CLEMSON, S.C. — In four years at Clemson University, the rotting bananas hanging from an African-American history banner on campus weren’t the most racially offensive thing biology major Brendan Standifer has seen. They were just the latest.
Standifer said a quiet racial schism runs through the campus.
“The only time you see true unity is on game day,” he said of the university’s football team which made it to the national championship game in January, but lost.
Standifer, who is black, joined a few dozen other students Monday on the steps of Sikes Hall, Clemson’s administrative building, for the sixth day of a protest demanding more diversity at South Carolina’s second largest university. The protest was still underway Wednesday.
Just 6 percent of Clemson students are black in a state where nearly a third of the people are African-American. None of South Carolina’s 13 public four-year colleges and universities has a smaller percentage of black students, and Clemson’s African-American enrollment is behind most major Southern universities. The University of Mississippi is 13 percent black. University of South Carolina students are 10 percent African-American, while Auburn University, founded in circumstances to Clemson by agricultural interests unhappy with their state’s flagship university, has 7 percent black enrollment.
The sit-in started April 13 with a march from Fort Hill — a plantation built by slaves that would become the core of Clemson’s campus — to protest of the incident with the bananas.
Five students were cited for trespassing two days later when they refused to exit Sikes Hall. They moved the sit-in outdoors, camping in tents. Several football players came by the protest over the weekend to support the (hash)SikesSitIn.
Standifer said he’s never felt in danger on campus because of his race. But he quickly rattles off a list of disturbing incidents beginning with regular doses of racism from Yik Yak, a social media site that lets users post anonymous messages. Not long after the sit-in started, someone posted this on Yik Yak: “So have they started lynching protesters yet?”
In December 2014, a fraternity held a “Cripmas” party where white members dressed up like stereotypical 1980s black gang members, and last year a Confederate flag was raised on a pole outside Tillman Hall.
“We go through classes, we see each other on a daily basis, we exchange smiles thinking we are all treating one another as equals. But to see the post on Yik Yak talking about lynchings — to me it is just ignorant,” Standifer said.
Clemson insists it’s aware of the problem. Clemson President Jim Clements made addressing it a priority when he started in 2014. This year he appointed a chief diversity officer , who started work Monday.
The university is expanding its approach to African-American history. New committees are looking at ways to attract more African-American students and faculty, and Clemson is giving more money in scholarships for minorities and to recruit minority faculty.
“Overall, these conversations have been thoughtful, have been honest and have been candid. Although progress is not being made fast enough for some, I will say progress is indeed being made,” said Clemson chief of staff Max Allen, who was hired in June. Allen is African-American.
But diversity problems, big and small, persist at Clemson, which became the first university in the state to integrate when Harvey Gantt enrolled in 1963.
Towering over it all — both literally and figuratively — is Tillman Hall and its clock and bell tower. One of the campus’ first buildings after Clemson’s 1883 founding, it’s named for former South Carolina Gov. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman.
He helped establish Clemson, but he also whipped up a white mob that killed black Republicans in 1876 as part of voter intimidation for an election that ended Reconstruction. Tillman, who went on to serve in the U.S. Senate, bragged about it for the rest of his career.
Tillman’s name and legacy offend numerous students of both races. Clemson’s Board of Trustees last July called Tillman “repugnant” and “an ardent racist” who “led a campaign of terror against African-Americans.”
But to take Tillman’s name off the building would require two-thirds approval from the Legislature under state law. Legislative leaders have said they don’t plan to approve changing anything beyond the Confederate flag, which was removed from the Statehouse last year, and Clemson has not pushed them.
One of the sit-in organizers, A.D. Carson, said the university displayed its tone-deaf handling of race when it tried to honor the black Charleston churchgoers killed in 2015 in what police said was a racially motivated attack. Dylann Roof, a young white man who posed for pictures with the Confederate flag, is charged in the case. The university placed nine wreaths commemorating the victims in a spot where Tillman Hall could be seen in the background.
“I believe Dylann Roof would have been a Tillman supporter,” said Carson who created a website two years ago to call for more diversity on campus, He called it See The Stripes because Clemson’s tiger mascot wouldn’t be a tiger without both orange and black stripes.
Clements stopped by the protest over the weekend, and student organizers met with top administrators at the school Monday.
In a campus-wide email Tuesday, he said, “The conversation was thoughtful, honest and candid and I believe that progress was made.”
Some students, however, they said the university is still doing more talking than acting on diversity.
“Clemson University tries to hide things and pretend like they never, ever happened or don’t exist. So instead of saying it was bananas on an African-American flag, they say a banner was defaced on campus. You are denying the fact it was racist at all,” said Rae-Nessha White, a junior political science major from Charleston who was arrested during the protest.
About a football field away from the protest Monday, 100 or so prospective students and their parents toured the campus. As they passed the tents outside Sikes Hall, there wasn’t a black face in the crowd.