Winthrop digs into lives of convicts who built Tillman Hall

adouglas@heraldonline.comJanuary 4, 2014 

  • The ‘Main Men’ who built Tillman

    Winthrop University researchers need help finding the descendants and more information about the men listed below who worked as convict laborers in the late 1890s on the college’s first building:

    Dan Anderson, William Bradley, John Courtney, Sol or Soloman Elliot, Willie Fowler, Rich or Richard Garrett, George Gates, Nelson Hopper, Charley Jackson, Albert Jenkins, Stepney Jenkins,William Johnson, Ike Mack, Nelson Martin, Ben Marvei, Jack/Jackson McKnight, Amos Mitchell, Robert Moore, K. C. Morris, Henry Moultrie, Jim Nelson, John Oaks, Daniel O’Ree or O’Nee, Jack Rivers, Sam Sanders, Sam Southwell, Henry Watson, Wash Weldon, Isaac White, Albert or Alfred Williams, and two men named John Williams

  • Have information?

    Anyone with information about the convict laborers who built Winthrop’s Tillman Hall – then called Main Building – in the 1890s is asked to contact Judy Longshaw at 803-323-2404 or email longshawj@winthrop.edu.

    Researchers are also looking for photos of the Winthrop campus area from the 1890s or early 1900s. The area roughly included present-day Cherry Road, Oakland Avenue and Stewart Avenue.

Stories passed down for two generations in Clyde Long’s Rock Hill family could help Winthrop University researchers fill in the blanks about the state convicts and other men who built Tillman Hall more than a century ago.

Long, 61, says his grandfather Noah Long was one of the dozens of state penitentiary laborers who were sent from Columbia to Rock Hill in the mid-1890s to build what college founders then called Main Building. The building’s name was changed to Tillman Hall after 1962 to honor former S.C. Governor and U.S. Sen. Benjamin Tillman, who was a key supporter in establishing Winthrop.

Recently, Winthrop faculty and staff members began work on piecing together the lost history of the prisoners, especially the details about their working conditions and contributions at Tillman. The university has preserved much of what is known about the prisoners. Remnants of the stocks that sometimes held the convicts remain in the building’s basement.

While school leaders have not shied away from referring to Tillman’s convict labor history, researchers say the story is not complete because not much is known about the male prisoners.

So far, Winthrop researcher Jane Starnes has tracked down the names of at least 32 convict laborers who worked during multiple trips to Rock Hill between 1893 and 1895. Starnes is the college’s director of philanthropic research. She hopes that people like Clyde Long will recognize one of their family members’ names on the list and have information about their experience building Tillman.

Prison work a part of family’s Winthrop ties

Noah Long was born in 1874 in Anderson, S.C. Clyde Long was 5 years old when his grandfather died, but he remembers the stories passed down about Noah’s life and work at Tillman.

He’s writing a book by coupling those family memories with information he’s collected from state correctional system records and U.S. census data. Part of the book will feature his grandfather’s life, growing up and working on his family’s farm near the border of Anderson and Pickens counties.

Clyde Long has learned that his grandfather was arrested in the small town of Central around 1890. Central – now part of Pickens County – was established as a railroad town in 1873 and served as the halfway-point between Charlotte and Atlanta.

While in Central one day, Noah Long and two other men stole $30, his grandson said. The men split the stolen money equally but were caught by police.

“He got 10 years for $10,” Clyde Long said of his grandfather’s criminal conviction.

While serving his time at a state prison, Noah Long was sent with a work detail group to build Tillman, he said. Part of his family’s oral history about Noah Long’s time at Winthrop includes a tale about a prisoner escaping from the work area or the stockades where the prisoners lived and were chained while sleeping at night.

Starnes uncovered an article from an 1890s Herald newspaper that states that prisoner stockades were built near the railroad tracks close to Winthrop’s campus. It’s unclear whether prisoner housing was close to the railroad tracks near the site of a current student parking lot along South Cherry Road, the Legion Lot, or whether it was on the other side of campus, near Stewart Avenue.

Starnes has also found records from around that time that indicate at least one prisoner escaped while Tillman Hall was under construction. Clyde Long was told that Tillman, governor at the time, offered a $17 reward for the escaped convict.

According to the Long family’s stories, that prisoner was found a few days later. As punishment, he was chained to the basement of Tillman, where he was beaten to death.

If that story is true, it’s not surprising that many on Winthrop’s campus believe that Tillman and other parts of campus are home to ghosts or spirits, Clyde Long says.

But Starnes has found no historical records indicating that any convict laborers were beaten to death at Winthrop. She has found sources that document accidental deaths while convicts were working.

When Noah Long was released from prison, he left his home and went to Trinidad, his grandson said. He was there for less than one year before moving to London, where he worked as a carpenter.

He returned to Rock Hill around 1904, lived in the Ebenezer Township – now the Boyd Hill community – and married Ida Jeter, who was working at Winthrop as a maid. The couple had two sons and a daughter.

While building a life in Rock Hill, Noah Long became a founding deacon at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

But, the Long family’s ties to Winthrop go beyond his grandfather’s convict history and his grandmother’s job there. In 1986, Clyde Long became the first descendant of his grandfather to graduate from Winthrop. He earned a bachelor’s of science degree and went on to work in hospital administration. Before that, he was in the Air Force.

