When a group of Clemson University students marched across campus in January and demanded changes from the university — including renaming Tillman Hall — to make the school more welcoming to minorities, they weren’t alone.
And when, in the weeks that followed, the Clemson community tore open the scabs to reveal the words and deeds of one of its influential founders, Benjamin Tillman, it wasn’t alone.
Institutions across the nation have begun increasingly to confront their own dark secrets and bring to light racist, even murderous, actions upon which universities profited in past generations.
When Duke and East Carolina universities were confronted with past Gov. Charles Aycock’s involvement in the disenfranchisement of black voters in the Jim Crow era, his name was stripped from dormitories.
When a Radford University history professor tied the white supremacist activism of classical composer John Powell to a music hall that bore his name, Radford removed his name.
And in 2011, when Bob Jones University examined the history of former Alabama Gov. Bibb Graves, a friend of the university’s founder who had ties to the Ku Klux Klan, it quietly renamed the residence hall named for him.
Some universities have formed committees to dig into the past. Others have apologized for past actions. Some renamed buildings but installed plaques outside to describe the buildings’ histories.
But not at Clemson.
Student and faculty efforts to rename Tillman Hall were met with a single statement from Board of Trustees Chairman David Wilkins: the Board does not intend to change the name of any buildings on campus.
At issue is what happens to history when those who were once honored are now deposed. Are they forgotten? And where does the renaming of buildings end?
Clemson’s stance, enabled by South Carolina’s own restrictive law that makes it difficult to rename any historical landmarks, is chillingly odd, said Thomas Russell, a historian and law professor at the University of Denver and a leading expert on race at universities. He has consulted nationally on the issue of renaming buildings.
“That is an example of South Carolinians clinging to their past in a way that is simply not healthy,” he said.
This is not just the South’s Day of Reckoning.
Mary Barr, a Clemson sociology professor, who received her doctorate in African-American studies from Yale and has authored a book on racial discrimination, said universities researching past ties to racism is not just a Southern phenomenon.
Barr cited two New England cases. Brown University in Rhode Island studied its ties to the slave trade and apologized for benefiting from it. And Yale has a college named after South Carolina slave owner John C. Calhoun, who ardently defended slavery.
Northwestern University and the University of Denver each formed committees to study the role their founder, John Evans, played in the Sand Creek Massacre where soldiers killed about 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho Native Americans.
Russell, who spent time in the state researching his thesis on antebellum South Carolina, said it is healthy for institutions to unmask their pasts. He expects more universities to take up that challenge, spurred by a renewed interest in race equality across the country.
In the South, universities are revisiting their pasts in greater frequency.
Emory University in Atlanta apologized for owning slaves and held a conference to explore its own history.
Vanderbilt University went to court in 2005 to try to drop “Confederate” from the name of a residence hall. It failed because the United Daughters of the Confederacy had donated money to build the dormitory.
Washington and Lee decided to remove Confederate flags from the campus chapel where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee is buried.
Students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill have tried for years to change the name of Saunders Hall because its namesake, William Lawrence Saunders, was also thought to have been an organizer of the Ku Klux Klan in the Tar Heel State.
At Radford, in Virginia, history professor Richard Straw researched Powell’s history and brought it to the dean’s attention after he found Powell advocated for a pure Anglo-Saxon race and helped lead the effort to pass Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act in 1924. The law excluded blacks and Native Americans from schools and sent many of them to institutions to be surgically sterilized.
Straw said he was not an activist, just a researcher, and the name-change idea lay dormant for nearly five years before Powell’s name was dropped from the building in 2010.
In Greenville, BJU apologized in 2008 for “racially hurtful” policies like a ban on interracial dating that existed until 2000.
Then the private university took down the name of Bibb Graves from one of its men’s dorms and renamed it after preacher H.A. Ironside.
Graves, an Alabama governor and friend of BJU founder Bob Jones Sr., was a Grand Cyclops of the Montgomery chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, according to the Alabama Department of Archives and History.
He was a progressive governor who was present at the groundbreaking ceremony for Bob Jones College in Florida in 1926, BJU said in a statement.
