LAST WEEK, THE Legislature directed state agencies to remove the name of former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts from a boat landing. This quickly followed Mr. Metts’ guilty plea to federal felony charges, and the Lexington County Council’s decision to remove his name from the county law enforcement center.
In so doing, were the Legislature and County Council rewriting history? Or were they simply deciding that Mr. Metts was no longer fit to be honored by the government?
In the late 1980s, the Congress renamed Clarks Hill Lake on the South Carolina-Georgia border to Lake Thurmond, prompting a fair amount of criticism. Were members of Congress rewriting history when they removed the “Clark” name and replaced it with the name of one of their own? Or were they simply declaring that their priorities had shifted, and that they wanted to honor someone different?
For that matter, the Lexington County boat landing had been called Hope Ferry Landing before it took on Mr. Metts’ name; I’m sure that had some historical significance. Did that original name change rewrite history, or simply display stunningly poor judgment on the part of our legislators?
Now, imagine that some beloved political figure, oh, I don’t know, let’s say Ronald Reagan, had close ties to Clemson University, and that officials decided they wanted to honor the former president by naming one of the school’s original buildings for him.
Oh, I don’t know, let’s say Tillman Hall.
I wonder what the reaction would be.
Today, some want to rename Tillman Hall because they find the name offensive. I wonder how many people who are outraged by that effort would be just as upset at the idea of renaming Tillman Hall in order to honor someone they hold in reverence?
For that matter, I wonder how many of the people who want to scrub the Tillman name from the building would be happy if the suggestion had come from Reagan fans looking to name it for him.
As you’ve probably figured out, this is not a column about the James Metts Landing or Lake Thurmond. But it’s not really a column about Tillman Hall either, because I really don’t care whether Clemson’s iconic clock tower building retains its name or gets a new one. This is a column about the debate over Tillman Hall, because what I do care about, what we all ought to care about, is honesty and integrity in our political discourse.
Two strains of argument are particularly lacking in both.
The first is that idea that changing our minds about whom we want to honor amounts to rewriting history, which I hope we’ve all dismissed in answering the questions I posed above. (This argument reminds me of efforts by historic preservationists to save abandoned warehouses. What they describe as destroying history, many of us see as removing eyesores from our communities.)
The other argument is an attempted analogy: If you rename Tillman Hall, you need to rename everything that honors a slave owner.
Now, I respect the idea that we shouldn’t judge people of the past by today’s standards. If we did, pretty much everyone except Jesus would come up lacking. Slavery has existed from the beginning of time, although race-based slavery was a briefer thing. Women were treated as chattel throughout most of history, as were children. Disagreements small and large were, through most of history, settled through brawn, not reason.
The comparison to slave owners might work if this debate were simply about someone who owned slaves. That is, someone who was simply following the accepted norms of his day. That is not what Benjamin Tillman was.
Benjamin Tillman was an outlier, an extremist, a brutal racist even by the standards of his time. Many of his contemporaries considered him a dangerous man who wanted to push our state and nation in a dangerous direction — among them the men who founded my newspaper in 1891, for the primary purpose of opposing the new governor’s policies.
Many white people in post-Reconstruction South Carolina disliked black people, even considered them inferior. Most did not collude with lynch mobs and defend murdering black people, as Gov. Benjamin Tillman did. Most did not threaten to kill black people who tried to vote, as Mr. Tillman did in 1876. Most did not lead a militia that terrorized and killed former slaves in the Hamburg Massacre, about which Mr. Tillman frequently bragged that “we shot negroes and stuffed ballot boxes.” Most did not give speeches urging white people to prepare to respond with violence if black people tried to claim the rights promised us all under the U.S. Constitution, as U.S. Sen. Tillman did.
Sen. Tillman earned the name “Pitchfork Ben” when he threatened to impale President Grover Cleveland on a pitchfork. He was censured by the Senate for assaulting another senator on the Senate floor. Such brutality alone should have been reason not to name things after him. But of course, there’s a certain breed of South Carolinians (think former state Sen. Jake Knotts) who love such pugilistic behavior, who applaud political leaders who are not fit for polite society.
I suppose you could make the slippery-slope argument against renaming things Tillman: Remove Ben Tillman’s name today, and who’s next? I’ve never bought that sort of argument, except in regard to court decisions. But it’s at least an honest argument. So is the argument that Clemson honors Mr. Tillman solely for his role in establishing and nurturing the university.
The suggestion that he was simply a man of his times is not. The suggestion that we obliterate history by obliterating letters on a building is not.
For more than 50 years, what we know today as Tillman Hall was Main Building. It was renamed 67 years ago because Mr. Tillman’s son worried that his deceased father wasn’t getting enough credit as one of Clemson’s founding trustees. So the younger Mr. Tillman, by then a Clemson trustee himself, asked his fellow trustees to honor his father in concrete.
In other words, Tillman Hall got its current name in pretty much the same way as Thurmond Lake and the James Metts Landing and all of those bridges and roads and intersections and culverts that get renamed every year: A group of politicians used public resources to bestow a public acclamation of honor upon someone as a personal favor to one of their colleagues.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.