A Tale of Two Thornwells

Thornwell Hoops

Sindarius Thornwell

Today’s guest post, written on the eve of the Final Four, comes from Patrick L. Connelly.  Patrick is Chair of the History & Political Science Department at Mississippi College and a University of South Carolina alum (Class of 1994).  Enjoy!  –JF

 I am a Columbia SC native and a graduate of the University of South Carolina, where my late father taught History from 1969 until his death in 1991. Naturally, I’m beyond thrilled at the improbable run of my alma mater through the NCAA tournament. When a Duane Notice dunk put an exclamation point on an Elite Eight victory over Florida, I shared the disbelieving joy seen in crowd shots of Gamecock fans accustomed to the agony of defeat. The tears of Darius Rucker were all our tears (Let him cry, y’all). Then there is Sindarius Thornwell, whose number 0 jersey will soon be hanging in the rafters at Colonial Life Arena. Where would we be without the passion and commitment of this native son?

Several recent profiles have documented the story of Sindarius Thornwell, who was raised by a single mother with help from a devoted uncle in the small upstate community of Lancaster, SC. The town has experienced the fate of many Southern communities whose textile mills have closed or moved, resulting in a declining population. Sindarius was highly recruited and could have pursued more prestigious programs but wanted to help his home state and go where his family could see him play. His recruitment was the crucial cornerstone of Frank Martin’s rebuilding project at the University of South Carolina. Lancaster takes immense pride in what he has accomplished. He often visits home and remembers affectionately the community that molded him.

The journey of Lancaster’s favorite son may seem a long way from a 19th century Southern Presbyterian advocate of slavery who once served as the president of the institution represented by Sindarius in the Final Four. James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862) was known for his talents as an orator, scholar, theologian, and advocate of Old School Presbyterianism. His legacy also includes support for racial hierarchy, a vigorous defense of slavery, harsh critiques of abolitionism, hostility toward Catholicism, and endorsement of the Confederacy (after holding Unionist views prior to the war).

James Henley Thornwell was born the son of a plantation overseer in Marlboro County, SC, two counties over from Lancaster. He attended South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) and accepted a pastorate in Lancaster in 1835 after graduation. It was there that he met his wife Nancy Witherspoon, whose influential family owned a plantation nearby. Soon thereafter, he was drawn back to Columbia to teach at his alma mater, beginning a lifelong trend of alternating between pastoral stints and serving at South Carolina College as a professor, president (from 1851-1855), and trustee. Benjamin Palmer, his hagiographer and fellow Southern Presbyterian, wrote that the Thornwells “acquired, by marriage” a small Lancaster plantation that included slaves to whom Thornwell was “an easy and indulgent master.” The Lancaster plantation was a refuge for the Thornwells from the heat and mosquitoes of Columbia. Enslaved residents of the plantation would travel back and forth from Lancaster to Columbia with the Thornwells.

JamesHenleyThornwell

James H. Thornwell

I’m struck by the juxtaposition of these journeys. Sindarius Thornwell, with his deep attachment to family, friends, and hometown, frequently travels back and forth from Lancaster to the University of South Carolina. Over 160 years earlier, James Henley Thornwell completed a journey to the same place—albeit one whose social, political, and technological context made it a profoundly different experience. But is there more of a connection between these Thornwells?

One can’t help but wonder. Perhaps there is a direct historical link, forged in the crucible of slavery, between the ancestors of Sindarius Thornwell and the family of James Henley Thornwell. Is it simply a coincidence of geography and the sharing of a distinct last name? Maybe. Maybe not. The question is impossible to answer without knowing the genealogy and family history of Sindarius Thornwell.

But here is what I do know: Sindarius Thornwell has put my home state in the national spotlight for reasons more than its tragic history of slavery, the horrific murder of innocents at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, or the specter of the Confederate flag. It’s not just his vital role in orchestrating a magical run through the NCAA Tournament. Sindarius Thornwell is an African-American and South Carolinian leading a racially diverse team comprised of local, regional, national, and international players coached by Frank Martin—a son of Cuban immigrants who happens to be married to the daughter of Jamaican immigrants.

The irony of Southern history indeed.

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