Ben Tillman's shameful legacy is now Clemson's

Cowardice reigns in Tiger Town

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Tillman Hall towers over the Clemson campus - FLICKR USER ANGIE YATES
  • Flickr user Angie Yates
  • Tillman Hall towers over the Clemson campus
Ben Tillman was a horrible, horrible man. A traitorous paramilitary leader, a domestic terrorist, and a murderer. And he was instrumental in founding Clemson University.

But Clemson didn't honor him with a building in his name until 1946, nearly three decades after the man known as "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman died and 54 years after the structure was built. Up until then, Tillman Hall was named the Main Building or Old Main.

At the time, Clemson's leaders knew exactly what they were doing. Not only was Tillman a former South Carolina governor and a former U.S. Senator, the one-time "officer" in the paramilitary group known as the Red Shirts spoke fondly of his murderous past, often celebrating his lead role in the slaughter of several African-American men — some militia members, others National Guardsmen — at the 1876 Hamburg Massacre. He also famously bragged about assassinating an African-American state legislator. Clearly, Tillman was proud of his role as a villain. Sadly, this knowledge did not dissuade Clemson from honoring a clearly dishonorable man in the days after the Second World War.

But over the years, Tillman's words, and more importantly, his deeds were forgotten and the reasons for the building's name disappeared. Then last year, City Paper columnist Will Moredock launched an ambitious plan to get the Tillman statue removed from Statehouse grounds in Columbia.

Not long after Moredock began causing a public stir, Clemson University began looking at the issue of whether to change the name of Tillman Hall.

For a time there it looked like it might have happened. Clemson faculty roundly supported the change and many students spoke out against the Tillman name. As the debate over the hall raged, the university found itself in the middle of campus-wide unrest following a racially offensive party by a white fraternity, a fete that was tame compared to a previous "gangsta" party that embarrassed the university in 2007. To this day, race relations on campus are at their worst in decades.

Enter the Board of Trustees.

Yesterday, the Clemson board decided that the Tillman's name would remain on the university's most prominent building. Board chairman David Wilkins — a former speaker of the S.C. House and U.S. ambassador — issued a statement, one that was both tone deaf and hypocritical.

In his statement, Wilkins wrote:
Every great institution is built by imperfect craftsmen. Stone by stone they add to the foundation so that over many, many generations, we get a variety of stones. And so it is with Clemson. Some of our historical stones are rough and even unpleasant to look at. But they are ours and denying them as part of our history does not make them any less so. For that reason, we will not change the name of our historical buildings. Part of knowledge is to know and understand history so you learn from it. Clemson is a strong, diverse university in which all of us can be proud. That is today and tomorrow's reality and that is where all our energy is focused. 
But while Wilkins insists that Clemson cannot deny its history, in particular the school's relationship with Tillman and the Tillman name, he fails to acknowledge that Clemson has done nothing to teach this history to the school population at large. While some U.S. and South Carolina classes surely touch on Tillman's reign of terror, the average Clemson student knowns little to nothing about the monster that was Pitchfork Ben. The same goes for many, if not most, alumni, who proudly display their ignorance and closeted racism on Facebook.

Despite Wilkins' claim that "part of knowledge is to know and understand history so you can learn from it," Clemson University is simply not interested in acknowledging the shameful legacy of Ben Tillman. If there was an on-campus plaque detailing the truth about Pitchfork Ben, then perhaps that would be enough. But now, because of the actions of Wilkins and the rest of the board of Trustees, Clemson now shares Tillman's shameful legacy.

Oddly enough, Wilkins was one of the state leaders who brokered the Confederate flag's removal from the Statehouse dome. In a 2013 interview, Wilkins spoke about the flag:
It is a part of our history and at the same time, it was the right thing for South Carolina to take the flag representative of a previously existing country, the Confederacy, down. We took it down from the State House, the Senate, and the dome. It was a very controversial issue and a very emotional issue. I am proud to say I led the fight to take it down, and I am proud of the actions of the General Assembly in May of 2000 when we voted to take it down. It came down July 1 in 2000.

But South Carolinians are proud of their history. They are proud of the role they played in the Revolutionary War. They are proud of their ancestors and, like it or not, the Confederacy is part of our history, and we can’t run from that. Hopefully, we can learn from it. South Carolina has made great strides over the last many years in race relations, in understanding diversity better and in promoting diversity, so I am quite proud of our state.
Just like today, Wilkins acknowledges that South Carolina cannot hide its history, that we can learn from it. However, in the case of the Confederate flag, Wilson was prepared to take action, to remove a disgraceful artifact from a place of prominence. He was prepared to drag the Palmetto State into the modern age, away from its racist past. It's just a shame that he is unwilling to do that today.

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