Our County, Edgefield, really is the heart of South Carolina, with Ten Governors and roots reaching back to colonial days. Many of our ten governors were household names not only in South Carolina but across the nation. One of those was Benjamin Ryan Tillman: planter, politician, Governor, and Senator. A product of Edgefield, Governor Tillman’s remains are here in Edgefield, in the cemetery at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Trenton. Among other accomplishments, he was deeply involved in founding both Clemson University and Winthrop.
Ben Tillman was not just a product of his time, he was an opinion leader of his time. And his opinions, not only by 21st Century standards but by 19th Century standards as well, were racist, white supremacist, and rabble rousing. His fiery oratory embarrassed the antebellum gentry of our state and our county even at the time, but it brought out voters and enabled the “Tillman Democrats” not only to oust the followers of Wade Hampton and fellow Edgefieldian Matthew C. Butler, but also to ensure that the majority of otherwise qualified voters – the freed slaves and their children – would have no influence on politics in Ben Tillman’s lifetime. In later life Ben Tillman boasted of his part in the July, 1876, murder of several black members of the state militia in Hamburg – present day North Augusta – as well as ensuring that Edgefield’s black majority could not vote, starting in 1876 but continuing for generations afterward. He and his followers were the prime authors of the “Jim Crow laws” that kept black citizens from enjoying equal rights, until a half century after Ben Tillman died.
It is obvious why now, in the 21st Century, there is controversy at Clemson over the name, “Tillman Hall.” The building with that name is at the center of campus, and its brick façade and clock tower are among the most distinguishing architecture on campus. In a sense, the name Tillman Hall evokes Clemson – hence the controversy. Over the past three weeks both the Clemson University Graduate Student Senate and the Clemson Faculty Senate have passed resolutions asking the university’s Board of Trustees to rename Tillman Hall.
There is also a Tillman Hall at Winthrop University, with a similar historical rationale – and a similar movement among students and faculty to petition for the name to be changed. Both at Clemson and at Winthrop, though, the Boards have resoundingly rejected these requests, and asked that the subject be dropped. It is also obvious why the Board wants the subject dropped. Can’t we just accept our history, and move on?
The answer is, and ought to be, no we can’t. As citizens we are obligated not only to learn about our history, but also to learn from our history. There are lessons here that affect Clemson and Winthrop students directly, and the rest of us indirectly. We have no monuments to George III, although his influence affected South Carolina in many positive ways before 1776. We can memorialize former slaves and even otherwise honorable former slave owners, but not slave auctioneers. Tyrants and exploiters of our citizens, once gone, deserve recognition as bad examples and we must know about them, but we must not honor them. Politicians, too, even when not tyrants, must be remembered – but we must be careful whom we memorialize. There comes a time when we should no longer honor white supremacists and race baiters, and that time is now. Remember them, yes. Memorialize them, no. It is time to change the name of Tillman Hall, both at Clemson and at Winthrop.