High on a hill, on the campus of Clemson University, in Clemson, South Carolina, Tillman Hall stands, the university’s oldest and most iconic building. It is a graceful, red-brick building, with a lovely clock and bell-tower, and a carillon that rings the changes every hour. It opened in 1893, the same year that the first class entered Clemson College. The building was known as Main, or Old Main, until 1946, when it was renamed Tillman Hall, in honor of Benjamin Tillman, more often known as “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, both because of his sympathies for the plight of the farmers, and his snarling and irascible temperament.
Ben Tillman (1847–1918) was one of the main shapers of the post-Reconstruction South and dominated South Carolina politics for a generation. He came to political maturity in the fight to destroy the state’s Reconstruction era bi-racial democracy. He participated in the Hamburg Massacre of 1876, which violently and murderously attacked a black militia unit. He established himself as a spokesmen for white men in the upstate region of South Carolina, and worked to eliminate all traces of African American political power in the state. He also, and this is a key element in our story, convinced Thomas Green Clemson to leave in his will his plantation to the state of South Carolina. Clemson’s plantation became Clemson College, South Carolina’s land grant college for white men. In 1890 he was elected governor. His most significant accomplishment as governor was to engineer the convention of 1895 which approved a new constitution that almost entirely eliminated black suffrage. That same year he entered the US Senate, where he would remain for the rest of his life. He is best remembered for his numerous speeches defending the practice of lynching, offering to “willingly lead a mob in lynching a negro who has committed an assault on a white women” and that “we of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.” (His favorite for black people did start with an “n,” but it certainly wasn’t Negro.)
Ben Tillman, more than any other single individual was responsible for making life a living hell for black South Carolinians after Reconstruction, destroying their political and legal rights, helping to create a prison and convict labor system, drastically limiting their opportunities for economic advancement, encouraging lynching, and in general, making them live lives of fear.
Tillman’s influence on South Carolina and its racial order long outlasted his death. Tillmanism was a major reason why after 1920 blacks left the state in droves. Although life in the North wasn’t far from a paradise, it was better than South Carolina, where the percentage of black residents declined from 60% in 1910 to about 28% today. And lynching, another Tillman legacy, continued in the state into the 1950s. On the campus of Clemson University, this legacy only began to be reversed, when on a cold day in January 1963, Harvey Gantt entered Tillman Hall, and registered as Clemson’s first African American student. But Tillman’s baneful influence over Clemson, over South Carolina, and how we talk and think about race in the United States, has never been entirely eliminated.
For some years now, there have been groups on campus that wanted to change the name of Tillman Hall, perhaps by restoring its old name of Old Main, perhaps by choosing something anodyne like Clemson Hall, or picking a name, like Gantt-Tillman Hall, that speaks to its complex history. Earlier this year the Graduate Student Government at Clemson voted to change its name. This week the Faculty Senate also voted overwhelmingly, 17-2, to change the name of Tillman Hall.
Less than 24 hours later, before news of the faculty senate’s resolution had been circulated to the entire faculty, David Wilkins, the chairman of Clemson’s board of trustees, said that this issue was not even worth discussing. “The Clemson University Board,” speaking in the royal we, “ does not intend to change the names of buildings on campus, including Tillman Hall,” dismissing the campaign as a mere “symbolic gesture.” He said that to change the name of Tillman Hall (or as he implied, any other named building on campus) was “denying them as part of our history.” Clemson was built by “imperfect craftsmen” Wilkins continued, and then (changing architectural metaphors) some of the builders of Clemson were “historical stones” that “are rough and unpleasant to look at.” But they are all a part of the “foundation” of Clemson, “built over many generations.” As Clemson professor of English Rhondda Thomas has shown, the craftsmen that built Tillman Hall were African American convict laborers. And as Wilkins’s metaphor seems to acknowledge, Clemson University was built on a weak and wobbly foundation of rough and ill-matched stones, a house divided against itself. The question is simple: Clemson University, as Wilkins seems to acknowledge was built on a foundation of slavery, white supremacy, and the immiseration of blacks. The question is what, in 2015, to do about it.
