A group of about 100 marched across Clemson University’s campus Wednesday during a protest to tell the university’s leadership that an issue that embroiled much of the last semester won’t be dropped in the new school year.
As they marched up the hill from Death Valley toward Tillman Hall – the focus point of their protest – they chanted “Reclaim Old Main.”
It was in reference to Old Main, the name that Tillman Hall was known by pre-1946 when it was renamed for Benjamin Tillman, a racist former governor of South Carolina who was founding trustee of the university but also spoke virulently against blacks, advocated for lynch law, pushed Jim Crow laws and was charged but never indicted in the Hamburg Massacre where six black men were killed by a white mob.
“Ben Tillman was not a good man, yet he is still honored on this campus with our most prominent building holding his name,” Remy Barnwell, a junior, told the group after the march as they stood in Carillon Garden near Tillman Hall. “The name Tillman Hall is a slap in my face and should feel like a slap in yours.”
This time, the march was framed by events that have transpired since an initial march in January ignited a months-long debate over whether Clemson should honor the man for whom its most iconic building is named.
The board of trustees has renounced Tillman and called his actions and views “repugnant.” The board created a task force to study Clemson’s complete history, largely to incorporate the role African-Americans played in the university’s founding as well as its history of segregation.
The trustees, in their July resolution, stopped short of renaming Tillman Hall, but did say the history task force would explore “appropriate recognition of historical figures.”
The board’s action came nearly a month after a man gunned down nine black congregants at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston and days after the state Legislature’s decision to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds.
“If the shooting had happened without the protests here, the board would have responded in some way, but it wouldn’t have responded by thinking of Ben Tillman,” said Todd May, a Clemson philosophy professor and one of the march’s organizers.
“Their coming together to study the issue is a response to what we’ve been doing,” May said. “We just have to keep pushing. As we keep pushing, the board will see how the tides of history are turning and will follow it.”
Tillman’s actions have been dissected and debated. The protest didn’t generate much new information, but it wasn’t designed to, May said.
“I think it was really important for us to show that we’re still here,” he said. “Our view is that the administration and the board were waiting to see whether in fact, we’d reassemble, whether there would be pressure. Our job today was to let them know we’re back.”
The group that protested last January was mostly black and mostly students. This group was evenly split between white and black. Parents lugged toddlers up the hill on their shoulders or held hands with children as they walked. Faculty, staff and community members mixed in with students.
Several said they’ve noticed a shift at Clemson in the last months as the administration and board has taken some actions to improve race relations and diversity on campus.
“I think that the protests that have happened and the work of some aggressive scholars here has led to a slow awakening that has slowly begun to emerge, and that’s what we’re seeing now,” said Chenjerai Kumanyika, assistant professor of communications studies.
Renaming Tillman Hall is just one of a number of issues minorities on campus want addressed. Several mentioned progress – mentioning the opening of a multicultural center and a study of the school history – but they want to see a mix of students, faculty and staff that represents the racial mix of South Carolina.
Though there’s much work to do, that mix has begun to improve this semester, President Jim Clements has said.
“The board of trustees has moved much closer to the right side of history with distancing themselves from the legacy (of Tillman),” Kumanyika said.
Though renaming Tillman Hall could be complicated, needing a two-thirds vote from the state legislature if Clemson’s trustees want it renamed, this group of protestors said they won’t go away until it’s done.
“We’ve got to be persistent,” said Tanzania Scarbourough, a senior.