Wade Hampton III was a Confederate lieutenant general, one of the largest slaveholders in the Southeast and, by today’s standards, a blatant “racist,” according to historians.
Several hundred Wade Hampton High School students and their supporters in the Upstate want to rid their school of his name forever.
“Honoring a man who owned and fought to keep students’ ancestors enslaved and oppressed is not only inappropriate, but immoral,” said 16-year-old student Asha Marie.
But many others oppose changing the name, preferring to focus on the school’s distinguished history.
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“You look at what Wade Hampton has done for the community,” said Lynda Leventis-Wells, who graduated from the high school, coached basketball there and now represents the school on the Greenville school district’s board.
“No, no, I’m not for changing the name.”
The issue is sharply dividing students and the community. Both sides in the dispute say they’ve been subjected to virulent verbal attacks.
Marie, a student at Wade Hampton, recently wrote an online petition at change.org calling on elected officials to “leave the school’s racist and unpatriotic name behind us.”
By Wednesday, that petition was surpassed its goal of 1,500 signatures and was collecting more.
A competing petition, written by student Austin Rutter, meanwhile, had generated more than 2,200 signatures opposing the name change.
Marie, who is biracial, was motivated to post her petition after transferring to the school this past fall and researching the life of Wade Hampton III.
“It upset me that my school was named after someone who played such a large hand in fighting for the enslavement and oppression of black Americans,” Marie said in an email interview.
She believes that maintaining the name of Wade Hampton sends the wrong message: that on-campus bigotry is acceptable. She said it sets a foundation for the institution that “suggests that racism and discrimination are not only tolerated, but acceptable.”
Leventis-Wells, however, said people associate the name of Wade Hampton High School not with race but with such positive initiatives as Spirit Week, which raises money for charitable causes.
“You look at the thousands and thousands of dollars these kids raise during Spirit Week and all of the positive things that have been done,” Leventis-Wells said. “Why would you change the name? I think Wade Hampton High School represents family, togetherness and making a difference. Let’s move on.”
Rutter, in his change.org petition opposing a name change, echoes Leventis-Wells: “Why would you want to change the name of a school that has done so many great things for Greenville County?”
Both Marie and Rutter are directing their petitions toward the Greenville County School Board, although the Legislature would most likely have to approve any name change to a school, according to school board members.
A moderate ‘racist’
Marie’s petition draws attention to Hampton’s legacy as a slaveholder and Confederate lieutenant general.
It ties Hampton also to his supporters known as the Red Shirts, a violent paramilitary group responsible for the deaths of dozens of blacks in the 1876 election in which Hampton ran for governor.
As governor, Hampton raised legal funds to defend members of the Ku Klux Klan, Marie says in her petition.
Rod Andrew, a Clemson professor who wrote a biography of Wade Hampton, said Hampton’s legacy is a complex one.
Hampton’s supporters among the Red Shirts did kill blacks, but there’s no evidence that Hampton supported that violence, Andrew said.
“It was one of the most violent and corrupt elections in American history,” Andrew said. “People have often assumed that Hampton fostered or encouraged the violence but there’s never been any direct evidence of that. The only evidence we have is of Hampton condemning violence.”
Hampton did raise defense money for the KKK but was not a leader or even a member of the group, Andrew said.
“There’s no question that Hampton was a racist,” Andrew said. “The problem is that you can say that about virtually every 19th century white American. By the standards of his day, Hampton was a moderate. He certainly believed that white people should have the lead role. But he believed black people deserved some basic rights, protections and opportunities. For instance, when he was governor, he made sure that black schools received as much funding per student as white schools did.”
Andrew said Hampton could be considered a moderate in contrast to such South Carolina figures as “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman. Clemson University in recent years has been rocked by student protesters calling for the university to change the name of its iconic Tillman Hall.
“Tillman was a far more extreme racist in his views and pronouncements,” Andrew said. “Hampton presented himself as an honest and moderate figure and many people have continued to see him that way. It’s very complicated.”
Hampton even rebuked Tillman in 1895 for the latter’s efforts to make it almost impossible for blacks to vote, Andrew said.
“I think we should understand the legitimate feeling of some that their own history has not been told, and that having a school named after Wade Hampton just illustrates that fact,” Andrew said. “But I feel these decisions should be based not on glorification or demonization, but on an educated and balanced point of view.”
Local historian Judy Bainbridge, meanwhile, said 17,000 blacks voted for Hampton in 1876. Hampton, as governor, also appointed 86 black men to state office, Bainbridge said.
A community’s history
Leventis-Wells said students at Wade Hampton are not as concerned with the past as with their own future.
“I think when people go to Wade Hampton High School, they think of what their legacy is going to be for Wade Hampton, the things they’ll do at Wade Hampton,” Leventis-Wells said. “I don’t think they’re looking at the history. They’re about the present and what’s going to make it better and greater.”
Furman University history professor Courtney Tollison said public buildings express the values of a community – values worth emulating.
“Proponents of changes regarding K-12 institutions often argue that such institutions ought to honor individuals the community would hope the students would emulate,” Tollison said. “Certainly, that argument could be made for our society at large as well. Any community, whether it be a small town or a country, looks upon its history to know who it is, what its values are, and why and how those values have evolved.”
“History provides a sense of identity. In an increasingly homogenous world, it is a community’s historic buildings, statues, and institutions that distinguish it from every other community.”
Marie, for her part, suggests that former Mayor Max Heller, one of the prime movers behind Greenville’s award-winning downtown, would be a far more fitting person to honor than Wade Hampton.
“Max Heller was the mayor of Greenville in the ‘70s and is credited fittingly as the man who made Greenville,” Marie said. “Max Heller not only initiated positive change in our local community but was essential in creating the Greenville we know today. Max Heller’s legacy is one that deserves to be recognized and honored.”