The extraordinary life of Jane Edna Hunter, an African-American woman with strong ties to early 20th century Clemson-area families is providing extraordinary experiences for present-day Clemson students as they prepare for their future writing careers.
English professor Rhondda Thomas was looking for material at the Pendleton Historic Foundation office to incorporate into her African-American literature class when she heard about A Nickel and a Prayer. The autobiography of Jane Edna Hunter, it gave a personal account about the experiences encountered by freed slaves as they searched for better lives in the Upstate of post-Civil-War South Carolina. Hunter documented her extraordinary journey from orphaned servant to founder of the Phillis Wheatley Association in Cleveland, Ohio, a refuge for unmarried African-American women and girls who were newcomers to the North.
When Thomas began searching for the book, she found it was out of print and Clemson’s only copy was in such poor condition that the librarian wouldn’t even let her see it. “Instead, the library made a copy for my students, and I purchased a signed copy from amazon.com,” she explains. “While we were discussing the text, I discovered that my edition was different; Hunter had added a chapter when it was reprinted. That chapter changed the entire tone of the autobiography. I believed it was worthy of being reintroduced as an edited and annotated edition.”
And that was the beginning of an epic Creative Inquiry (CI) project called Discovery and Recovery: Preserving the Literary Heritage of Black South Carolinians. The first participants included some students from her literature courses, one from the history department and one majoring in economics. By the time the book was published, Thomas and 15 students had spent several hours a week editing the copy and made pilgrimages to nearby Woodburn Farm (Hunter’s birthplace), the S.C. Historical Society in Charleston and the Phillis Wheatley Association in Cleveland, Ohio.
The group didn’t change much about the text. Thomas says they merely made minor changes to correct punctuation and spelling errors. Michael “Cam” Whitesides was a student in one of her English classes. He recalls, “We read not only the autobiography, but many other significant works by African-Americans in the early 1900s. Later in the semester, we traveled to Cleveland to access Hunter’s works, letters and correspondences.”
Julie Levans, another member of the CI team, was a senior majoring in English — namely writing and publication studies. She traveled with Thomas and Whitesides to Cleveland to research the archives at the Phillis Wheatley Association. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” she explains. “Although most students know what it’s like to spend hours in the library, it’s nothing like spending days in the archives, sifting through materials that are decades old. I can’t express how exciting it is to find one small sentence of useful information when you’ve spent the entire day looking for something. I remember reading through a handwritten diary and finding a lock of hair, which was a very interesting discovery to say the least.”
Whitesides attributes the experience to helping him as he started his career in writing. He says, “It taught me how to investigate and get things done. I also learned how to teach, and the class sharpened my skills with working with others. Ultimately, we didn’t merely learn things about the woman — we learned about her while also learning about our own capabilities as individual, aspiring professionals.
“I think adding this CI experience to my résumé helped me get a writing job right after graduation,” says Levans. “When you’re a recent graduate, it’s hard to have real experience employers will appreciate, but imagine being able to say your name will soon be published in a book as a contributor! It helps.”
Thomas says some of her students were so inspired by the experience, they actually found their life’s calling. “After learning of Hunter’s commitment to helping young people, one team member decided to work with inner-city children in Baltimore,” she explains. “Other team members are incorporating archival research into their pedagogical approaches for teaching high school English classes, and yet another student has informed me his research and writing experience has been helpful as he launches his fiction writing career.”
Thomas attributes the success of the CI project in part to the support of the Clemson Family. She received travel funding from numerous University entities, including the English department, the women’s studies program, the CI program, the Clemson Libraries, and the Humanities Foundation of the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities. “My colleagues, Cameron Bushnell and Brian McGrath, convinced me to take on the project when I was considering if the timing was right for my research agenda,” she says. She also attributes a large part of her support to her students who showed so much interest in Hunter and the general experiences of African-Americans during that era of American history.
Thomas plans on continuing to tell Hunter’s story in an upcoming biography. “I discovered many things about her that I couldn’t include in the introduction I wrote for her autobiography,” she says. Thomas is also actively searching for more out-of-print books written by and about African-Americans to edit and publish.