A display in front of Winthrop University’s Tillman Hall that depicted the lynching of black people was erected by a group of students to protest the racist history of the building’s namesake.
The display, found late Sunday afternoon in front of Tillman Hall, included 18 black nylon stockings filled with dirt or mulch. The stockings were suspended by rope from a tree in front of Winthrop’s main administrative building. On the sign denoting the building’s name, someone taped a white sign that read, “Tillman’s Legacy.”
Tillman Hall is named after Benjamin Ryan Tillman, who served as South Carolina governor and as a U.S. senator from 1890 to 1918.
A group known as the Association of Artists for Change has claimed responsibility for the display, which Winthrop University police were initially investigating as an act of vandalism.
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They wanted to provide a really shocking image to portray the accurate image of who Tillman was.
Samantha Valdez, spokesperson for the Association of Artists for Change
“The Association of Artists for Change decided to use art as protest and remember the 18 men that were lynched by Benjamin Tillman during his governance of South Carolina,” said Samantha Valdez, a liaison for the group, which she described as “protest artists.”
“This is not a form of vandalism; this is artwork,” she said. “... They wanted to provide a really shocking image to portray the accurate image of who Tillman was.”
University officials on Monday provided few details about the display. The Association of Artists for Change is not listed among the school’s organizations on the Winthrop website.
Late Monday, the university confirmed that the student group “is not recognized as a campus organization.”
“While we do not know the intent of this display, these images are clearly hurtful and threatening and are contrary to the values of Winthrop University,” Winthrop President Dan Mahony said in an email to students Monday morning.
Students received an email late Monday afternoon from Frank Ardaiolo, vice president for student life, who urged students to reach out to a faculty or professional staff member to talk if they were disturbed by the display.
In a statement that was widely circulated on social media, the association said its work, titled “Tillman’s Legacy,” aimed “to disrupt the aesthetic veil the building has.”
“The beauty of the building tranquilizes the atrocity of the man,” the statement reads. “Tillman Hall should incite the same rage, sadness and fear the artwork did. One should question, why this artwork is offensive and not the building itself?”
Using “guerrilla style tactics,” the group says, the display “appears without warning” to evoke emotion from the viewer.
“The strong imagery forces a disruption and makes the truth unavoidable,” the statement says. “ ... This work remembers the past, hoping to never repeat it. Though shocking, Tillman’s Legacy has opened an aesthetic dialogue.”
Tillman was a noted white supremacist who advocated lynching any black person who tried to vote. Eddie Lee, a professor of history at Winthrop, said Tillman was angered by the South’s defeat in the Civil War and that blacks were no longer considered slaves. He also bragged about his racist views and having killed blacks in the 1876 Hamburg massacre.
“It’s understanding that the building which has his name attached to it would be a lightning rod for protest,” Lee said.
Even if this is what Tillman did, you could have went about it in another way to get your voice heard.
Ashlee Eady, Winthrop University junior
Tillman was instrumental in founding Winthrop and Clemson University, both of which have buildings named after him. His racist history has been at the center of debates surrounding the renaming of those buildings.
Reaction among Winthrop students was mixed Monday.
“I felt personally attacked,” junior Ayana Jones said. “I didn’t really understand what it was trying to convey.”
Senior Elizabeth Burgos applauded the group for trying to bring awareness to Tillman’s history.
“I feel like it could have been done maybe in a different way,” she said. “But if it works and it gets their attention, then it works.”
Senior Ashlee Eady said the group could have gotten its message across another way.
“It’s very, I feel, disrespectful toward me as an African-American person,” she said. “I don’t want to see what represents black people hanging from a tree. Even if this is what Tillman did, you could have went about it in another way to get your voice heard.”
This was the third time in just over a year that Winthrop police have investigated such an incident at Tillman Hall. In July 2015, someone spray-painted the words “violent racist” on Benjamin Tillman’s portrait in the building’s lobby, causing about $3,000 damage to the portrait.
Just one month later, on the school’s Convocation Day, someone again vandalized the building. Officials never disclosed details about the vandalism, which happened on the outside of the building.
Justine Miller of The Charlotte Observer contributed