Vandal paints 'violent racist' on Tillman portrait at Winthrop University

The painting of former governor Ben Tillman has been removed at Winthrop University after someone wrote “violent racist” in red paint on the portrait.
The painting of former governor Ben Tillman has been removed at Winthrop University after someone wrote “violent racist” in red paint on the portrait.

Maintenance crews were still cleaning up from an overnight break-in at Winthrop University’s Tillman Hall on Thursday morning when, in an unrelated incident, someone vandalized a portrait of the building’s namesake.

A person wrote “violent racist” in red paint across the portrait of Benjamin Tillman about 9:30 a.m., according to an email from the university’s new president, Daniel Mahony, who was on the job for only his second day.

The person who damaged the portrait was seen running from the building, police say.

Officials removed the damaged painting and a placard with information about Benjamin Tillman. The damage to the portrait is being assessed. It’s unclear whether the portrait can or will be restored and placed back inside the building.

By Thursday afternoon, no arrests were made. A Winthrop Campus Police report states the damage is estimated at $3,000.

“Ben Tillman was inarguably a racist, however, that fact does not justify vandalism,” Mahony wrote. “Campus police are conducting an investigation of the incident and anyone found responsible will be held accountable.”

According to Winthrop police, around 9:40 a.m., an employee from the university’s president’s office was on her way to the restroom when she spotted a “thin, white male, wearing a green ball cap, standing in front of the portrait of Mr. Tillman.”

The suspect, the employee told police, was “acting odd” and then she saw him painting on Tillman’s portrait. Officials say the vandalism consisted of “violent racist” scrawled in red paint, with an arrow pointing at Tillman’s head.

The suspect left through the building’s front door. A perimeter search and search of trash cans on campus provided no leads.

The incident came just hours after someone apparently broke a first-floor window to gain access to the building during the night. Nothing was reported stolen or damaged after that incident, which university spokesman Jeff Perez said is unrelated to the portrait vandalism.

Tillman’s portrait is one of two situated near the main door of Tillman Hall. The other is of Robert C. Winthrop, who helped found the school in 1886. Tillman was instrumental in Winthrop and Clemson University’s founding.

The Winthrop vandalism occurred just two days after someone vandalized a statue of Tillman in Columbia with a red paintball. That statue faces a Confederate flag and Confederate monument, around which security has increased following protests after the slayings of nine people June 17 at a historic black church in Charleston.

Tillman, a noted white supremacist who advocated lynching any black who tried to vote, served as governor and as a U.S. senator from 1890 to 1918.

Numerous attempts to revise Tillman’s legacy in the state have gone nowhere. A 2008 legislative push to remove or change his Statehouse statue failed.

Recently, concerns have been raised at Winthrop and Clemson with some people asking school leaders to rename campus buildings honoring Tillman.

Winthrop’s campus on Thursday was mostly quiet except for the two Tillman Hall incidents. Most students are off campus for summer break.

Darren Russo, a Rock Hill resident who works with one of the school’s Christian student organizations, was in Winthrop’s DiGiorgio Campus Center on Thursday afternoon. He called the act of vandalism against Tillman’s portrait an instance of defacing property that isn’t the most effective way to make a statement.

Understandably, he said, some are angry about statues or buildings in Tillman’s honor. Still, protests should be organized in a more constructive way, Russo said.

Young people especially, he said, may be more likely to “lash out” through vandalism when there’s no organized effort for them to join in protest.

Winthrop’s new president left no doubt about his feelings toward vandalism. Mahony wrote: “I am disturbed by this incident because someone acted in a manner that is contrary to the spirit of community at Winthrop.”

Mahony said conversations about whether Winthrop should rename Tillman Hall will continue in the coming months.

“I believe the best way to move forward will come from the campus community working together in a way that is respectful and peaceful.”

He also quoted Debra Boyd – Winthrop’s provost and recent acting president – who said of the name change debate recently: “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.”

Tillman Hall was originally called Main Building. It was finished in 1896 after two years of construction. The building was rededicated and named for Benjamin Tillman in 1962 after a building on Winthrop’s campus previously named for Tillman was torn down.

Tillman Hall was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1977. Officials have said that if Winthrop’s Tillman Hall is renamed, the national registry will likely still recognize Tillman as the building’s namesake.

Teddy Kulmala •  803-329-4082; Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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