His daughter, Crystal Long, earned a master’s degree from Winthrop. She now lives in Charlotte.

Studying the ‘Main Men’

The Long family’s stories could help Winthrop researchers as they try to learn more about the men who built Tillman, the types of crimes they were accused of and what happened to them and their families afterward. Eddie Lee, a Winthrop history professor and the mayor of the city of York, believes some of the convicts and their families may have settled in Rock Hill or nearby towns after serving their sentences.

He has studied and come to nearly memorize most of the history of Winthrop’s founding, Tillman’s controversial political life and the university’s impact on the Rock Hill area. But, until now, there’s been no documented history or extensive research focused primarily on the Tillman convict laborers.

Lee calls them the “Main Men” because they worked on what was called Main Building. State convicts also built Winthrop’s Margaret Nance dorm – once called the North Dormitory – and Crawford Hall, which was first used as an infirmary.

The prisoners probably faced rough conditions building Tillman Hall. They completed the project without the advantages of power tools, safety equipment and modern medicine.

As a politician, Lee said, Tillman is remembered as a “virtual dictator” and a “heavyweight” with a lot of sway among decision-makers. He teamed up with David Bancroft Johnson, Winthrop’s first president, in Columbia to start a school that would “protect” South Carolina’s women – specifically, white women, he said.

Researchers believe most, if not all, of the convicts who worked on building Tillman were black.

Nicknamed “Pitchfork Ben,” Tillman is depicted in biographies as a racist politician who was opposed to giving women the right to vote. He also opposed American expansion overseas.

Tillman “loved the idea of Rock Hill,” Lee said, because it was mainly an undeveloped, rural town – far different from the cities of Columbia and Charleston that the governor thought were too big and had too much activity that could spoil the innocence of young women. In the early 1890s, businessmen in Rock Hill had a vision for transforming the small town into a trolley suburb. Eventually, an electric trolley route ran along what is now Oakland Avenue, in front of Winthrop.

Establishing Winthrop – first called the South Carolina Industrial and Winthrop Normal College – in Rock Hill was a game-changer for the rural community, Lee said.

Business leaders courting state officials to build Winthrop in Rock Hill were competing with representatives from three other towns: Chester, Spartanburg and Anderson. Much of the land needed for the school was donated by local residents involved in the business community.

“Tillman could have put Winthrop anywhere in South Carolina,” Lee said.

Local residents’ efforts to land the school, he said, “was the best investment Rock Hill ever made.”

The earliest college buildings, including Tillman – which was the first – sat close to what used to be Oakland Park. The park area included a pavilion, where formal dances and social gatherings were held, and a man-made lake.

During the peak of Tillman’s construction, Winthrop researchers think there may have been 102 prisoners on-site at one time. Over several years in the 1890s, correctional system records show that about 330 men were sent to Rock Hill to work on state-commissioned projects.

It’s unknown whether Winthrop’s buildings were the only state projects under construction in Rock Hill at the time. But, there’s a possibility that there was some abuse of the prisoner labor system and that local residents may have broken the rules and used convicts for personal construction projects.

What’s unclear is how many and which men were assigned to Winthrop’s campus and how often they returned.

The 32 men on Starnes’ list are the convicts she believes were the most-valued craftsmen working at Tillman. But, there is no biographical information about those men on state correctional system records.

Work detail records for other projects around the state during that era usually include biographical data about the convict, the length of their sentence and the nature of their crime. For some of the men, university researchers were able to cross-reference their names and find the missing data on other work detail papers for other state projects around the same time.

“As we find out more and more, we just can’t get over how fascinating it is,” Starnes said.

She and others at Winthrop hope to compile the convict history findings into a culminating project such as a documentary. But, she said, it will depend on how much they discover and the feasibility of making a documentary.

The research project recently received a boost from a $1,400 grant from the Humanities Council of South Carolina. Winthrop will also apply for a major grant once more progress is made.

Before then, Starnes said, the research will be helped along by contributors who have information or photos of the convicts who built Tillman or of Winthrop in the 1890s.

In some ways, learning more about the convict laborers and publishing the findings will pay respect to the men who built what many people consider one of the state’s most treasured historic structures, she said.

The men who worked on Tillman were never formally recognized for building a structure that has served Winthrop for its entire history in Rock Hill. Other non-convict workers were also on-site and the paid construction and architectural firm’s names are engraved in the cornerstone of the building. At the time the last convicts left Winthrop in October 1895, lawmakers were convening in Columbia to redraft the state’s constitution, which ushered in the Jim Crow era. Amendments to the constitution disenfranchised both black people and poor whites.

Tillman – who by 1894 was serving in Congress – supported the constitutional amendments and the results, which stifled the black vote in South Carolina.

Eventually, Starnes and the rest of the Winthrop research team hope there will be more to share about the convict laborers and their legacy in building an important campus landmark.

She hopes the project will reveal more about the convicts who built Tillman, she said, and also provide “new and significant insight into a South Carolina particularly caught between the past and the future.”

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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