Admittedly, eliminating the legacy of white supremacy from the campus of Clemson University is a tall order. Thomas Green Clemson inherited his plantation from his father-in-law, John C. Calhoun, the most redoubtable and influential defender of slavery in the decades before the Civil War. Calhoun’s house, Fort Hill, the site of his famous Fort Hill Address in 1831, defending the right of South Carolina to nullify federal law to defend the institution of slavery, is in the middle of the campus. Clemson, probably uniquely for major universities, was built on a former slave plantation. An admirer of Tillman, and a 1912 Clemson grad, Strom Thurmond, is remembered in his own bunker-like complex, the Strom Thurmond Institute, one of the most prominent structures on campus. The campus library, for reasons that aren’t clear, has a permanent exhibit on James F. “Jimmy” Byrnes, a prominent South Carolina politician, who despite a remarkable resume including stints as a US Supreme Court Justice and Secretary of State, is best remembered for his adamant opposition to the Brown decision when he was state governor in the 1950s. Indeed the legacy of white supremacy is so super-abundant on the Clemson campus that it has become a defense for keeping the name of Tillman Hall, since Tillman is hardly the only candidate for a name change. They ask, if we start with Tillman, where will it end? To which the only fair response is to ask where the name changing will begin? No building on the Clemson campus has been renamed because of connections to white supremacy. If there is a place to begin, it is Tillman Hall, because of its centrality to the campus, and because of the egregiousness of his racial attitudes and actions.
Wilkins seems to opt for the most popular defenses of keeping Tillman’s name on the building, what might be called the “lazy exculpation by historical context,” to the effect that whatever his sins were everyone did it in those days, and therefore were not so bad or evil, just “rough and unpleasant to look at,” perhaps just a bit unpolished and crude, sort of aesthetically unpleasing. This is to ignore the many critics of Tillman during his life, both black and white. He had choices, such as trying to live with South Carolina’s bi-racial Reconstruction democracy, that he chose not to follow. To explain away Tillman’s actions by historical context is to deny him, as he surely would insist upon if he was around today, his freedom as a historical actor, and that his actions reflected his beliefs. And it never can be forgotten that the white supremacist “tradition” that Tillman incarnates, can never be taken as a synecdoche for the South of his era, especially in a state like South Carolina, where, through the 1940s, a majority of its population was African American.
Wilkins claims the effort to rename Tillman Hall is merely symbolic. It’s an easy argument when you control all the symbols. There is no building on campus named after an African American. There is no public recognition on campus that Clemson was once the site of John C. Calhoun’s slave plantation. There is no recognition that Tillman Hall, and many other early campus buildings, were constructed with black convict labor. There is no recognition of the hundreds of black South Carolinians who were lynched during the decades that Tillman was lynching’s greatest defender.
Perhaps a compromise is possible. Let’s build monuments on campus to Clemson’s enslaved persons, victims of Tillman’s post-Reconstruction violence, to the convict laborers, and local lynch victims, and those who were forced to flee the state, and use their names, and promise to name future campus buildings after them. Let’s erect plaques detailing the history of Tillman’s and Thurmond’s support for white supremacy, without any attempt to justify or defend them, showing these “rough stones” in all of their unhewn rawness. Let’s have an honest plaque about the admission of Harvey Gantt, which rather than praising the school for “integration with dignity,” (that is, Clemson was better than Alabama and Mississippi in admitting blacks without much violence) talks about all of the ways in which the college successfully, for decades, kept blacks out of its classrooms. Let’s prominently post a sign informing passersby of the percentage of African American students on campus—currently at about 6 %. And then, when all that is done, okay, let’s keep Tillman’s name on Tillman Hall.