In a place of honor on the SC State House lawn not 10 yards from where the Confederate flag used to fly, stands a tall statue to Benjamin “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, a former slave owner born in Edgefield County in 1847.
Tillman, a South Carolina governor (1890-94) and U.S. Senator (1895-1918), was the chief architect of the State Constitution of 1895 – a document that made white rule the state’s supreme law for almost the next 70 years.
Following its passage, blacks were driven from public office and tens of thousands fled the state. Segregation didn’t begin to be dismantled until the 1960s, when waves of federal court decisions slowly opened up schools, hospitals, public libraries, parks and businesses to African-Americans.
Tillman’s greatest legacy perhaps was to make racism acceptable to millions. A charismatic orator, he traveled the nation from 1901-07, making money off speeches on the Chautauqua circuit, speeches in which he bragged how South Carolina handled its “race problem” – with guns and lynching and segregation.
In a speech typical of many he made, hissing and speaking through clenched teeth, Tillman said, “We will have to butcher the Negro some day and when the struggle comes ... it will be horrible.” He also preached on the value of lynching blacks who got out of line. If blacks ever got education, they would try to dominate whites, he said.
“Ben Tillman fostered the modern American reaction against the Negro,” wrote one of his biographers, Francis Butler Simkins, who like Tillman hailed from Edgefield County.
Tillman was instrumental in founding what is today Clemson University. A prominent building on the campus is named for him. Many Tillman papers, including newspaper articles of his day that chronicle his speeches, are kept at Clemson.
The State newspaper was founded in February 1891 in part to combat what its founding editors perceived as the excesses of the Tillman political machine. One of the newspaper’s founders, N.G. Gonzales, was shot to death in 1903 by Ben Tillman’s nephew, Jim Tillman.
About this series: The inaugural edition of The State newspaper was published Feb. 18, 1891. In anticipation of the 125th anniversary, the Palmetto section and this section at thestate.com are recounting each day how The State covered newsmakers and events vital to South Carolina’s history.