there were not enough to take care of their needs. The young men grew angry with the slaves and, on occasion, threatened and hit the slaves who were serving the food. Although the college forbade such behavior, students generally went unpunished.
Students spent much of the day in lectures or recitations in one or two buildings. In the early days, Rutledge College was the single classroom building. Subjects included mathematics, moral philosophy, chemistry, history, political economy, logic, geology, mineralogy, Greek literature, and Latin literature. Eight to ten professors and three or four tutors instructed the students. Although many professors were loved and respected, such as Thomas Cooper and Francis Lieber, others were not, and students were regularly brought before the faculty to be disciplined for insulting professors.
Slaves cleaned the college classrooms, and one slave named Jack aided in the chemistry laboratory and in mathematics classes. After Jack’s death two slaves, both named Jim, were hired to assist in the chemistry department and in the mathematics and natural philosophy department. Gradually, new buildings and new subjects were added as the student body grew, but South Carolina College remained small, boasting only a few hundred students.