Tillman Hall

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To defend a racist is itself indefensible, regardless of other merits.  To be baited by memes and "social media" into defending a racist is worse.  And there are enough legitimate points to be made that it's easy to be drawn into them.  And that's just what the masses are excellent at provoking.  Per the old saying, “Don’t wrestle with a pig.  You’ll both get muddy but the pig likes it.” And, as much as you think the other party is the pig, they think the same as you.  

Tillman Hall, as a student at Clemson University in the 1980’s, was simply Tillman Hall.  I never had a class there, rarely set foot inside of it, and had no consideration of it other than it was the postcard building for the campus. It was built in 1893, one of three buildings from the original campus, with a design comparable to buildings at Auburn, Ga Tech and other schools that began in that era.  In my era, it was where girls went for their “MRS degree,” aka the Education building. Hey, it was funny then, and it’s funny now.  Good start, me.  Racism as a topic in the first paragraph and a sexist comment in the second.  How easy it is to offend.

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When it comes to other campus building names, I have only vague recollections of prior professors, statesmen or philanthropists who contributed in some way to the school.  Tillman Hall is named after Ben Tillman, a former South Carolina governor.  If I knew that back then, I’d think “Whatever. That makes sense.”  If I learned that as Governor, Tillman supported the founding of Clemson College in recognition of the need for agricultural training in the State, I’d say “Sure. That follows.”   If I knew that this forward thinking Democrat was a, well, let the words provided a week ago by an anonymous vandal speak:

Am I surprised? By the graffiti on a campus building, absolutely.  That he was a violent racist?  Yes.  That he was a racist?  Not so much.  The internet wasn’t around back then, I didn’t recall any mention of Tillman in my South Carolina history classes, and… it was just a name for a campus building.  He could have been one of the first professors.  It didn’t matter.   

That was then; this is now.  In context of the era in which Tillman mattered - post Civil War and into the early 20th century - does it surprise me that a southerner would be a racist?  Not really, but neither would I assume that all southerners were.  Would I be shocked that a racist would rise to be governor of the State?  Nope.  Or that he achieved enough wealth and influence to help launch the school I attended?  No, not surprised.  And, frankly, not interested.   I wasn’t here over a century ago.  It’s wasn’t relevant to me when I was at the school and, perhaps to the point, it hasn't weighed on me until now.   

Earlier this year, the Faculty Senate voted overwhelmingly to encourage a name change for Tillman Hall, in light of his past.  Here’s a glimpse of why afrom Mr. Tillman:

“We have done our level best to prevent blacks from voting… we have scratched our heads to find out how we can eliminate the last one of them.  We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.”  

Mentioned in the graffiti above, Coker was a black State Senator investigating violence against blacks in 1876, and Tillman seems to have presided over the killing.  Senator Pinckney, just several weeks ago, was killed in Charleston at a church service by a crazed racist.  These acts today revive lingering wounds from any time, any generation, and any degree of offense resulting in demands for "change."     

Is it a big deal to rename a building on a public campus?  Aside from the din from the activists on either side?   South Carolina makes that somewhat problematic in that the State government has to approve a name change.  Tillman Hall’s original name was the Main Building.  That’s kind of pedestrian, and in the mid-1940’s, just one of a number of decades yielding Jim Crow segregationist laws, the SC government voted to change the building's name to honor Tillman as well as a bronze statue on the State Capitol grounds, essentially doubling down on the most distasteful period of history in the State.  For those who recall George Wallace, Tillman never embraced an enlightened viewpoint, as Wallace eventually did, and his governance set in place racist policies for decades that followed. 

In sum, he’s not someone I would want associated with Clemson as as he doesn't represent me or the character of the people I studied under or with... or to my knowledge, in the decades since.  Until the past year or so, it seems, Tillman’s sins were irrelevant if not completely absent from the consciousness at large.  But it's clearly there for those who seek it out.  And some have.  

I see two sides to the argument. 

1) Changing tides of morality – should persons be judged in hindsight, outside of the culture of their times, and be held accountable for moral failures?   Maybe it depends?  How immoral was a person?  What scale do we use?  What were the scope of the offenses?  How inflammatory are those offenses in the current culture?     

2) Historical -  Should history be rewritten, generally speaking, by casting from public sight and discourse those who embody traits or activities which are against current societal values?  Should good works or contributions be swept aside in favor of some undefined number of people who are offended by that person?   With the weight of instant mass media and an evolving social narrative, should names and statues suffer the fate of other gods by a just but intolerant nouveaux Taliban?  Should they remain, and teach and offend, or should they be removed and forgotten?  Can a society that is as permissive in pleasures as they are intolerant of offenses be trusted with the tailoring of history for future generations?

My first reaction in the Tillman renaming debate was applause to the response by the Chairman of Clemson’s Board of Directors, David Wilkens, addressing the Faculty Senate’s request thusly:

“Every great institution is built by imperfect craftsmen," he said. "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," Wilkins said. "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's and tomorrow's reality and that is where all our energy is focused."

It’s history.  Get over it!  As Clemson’s TV commercials go, “The Paw says it all.”  Yet, while I think his is response is well reasoned, I haven't been judged or discriminated against.  I can't speak to why people today are offended by remnants of a bygone era.  But I'm beginning to understand, and the graffiti, which stuns me for having happened in an environment like Clemson, makes one reevaluate Wilkins' response... enough to do the research rather than trust, well, the headlines and others' opinions. 

So, I start with an observation.  When it comes to racism, it’s open season on historical personages to find relevance for grievances that people hold today.  Understanding those grievances is difficult objectively looking at modern society and its evolution since Tillman's day.  Still, they exist, and with Tillman, those pointing to public memorials of racists found the jackpot.  Until his history resurfaced, he seemed irrelevant.  Still, it shouldn't be too hard to comprehend how people would be offended when symbols of gross hate or injustice are not only allowed but bestowed a measure of prominence.  Yet, the uptake is slow.  More helpful is an example.  I wouldn’t expect Jews to attend any educational institution named after Hitler (or his generals or other German heroes of the era) or visit a facility prominently featuring his statue.  Got it.  

So, by all means, change the name.  In the context of what has come to light, Tillman is not worth the aggravation.  If defending southern pride means holding to racist views, then count me out.  Recent reports indicate that the Board of Trustees is reconsidering the issue.  With Clemson’s academic rankings and national status on the rise but in the light of national publicity on the issue, they really have no choice.  It’s their job to protect the institution.  And, if they do not, there will be a reckoning as  the social narrative of the 21st century insists that new symbolic gestures displace discredited symbolic gestures.   For now, that seems to define a prominent expectation for measurable societal progress.  And after the symbolic gestures are done, one has to wonder how hearts will actually change.  If they don't, degrees of anarchy will result from either or both sides of righteous intolerance. 

Despite the backdrop of the Civil War, racism is not a Southern issue or even an American issue.  It’s part of the human condition and is observed around the world.  But, for now, I’d rather the battleground move away from Clemson, away from South Carolina and away from the South.  Let California enjoy the attention for a while, or Wisconsin, or…  Maine.  They hate someone there, surely?   

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