Winthrop board: SC law prevents changing Tillman Hall name

In light of a recent request from two former students, Winthrop University officials said this week that state law prevents them from renaming the campus’ iconic Tillman Hall building.

The two men who asked the school to consider changing the building name take issue with the namesake’s racist past.

Tillman Hall is named for Benjamin Tillman, a former South Carolina senator and governor who died in 1918. The Winthrop building – originally called “Main Building” – was re-dedicated to honor Tillman in 1962.

At a recent Winthrop Board of Trustees meeting, former students Michael Fortune and Richard Davis told school officials that keeping Tillman’s name on the campus building is inappropriate. Tillman was clear and open about his racist views before he died and he gloated about killing black people, Fortune and Davis said.

To have a building named for him is embarrassing, Fortune said again this week.

Clemson University also has a building named in Tillman’s honor and a statue of Tillman sits on the Statehouse grounds in Columbia. Tillman was instrumental in founding both Winthrop and Clemson.

South Carolina law prohibits changing the name of buildings or monuments named for historic figures, Winthrop Board of Trustees Chairwoman Kathy Bigham wrote to Fortune and Davis in a letter this week. Bigham’s letter also said the request inspired conversation about Tillman’s name on the building and she added that there are varying opinions about the issue.

Fortune provided the letter to The Herald.

After the two men raised the issue with Winthrop trustees on Oct. 3, school officials said they would look into whether the university could legally change the name.

“Though we understand the discomfort that many feel regarding the name of the main administrative building, there is a state statute that prohibits our unilaterally changing the name of Tillman Hall,” Bigham wrote.

In the letter, Bigham cites a South Carolina law that was passed in 2000 to protect war memorials and historic structures on public property. The law 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. It’s unlikely, Fortune said, that he or Winthrop could garner enough support from state lawmakers to provide an exception for renaming Tillman Hall.

Fortune concedes that the law is “problematic” for Winthrop to fulfill his request. Still, he argues that Tillman is not a historic figure, as specified in the language of the law.

The term “historic” denotes “almost always a good thing,” said Fortune, adding Tillman’s racist acts and opinions exclude him from earning that designation. Instead, Fortune says, Tillman should be viewed as “historical,” not “historic.”

Arguing that Tillman is “historical” rather than “historic,” and that the state law should not apply to Tillman Hall may not be a winning argument, Fortune said. If the “historical” argument doesn’t hold, he wants Winthrop officials to exercise some “civil disobedience” and change the name anyway, he said.

Winthrop officials on Thursday said the recent response letter from the board chairwoman outlines the university’s position. Besides the legal restriction, there are many different opinions about Tillman’s name on the building, said Winthrop spokesman Jeff Perez.

Fortune says he’s not heard from any student groups who are particularly upset about Tillman Hall’s name. He said he hopes to meet soon with Debra Boyd, Winthrop’s acting president, to discuss his views.

Perez said the acting president is happy to continue the conversation with Fortune and others about what other options Winthrop has. There’s been no indication from the university that Winthrop officials plan to seek a two-thirds vote to allow for a Tillman Hall name change.