NPR logo A White Supremacist's Legacy Looms Over Schools In South Carolina

A White Supremacist's Legacy Looms Over Schools In South Carolina

A statue of Benjamin Tillman, a governor and proud white supremacist, stands in front of the state house in Columbia, S.C. Mary Ann Chastain/AP hide caption

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Mary Ann Chastain/AP

A statue of Benjamin Tillman, a governor and proud white supremacist, stands in front of the state house in Columbia, S.C.

Mary Ann Chastain/AP

Earlier this week, the board of trustees at Clemson University in South Carolina decided not to change the name of the school's iconic clock tower, Tillman Hall, despite protests by grad students and professors. It's named after Benjamin Tillman, who was a South Carolina governor and a senator in the late 1800s and one of Clemson's founders. Tillman also happened to be a raging, notorious white supremacist.

Even in a time when hatred of black folks was often a political asset, Tillman was something of an overachiever. He was a member of an antiblack terrorist group that operated throughout the South during Reconstruction called the Red Shirts, and often bragged from the floor of the state legislature of having seen black people die with his own eyes. Many of the Jim Crow laws across the South were modeled after Tillman's efforts in South Carolina.

It's not just folks at Clemson who are bristling at reminders of Tillman's legacy in South Carolina: there have been calls to rename a building named for him at another university and to have his statue removed from the state capitol building.

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After I wrote yesterday about how state officials in South Carolina have withheld funds from the troubled historically black South Carolina State University, our friend Chenjerai Kumanyika, who's a professor of communications at Clemson, pointed out to me that Tillman was way ahead of the game here. At one point, Tillman refused to accept any federal money for the state's universities unless he could take half of the funds meant for the state's black college, a precursor to SCSU, and divert them instead to Clemson, then an all-white military school.

In essence, Tillman was willing to deprive his beloved Clemson before he'd bolster a black institution. "Like the rest of his legacies, Clemson always came second to white supremacy," the historian Stephen Kantrowitz told Inside Higher Ed this week.