When two former students asked for Winthrop University to consider changing the name of Tillman Hall last fall, the board of trustees had a ready-made response: state law won’t let them do it.
A law passed in the wake of the decision 15 years ago to move the Confederate flag from the S.C. Statehouse dome requires a two-thirds majority of both chambers of the Legislature to change any state historic marker or monument, whether it’s the Confederate soldiers’ monument in Columbia or a college administrative building named for a notoriously racist former governor and senator.
Getting a supermajority of legislators to approve the name change may have seemed unlikely last year. But in light of recent events, that may be changing. After nine members of an historically black church in Charleston were killed two weeks ago in an apparent hate crime, the state Legislature has agreed to consider removing the Confederate flag from in front of the Statehouse, after a hard-fought compromise placed it there in 2000. An informal poll of lawmakers shows the necessary majority ready to take the flag down.
So could the namesake of former Gov. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman be on the way out at Winthrop?
“How can I be for one and not the other?” Winthrop board trustee Glenn McCall said when he told the Herald recently he supported moving the flag from the Statehouse.
McCall said it’s time for the Winthrop Board of Trustees to have that discussion. He supports changing the building’s name.
But it’s unclear if the Winthrop board will push their legislators for such a change. Many board members contacted for this story did not return calls by press time. Debra Boyd, whose year-long tenure as acting president ended last week, released a statement saying the university “will move forward thoughtfully and with respect for all voices.”
“Winthrop’s great strength is its tradition of appreciating the array of opinions speaking on important matters facing the university,” Boyd wrote. “We are committed to Winthrop University’s being known for taking command of a dark chapter in our past and denying it the power to divide us.”
Winthrop’s board met on June 19, only two days after the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church, but before calls to take down the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds gathered steam. There was no discussion of Tillman then, and the board isn’t scheduled to meet again until the fall semester.
“I think it will be revisited, and our students and faculty have all voiced concerns about this,” said trustee Ashlye Wilkerson, who stressed the board hasn’t taken a position on the issue and the ultimate decision rests with the General Assembly.
Last October, two former students, Mike Fortune and Richard Davis, made a presentation to Winthrop’s board calling for the name of the building to be changed. They expressed disappointment at the time that board members did not ask questions or invite any further discussion of the proposal.
Other students have also expressed a desire to have the name changed. Winthrop has one of the more diverse student bodies among state universities, where almost a third of the undergraduates are African-American and some two-fifths of students identify as nonwhite.
“As a student, the greatest gift Winthrop provided me was the opportunity to connect with, learn from and become friends with people from different backgrounds and cultures,” said alumnus Ryan Drumwright. “Benjamin Tillman and his legacy of Jim Crow does not represent today’s Winthrop experience. It’s time we gather together as a united community and rename Tillman to a name that better symbolizes the spirit of Winthrop University and Rock Hill.”
Shortly afterward, Boyd appointed a special committee of faculty and staff to examine what actions Winthrop can take on its own to address the issue, short of getting a change through the Legislature.
English professor John Bird, the faculty representative to the board and a member of the committee, said it was considering various actions such as placing a marker acknowledging the controversy outside Tillman Hall, but he didn’t want to discuss specifics until the committee was ready to present its recommendations. That may happen later this year, although Bird said the committee has not met since January.
“Our campus dialogue will continue this fall,” Boyd said in her statement, “and we will identify and act on campus initiatives that will have a long term impact and that will reflect Winthrop’s culture of diversity.”
Wilkerson said board members are also eager to have a discussion about what to call the campus’s main administrative building.
“I definitely want to see their recommendations, and have all sides presented to us,” she said.
Tillman was South Carolina’s governor from 1890 to 1894 and a U.S. senator from 1895 until his death in 1918. A champion of poor, white farmers, he was instrumental in founding Clemson University and establishing Winthrop College as a teaching school for women.
But Tillman was also famous for his violent rhetoric against the state’s black population. He supported lynch mobs and personally boasted of killing blacks. He was instrumental in adopting the state’s current constitution in 1895, which at the time effectively removed any political power blacks had gained since the Civil War.
Bird said among the faculty at Winthrop, “there’s a consensus that a majority would support a change in the Legislature. Maybe after the flag vote, we’ll see that. I know there have been moves at Clemson for the same thing, but at this time we just have to wait and see.”
The Legislature is scheduled to take up the flag issue this week.
Winthrop isn’t the only school dealing with Tillman’s legacy. Clemson also has a Tillman Hall on campus, and has faced similar calls for a name change. Changes at other historic locations around the state are also restricted by the same law that protects the Confederate flag. The American Legion post in Greenwood has been prohibited from removing a 1940s-era plaque on city property that separates casualties from the world wars into white and colored columns.
At Winthrop, Tillman Hall was originally called simply Main Building when it was constructed in the 1890s. It was named after Tillman in 1962, when the civil rights movement was beginning to build momentum across the South. The S.C. Legislature raised the Confederate flag over the Statehouse dome that same year.
In his informal discussions with other board members, Bird says opinions on Tillman have been mixed, with “a few saying they support a change, and a few saying it’s not an issue.” But as far as he and some of the other professors are concerned, the name has already changed back.
“Some things Tillman did were just appalling,” Bird said. “I had already changed it in my mind and call it Main Hall. I will not call it that name.”
Bristow Marchant • 803-329-4062