It’s not ‘rewriting history;’ it’s paying ATTENTION to history

Cindi Scoppe had a good piece on the issue of unnaming Tillman Hall at Clemson today.

Basically, she took apart the silly argument from certain quarters that changing such a name constitutes “rewriting history.” A salient passage:

The comparison to slave owners might work if this debate were simply about someone who owned slaves. That is, someone who was simply following the accepted norms of his day. That is not what Benjamin Tillman was.

Tillman, sans patch

Tillman, sans patch

Benjamin Tillman was an outlier, an extremist, a brutal racist even by the standards of his time. Many of his contemporaries considered him a dangerous man who wanted to push our state and nation in a dangerous direction — among them the men who founded my newspaper in 1891, for the primary purpose of opposing the new governor’s policies.

Many white people in post-Reconstruction South Carolina disliked black people, even considered them inferior. Most did not collude with lynch mobs and defend murdering black people, as Gov. Benjamin Tillman did. Most did not threaten to kill black people who tried to vote, as Mr. Tillman did in 1876. Most did not lead a militia that terrorized and killed former slaves in the Hamburg Massacre, about which Mr. Tillman frequently bragged that “we shot negroes and stuffed ballot boxes.” Most did not give speeches urging white people to prepare to respond with violence if black people tried to claim the rights promised us all under the U.S. Constitution, as U.S. Sen. Tillman did.

Sen. Tillman earned the name “Pitchfork Ben” when he threatened to impale President Grover Cleveland on a pitchfork. He was censured by the Senate for assaulting another senator on the Senate floor. Such brutality alone should have been reason not to name things after him….

Amen to that.

If one must honor Ben Tillman in order to respect history, then I will henceforth abandon my lifelong love of the subject. I not only have the prejudice here of a former editor of The State, which as Cindi says was founded to fight Tillman and all he stood for (which is why his nephew murdered our first editor). It’s my personal heritage. My ancestors despised him.

I’ve told you before the anecdote about my grandmother, as a child, living next door to Tillman in Washington, a state of affairs which appalled her parents (they later moved out to Kensington, Md.). She remembered sitting on his lap and asking what was under his eyepatch.

Her family provides the very contrast that Cindi points to. My grandmother’s family — my family — had owned slaves, long before she was born. They were of that time and that class (other ancestors of mine, however, were far poorer and therefore innocent of slaveholding). Her grandfather had served in the Legislature both before and after the War, and that was what that demographic did in South Carolina.

As uncomfortable as that personal history makes me, my family by contrast looks great next to Tillman, who was a monstrous figure.

Cindi’s piece mentions the decision to strip ex-Sheriff James Metts’ name from a boat landing. That was a perfectly appropriate thing to do, after the sheriff’s disgrace. But I tell you, I’d name the whole state for Jimmy Metts before I’d name a mad dog after Tillman. Metts is not 1,000th the malevolent figure that Tillman was.

I say that not because I want to rewrite history. I say it because I know my history (although still not nearly as well as I should, and my education continues), and choose to learn from it.

20 thoughts on “It’s not ‘rewriting history;’ it’s paying ATTENTION to history

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    The warehouse might be an eyesore to some, but so was the Vista, Ms. Scoppe, but Reagan Hall at Clemson would be a hoot.

  2. Mark Stewart

    History isn’t black and white. History is the process of our present learning about our past. History evolves as we evolve and change. People confuse the idea of “history” with the historical record. However, they are very different things.

    The fact that Ben Tillman existed and did the things that he did (good and bad) is the historical record he left. Nobody disputes that. History is the prism with which we view and evaluate that record. This is not, and never has been, static. Memorializing an individual (such as naming a campus building for that person or event) is a historical act that has absolutely nothing to do with the historical record. Memorializing is about the choices we, today, choose to value.

    From that perspective, Tillman Hall is a horrendous choice to perpetuate. History is ours to define. We should choose – Clemson should choose – to find a way to move forward with tributes to better individuals who have earned honor (even if imperfectly practiced as viewed from our present lens) for the efforts they made to strengthen our society and propel South Carolina forward.

    The differences between Tillman and Clemson, as historical records, is striking. Only one of these two deserves to be honored by our sense of history.

  3. M.Prince

    Ok, so now that we’ve taken care of Tillman Hall, what about the statue of him that sits out front of it — along with the one sitting on the State House grounds?

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Oiks, yes. At least, the one on the State House grounds should have an addendum, explaining current knowledge and mores.

      1. M.Prince

        I would suggest that one possible approach to the Tillman statues is to simply ignore them; abandon them to time and the elements (as well as vandalism). Do not maintain or repair them until they become the eyesores that Tillman’s legacy now represents, at which point they can be retired.

    2. Margaret Pridgen (Maggie)

      Point of clarification: The statue in front of Tillman Hall at Clemson is not Ben Tillman. It is university founder, Thomas Green Clemson — “Old Green Tom” now because of the patina on the bronze. And the road in front of Tillman is named Gantt Circle to honor Harvey Gantt, who desegregated Clemson in 1963. There’s a historic marker there remembering that milestone.

