COLUMBIA — A statue of "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman should be removed from Statehouse grounds unless it includes the truth about the former governor's role in South Carolina's racist history, a legislator told a House panel on Thursday.
Rep. Todd Rutherford said he is worried that school children visiting the Statehouse will get a "whitewashed" view of the former governor whose white supremacy policies created the Jim Crow-era South.
"He was not a guy who should be beloved by most South Carolinians," the Columbia Democrat said of the state's governor from 1890 to 1894.
History would become a lot more interesting to students if they were told the truth, Rutherford said.
But Rutherford's bill is likely dead for the year. The subcommittee did not vote on it, and the panel's chairman said he doesn't support it or plan to have another meeting on it.
Tillman moved on to the U.S. Senate in 1895, unapologetically defending until his death in 1918 his post-Reconstruction tactics to restore white rule in the then-majority-black state by killing any black who tried to vote.
"The purpose of our visit was to strike terror," he said in the Senate in 1900 about the so-called Hamburg Massacre of 1876, where his militia killed black Republicans. "And the next morning when the Negroes who had fled to the swamp returned to the town the ghastly sight which met their gaze of seven dead Negroes lying stark and stiff certainly had its effect."
A group of schoolchildren reading the plaques on Tillman's statue Thursday learned he founded Winthrop and Clemson universities. "He was the friend and leader of the common people," they read aloud, while taking his picture and marking him off their educational "scavenger hunt" list. Parents acknowledged they knew nothing of Tillman's racist side.
Kim Gamble of Gilbert, who home-schools her second- and third-graders, said she wasn't surprised there was more to Tillman's tale and wants her children to learn the full context of history.
"If it represents something we don't agree in, we should take it down and put somebody more respectable in his place," she said.
After Thursday's meeting, subcommittee chairman Rep. Greg Delleney said he doesn't plan to discuss the Tillman statue again because he sees no benefit in rehashing the past.
"He was honored by the people of his time," the Chester Republican said. "I'm not going to go back and rewrite history."
But Rutherford argued the monument, dedicated in 1940, revised history.
"If Ben Tillman were still alive, he wouldn't want that statue to read the way it does. He was known for saying exactly what he thought," Rutherford said. "He was not secret about being a racist. Why are we now cleaning it up to make it politically correct?"
He plans to reintroduce the bill next year and hopes it sparks positive discussions on race in this state.
House Judiciary Chairman Jim Harrison said his colleague sponsored the bill "for all the right reasons." But he also questioned where it would lead. The Columbia Republican noted he's reading a book on President Abraham Lincoln and discovered he issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a military tactic but was actually "somewhat of a white supremacist."
"If we embark on this road, how far do we go?" Harrison asked. "Do we take this to Washington" and put a new plaque on the Lincoln Memorial?
Lonnie Randolph, president of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Tillman's racist legacy continues today, since no black has been elected to a statewide office since his 1895 constitution.
The Statehouse grounds honor a slew of "mean, cruel and evil people." If South Carolina started removing monuments from the capitol grounds that honor white supremacists, there wouldn't be any monuments, Randolph said.
"South Carolina likes to sanitize things the way no other state does," Randolph said. "The truth does hurt. People don't like to hear it."
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