Clemson University’s faculty introduced a plan Tuesday to rename the school’s most iconic building – Tillman Hall.
The resolution, which had been approved unanimously by the Faculty Senate’s executive advisory committee, was tabled at the faculty meeting.
The resolution comes nearly a week after a group of 80 students marched across campus and presented a list of grievances and demands to Clemson President Jim Clements to do more to recognize diverse groups at Clemson and make all students feel welcome on the campus.
One of the group’s demands, and one that’s been discussed on campus for some time, was to rename Tillman Hall – the red-brick building with a central clock tower that was one of the earliest buildings constructed on campus in 1890.
The building is named after Benjamin Tillman, one of the founding trustees of the school who is known as much for his racist, white supremacist rhetoric as he is for his role as one of Clemson’s founding fathers.
Antonis Katsiyannis, president of Clemson’s Faculty Senate, said the gist of the resolution was similar to one proposed at Winthrop University last year, that Tillman’s views on race reflect a past that is incompatible to Clemson’s mission of tolerance and respect for others.
Any action by the Faculty Senate wouldn’t rename Tillman Hall but could recommend the university’s Board of Trustees take action to rename the building.
The Board of Trustees is the only group on campus that can choose whether to rename the building, said Jerome Reel, Clemson University’s historian.
The loosely formed group of student protesters – A Coalition of Concerned Students, they called themselves – said they felt several buildings on campus are named after people who were known for their prejudice against minorities and “make us feel disrespected, uncomfortable and not welcomed.”
The group said it wants the names of several buildings changed but specifically mentioned Tillman Hall in the list of demands students read on the front steps of Sikes Hall at a protest march last week.
“I know that it makes me uncomfortable to have the name on the building and people not know the history that’s associated with the man, primarily because of its seeming celebration of the legacy of white supremacy and racism,” said A.D. Carson, a graduate student who’s a part of the student group that’s pushing for changes.
Clemson spokeswoman Cathy Sams said the issue came to light amid concerns about the climate for diversity on campus.
“How to appropriately balance our historical link to controversial figures of our past with our commitment to enhance inclusiveness is not unique to Clemson,” she said in an email. “It is a topic of discussion at institutions across the country.”
Obstacles remain even if Clemson decides to rename the building.
A state law that protects the naming of structures on public property after historic figures requires a two-thirds vote by the General Assembly to change a building’s name.
Tillman was a friend of Thomas Green Clemson, the man who left it in his will to start a college on his estate and to appoint a board of trustees to oversee the school, Reel said.
Tillman became one of seven men named lifetime trustees of the school, Reel said.
He became a successful, and controversial, politician serving as South Carolina governor from 1890-1894, then as a U.S. Senator from 1894 until his death in 1918.
He was known in his day for his virulent speeches that promoted the cause of poor, rural white farmers, while denouncing black men as lesser people whom whites would not allow to rule over them.
In one Senate speech, he talked of lynching any black man who touched a white woman while saying black men brought on violence against themselves because of “their own hotheadedness.”
The building known as Main Building or Old Main was renamed Tillman Hall in 1946 after a push from Tillman’s son, William, who was also a trustee, to name a building after his father because his legacy was being forgotten, Reel said.