      As a life-long South Carolinian (and now Clemson retiree) with family ties to Edgefield County, I have no problem with re-naming Tillman Hall. I don’t buy the arguments against it for all the reasons Cindi outlined. Did the Trustees “re-write history” in the 1940s when they decided to re-name “Old Main” to honor Tillman? Were there not alums who opposed that change?

      I think it’s unlikely the university will re-name it again, however. But this discussion is needed and long overdue. People young and old — white and black — really need to understand what a violent outlier Tillman was even in his own time and place. If they keep the name, let’s hope Clemson provides a more complete picture of the man.

  4. Kevin Dietrich

    Tillman pretty much represented everything that was wrong with post-Civil War South Carolina. As much as I dislike the overall concept of changing buildings, roads, schools, etc., named for historic individuals whose views no longer fit with those of the present mainstream, there is no doubt that Tillman’s legacy is such that he deserves to have his name stripped from structures at Clemson and Winthrop.

    Historian James McPherson has said that Tillman “created the model for two generations of Southern demagogues.” He poisoned already tense relations between blacks and whites, and his impact is still felt today. It’s time to move past Tillman; he isn’t worthy of having his name on any public structure anywhere in South Carolina.

  5. Dave Crockett

    Seen from today, Tillman’s actions toward blacks is nothing short of abominable. And I daresay they were abominable to at least some of Tillman’s white contemporaries.

    But Clemson University owes its very existence to Tillman more than any other man other than Thomas Green Clemson, himself. Tillman almost single-handedly pushed the acceptance of the conditions of Clemson’s will for the creation of a sorely needed agricultural and mechanical college through the legislature. For that reason alone, despite what we feel at this distance from Tillman’s time about his outrageous racist actions, I lean toward leaving the naming of Tillman Hall at Clemson alone. The university, itself, maintained its segregated status until the admission of Harvey Gantt in 1963. Should every building constructed on campus before 1963 be renamed because someone feels they celebrate Clemson’s segregationist policies before then?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      The very same thoughts occurred to me, Dave: Without Tillman, there’d be no Clemson.

      But then, I thought further, and decided that no state institution should harbor a building named for him. And it’s not just about applying today’s standards. As you say, Tillman’s attitudes and actions “were abominable to at least some of Tillman’s white contemporaries,” and for good reason.

      He’s not just a man of his times. He’s one of the worst men of his times…

      1. Dave Crockett

        I’ve been thinking since my original post.

        I still think memorializing Tillman for his role in the creation of Clemson University né Clemson College and ONLY that action merits some consideration in keeping his name there. He played no similar role at Winthrop, to my knowledge, and I can see that his memorial in front of the State House is blurred by the positives and negatives of his life. As such, I’m willing to cede those memorials as, perhaps, inappropriate by today’s standards (or even 19th Century standards). However, Clemson’s situation remains, in my view, different.

        I’m not planning to join any protests if a serious effort is made to change the Clemson building’s name…I’m just saying the situation there merits more than “he was a damned racist” and a sandblaster epitaph. Anyone ready to strip the Strom Thurmond Institute at Clemson of its name in light of the late senator’s Dixiecrat heritage, too? Where does the line get drawn?

        So, let’s move forward. I’m amenable to the broader notion of not naming any future publicly-funded construction projects for persons, living or dead, to head off such controversies.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Strom grew and changed in the course of his life. He didn’t do a dramatic 180 like Tom Turnipseed and become a super lefty, but he became someone who valued his black constituents just the same as his white ones — which doesn’t sound like much until you compare him to some 21st-century “conservatives” whose racially gerrymandered districts guarantee that they don’t have to give a damn about black people (just as reps from the hyper-black districts that are the residue from creating all those super-white districts don’t have to think about people from the paler persuasions).

          As for Tillman and Clemson — absolutely acknowledge the role he played in establishing the place, within the proper context. Say, on a “History” page under “About” on the university’s website. But naming buildings is about honoring…

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          Also, I’ll confess to an additional prejudice I have against Tillman…

          The “good” parts of his legacy (such as Clemson) are related to his populism. Lots of good folks applaud that, but populism tends to give me heartburn — whether we’re talking Tillman, the Tea Party or Elizabeth Warren…

  6. Karen Pearson

    If changing the name of Tilman hall is losing history, shouldn’t we name something for every thug and murderer? They are part of history, too.

  7. Harry Harris

    Changing the name is appropriate as a public repudiation of the man’s actions and legacy. The elementary school in Charleston named for him was renamed (ironically) Ron McNair Elementary School (now closed). Unfortunately, the renaming wouldn’t remove the present legacy of the period of history he has come to somehow symbolize and whose scope we refuse to acknowledge. Change it. At least the gesture will have some “feel good” to it and may remove some irritant for some folks who find such reminders painful.

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