“Even though Graves had ties to the KKK, a number of other colleges and universities — including historically black colleges and universities — still honor him with buildings bearing his name,” BJU said. “BJU proactively changed the name of Bibb Graves Residence Hall in the summer of 2011 to avoid confusion and to show edifying love to those who could be offended or hurt by our connections to him.”
At least a dozen buildings on campuses in Alabama are still named after Graves.
Students protests or historical research have prompted most efforts. This is just the start, Russell believes, as more institutions begin to rip away the curtains to glimpse their shadowy pasts.
“People are becoming more alert to their own institutions’ histories,” he said.
He urged Clemson to be more open in its debate of Tillman Hall.
Whether the Clemson community would forget the name and history of former South Carolina Governor and outspoken white supremacist Tillman is central to the debate over renaming the historic, red-brick building whose clock tower rises above the campus.
The rough stones of Clemson’s history, of which Tillman is the roughest, were key to Wilkins’ statement last month.
“Part of knowledge is to know and understand history so you learn from it,” Wilkins said.
Barr said she’s on the fence. She doesn’t want South Carolina to whitewash history or forget its past “and Tillman’s name and legacy provides lots of opportunities to talk about that history as ugly as it might be.”
Tillman will never be forgotten because South Carolina will never truly erase its past, said Russell.
“South Carolinians are justly devoted to their own very important and very interesting history, and I simply do not believe South Carolinians are going to forget any little part of their history,” he said.
Taking Tillman’s name down would give historians an opportunity to memorialize him in a proper way while not honoring him for what he did, he said.
That’s exactly what happened at the University of Oklahoma way back in the 1980s.
A castle-like building constructed in 1916 to house the OU chemistry department was named for Edwin DeBarr, one of OU’s original faculty members who led its chemistry faculty for 31 years.
Now it’s called Chemistry Building, a simpler title and one that doesn’t honor DeBarr, who was also a grand dragon in Oklahoma’s Ku Klux Klan.
In 1988, after years of controversy, OU’s Board of Regents stripped DeBarr’s name from the building.
DeBarr’s history is hardly forgotten to anyone searching for it. A historical marker outside Chemistry Hall tells DeBarr’s story. A campus street and a historical housing district still bear his name.
Now, 27 years later, OU’s student body president Kunal Naik couldn’t think of the building’s original name when asked by The Greenville News.
Naik leaned away from the phone, consulted momentarily with a friend and came up with the correct answer and a basic understanding of its history.
“I think people who are more versed in the history of the university are aware,” Naik said. “And we have some student groups on campus who make sure students are educated about that.”
But most students? “On the whole, the general student body might not know the history as well,” Naik said.
Striking a name from a building isn’t always the answer, said Russell. He listed examples — Saunders Hall at UNC among them — where he said protestors haven’t made a good enough case to rename the building.
A person’s actions must rise to a level that warrants stripping his or her name from a building, he said. Rhetoric alone shouldn’t justify renaming a building, he said. Neither should simply going along with the prevalent culture of the day.
But certain people stand out. One was William Simkins, a native South Carolinian who led the KKK in Florida, spoke of his violent acts, then made his was to Texas, where he taught at the University of Texas for 30 years.
Russell, a professor at Texas for 10 years, wrote a paper about Simkins that eventually led the university to rename a dormitory.
Tillman fits many of the same characteristics, Russell said.
Tillman bragged that he was part of a Red Shirts militia that killed two in skirmishes and executed at least four black men in the Hamburg Massacre in July 1876 as Tillman tried to silence black votes to, in his words, redeem “the state from negro and carpetbag rule.”
Then in September, his band of Red Shirts joined in widespread massacres in Ellenton, where nearly 100 black people were killed. Arriving late to the battle, Tillman’s men pulled a black senator, Simon Coker, from a train. Coker kneeled to pray and one of Tillman’s men shot him in the head.
Tillman, according to Francis Butler Simkins’ book “Pitchfork Ben Tillman,” told them to fire a second shot in case Coker was “playing ’possum.”
“If there are these types of actions, then I think that’s a worthy candidate to remove that name,” Russell said.
As for the stone letters above the entrance that spell out Tillman Hall.
“That’s what chisels are for,” he said.