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A drive to learn turns into a passion for teaching

By Victoria Witte | Office of Creative Services

Rhondda ThomasRaised by a family of educators, Rhondda Thomas always knew she’d be a teacher. While attending the segregated Washington Elementary School in Blakely, Ga., during the 1960s, Thomas met administrators, teachers and staff who incessantly went above and beyond to ensure that all students received a first-rate education — and everyone took pride in their school.

“I wanted to be a part of an educational institution where I could give students the gift of seeing the world through curious but critical eyes,” she said.

An African Americanist literary scholar, she was drawn to upstate South Carolina’s intriguing African-American history and culture, and found Clemson to be the perfect backdrop for her work.

While doing research at the Pendleton Historic Foundation, Thomas stumbled upon A Nickel and A Prayer, the autobiography of Jane Edna Hunter. Instantly, Thomas was intrigued by Hunter’s story. Hunter was born in Pendleton, and her ancestors were slaves at Woodburn Plantation. She later relocated to Cleveland, where she started the Phillis Wheatley Association — which offered housing, employment and recreation to African-American women during the Great Migration.

Fascinated by Hunter’s story, Thomas decided to produce a new edited and annotated edition in hopes that others could learn about this inspirational figure. When Thomas told her students about the project, she was overwhelmed with support and enthusiasm — many wanted to help out.

Eleven undergraduate students joined Thomas’ Creative Inquiry team, traveling as far as Cleveland and Charleston to conduct archival research. Funds were low but spirits high. The team was given only $1,500 for research, but they didn’t let the amount of money put a damper on their passion. Students took the initiative and raised additional funds in order to take their research to the highest level possible.

Not forgetting the impact her own teachers left on her, Thomas is giving her students opportunities to produce projects they can take great pride in — as they leave their mark in print.

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