Two former students ask Winthrop to change Tillman Hall’s name, citing Tillman’s racist past

Two former Winthrop University students want the school to rename Tillman Hall, the campus building honoring one of South Carolina’s most notorious racist politicians, “Pitchfork” Benjamin Tillman.

Winthrop’s Board of Trustees heard their request Friday afternoon, but gave no formal response. Afterward, former student Mike Fortune said he was disappointed the trustees didn’t ask him questions or invite him back for more discussion.

Fortune, 71, is a retired attorney who lives on Lake Wylie and has taken courses at Winthrop. He’s making the Tillman name-change request along with Richard Davis, 77, who graduated with a master’s of liberal arts from the university in 2010. Both men are white.

They told Winthrop officials they’re outraged the school’s most iconic building fronting Oakland Avenue is named after someone who was widely known as a racist who advocated killing black people. Clemson University also has a Tillman Hall, named for the same man.

Historians say Tillman gained his nickname “Pitchfork” in 1896 when he criticized President Grover Cleveland for not helping South Carolina enough through an economic depression. He said he wanted to go to the White House and “poke old Grover with a pitchfork” to solicit action.

On Friday, Fortune used other quotes from Tillman that, he says, are convincing that the politician does not deserve to have a Winthrop building bear his name. Fortune read examples of Tillman using derogatory, racist terms about black people to the trustees.

“Tillman was a very, very evil character,” Davis said.

This isn’t the first time the board has heard requests to remove Tillman’s name. Students, faculty and several community members have raised the issue many times.

When confronted by such requests, school officials have cited a state law that prevents anyone from changing the name of any street, bridge, structure or park that has been “dedicated in memory of, or named for, any historic figure or historic event.” Changing the state law requires a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly.

Fortune and Davis said they have found past S.C. Attorney General opinions that bolster their argument. School officials did not comment on those legal opinions on Friday.

Winthrop’s Acting President Debra Boyd said university officials will investigate what legal constraints exist related to changing a historical building’s name.

If state law could allow for renaming Tillman Hall, Boyd says she believes Winthrop leaders would ask students, employees and community members for their opinions about changing the name.

The building was placed on the National Registry of Historic Buildings in 1977. Fortune said if Tillman Hall’s name were changed, national and state historic registries would still recognize Ben Tillman as the building’s namesake.

Tillman Hall was built between 1894 and 1896 and originally named “Main Building.” It was rededicated in 1962 to honor the former South Carolina governor and senator. Tillman was instrumental in founding Clemson and establishing Winthrop College as a teaching school for white women in the state. He once served as a trustee at Clemson.

Tim Hopkins, one of three blacks on the school’s 15-member board, says he’s open to hearing more about Fortune and Davis’ request. He didn’t say on Friday whether he wants Tillman to be renamed, but he said “it’s a fair discussion to have.”

Though the issue has surfaced before and died, Davis says he won’t give up if Winthrop officials deny his request. He and Fortune say they’ve reached out to the Rock Hill NAACP and on-campus student groups to enlist support.

At Friday’s board meeting, “we were trying to do it in the least disruptive way possible,” Davis said. If they don’t hear an adequate response from Winthrop officials, the men say they may stage peaceful protests in front of Tillman Hall.

Davis is active on advisory boards for Winthrop’s master’s of liberal arts program and its graduate school. He’s also a financial supporter of the university, he said.

Fortune says he’s looking for the university to be a leader in changing the names of public buildings that were dedicated at a time in history very different from today’s society.

“I think words mean something. If you have a building, you stand behind it everyday. A name is not just a name.”