Editorial: Let ideas drive debate over Tillman Hall

Tillman Hall bell tower.
Tillman Hall bell tower. Melissa Cherry mcherry@heraldonl

Monday was a day of celebration at Winthrop University, as students, faculty, administrators, alumni and friends of the school gathered for the traditional ceremony that formally opens the school year.

Convocation and the subsequent Blue Line Procession, which dates back 120 years, serve as both the literal and symbolic “coming together” of the Winthrop community each year.

One of the highlights of that ceremony is the recitation by all in attendance of the “Winthrop University Dedication for Excellence,” a series of affirmations concerning academic integrity, freedom of speech, personal responsibility, global and cultural diversity, consideration of others, social responsibility, civic engagement and environmental responsibility.

We can think of no more appropriate way to set out on any endeavor than with a restatement of values, common beliefs and mutual understanding of how a group of people will work together for the good of all.

Unfortunately, someone apparently didn’t read the “Dedication for Excellence” closely enough to realize that vandalism and destruction of property do not fit in with those shared values.

While we hope Winthrop leaders and other concerned citizens will find a way to change the name of Tillman Hall, vandalism is an unacceptable and illegal way to express opposition.

On Monday morning, just hours before Convocation, someone wrote “RENAME TILLMAN HALL” in black spray paint along the front of the school’s most iconic building. A granite wall and two signs also were vandalized.

It was the second reported act of vandalism at Tillman Hall this summer. In July, someone painted the words “violent racist” over a portrait of Tillman displayed inside Tillman Hall.

This is not the way to conduct a public dialogue about a sensitive subject.

Originally called Main Building – a designation still used informally by some faculty – Tillman Hall was named for Benjamin Tillman, a South Carolina governor and U.S. senator from the 1890s and into the 1910s. He is credited with helping establish Winthrop College as a teaching school for women.

But Tillman also publicly supported lynch mobs and was known to have boasted that he had personally killed black people. His hand guided the adoption of the state constitution in 1895, which stripped blacks of what little political power they had gained since the end of the Civil War.

Regardless of his role in the founding of what is now Winthrop University – one of the most diverse public universities in the state – it is an affront to the progress that has been made in race relations that the most iconic structure on campus is named for an avowed racist who advocated violence against people simply because of the color of their skin.

That said, vandalism is not the answer.

State legislative leaders have vowed to block any attempt to rename buildings or change monuments dedicated to those with a clear record of doing whatever they could to prevent black South Carolinians from sharing the same rights as whites. Nonetheless, Winthrop officials still are studying what actions the school might take on its own to address the issue.

Winthrop President Dan Mahony addressed the controversy head on after barely one day in office, on the date of the first Tillman vandalism. “Ben Tillman was inarguably a racist; however, that fact does not justify vandalism,” he said on July 2.

Addressing the school’s Board of Trustees on Monday, Mahony stood his ground again, just hours after the latest graffiti was discovered: “I do not believe we should allow anyone to force an action that would exclude our campus from the conversation.”

Regardless of how we might feel about the speed at which Winthrop leaders are moving to address this matter – or precisely which actions should be taken – criminal activity is not the way to bring reasonable, thinking people over to our side of an issue.

There are better options. We can:

▪ Call Winthrop trustees and let them know how we feel. Phone numbers for each trustee can be found at winthrop.edu/trustees.

▪ Organize peaceful protests. College campuses have historically been the place where young people have gotten their word out to the public.

▪ Mobilize and communicate with like-minded people via the plenitude of social media websites.

▪ Write a letter to the editor of The Herald or The Johnsonian, Winthrop’s student newspaper.

We all would be well served if anyone who wanted to participate in this conversation over the coming months would be guided by Winthrop’s “Dedication for Excellence,” which reads, in part:

“I will recognize that I can exercise the full range of my freedom of speech and will respect the rights of others to express themselves...I will value diverse cultural perspectives as well as value all individuals for the creativity, achievements and contributions each brings to our community...I will demonstrate a concern for the welfare and rights of others, and I will respect the dignity of all persons.”