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'The Strom' center, 15 other USC building names proposed for possible removal

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Racial Injustice-South Carolina (copy)

A sign advertises the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center in Columbia. Some of the University of South Carolina's most prominent recent athletes are calling for the renaming of the $38.6 million complex, arguing that its namesake shouldn't be glorified for his segregationist views. File/Meg Kinnard/AP

COLUMBIA — Former U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond was among 16 names proposed for possible removal from University of South Carolina buildings by a special panel examining historical figures' racially insensitive records.

The names were listed in an interim report given Feb. 26 by the Presidential Commission on University History, co-chaired by former USC President Harris Pastides.

The buildings were singled out for possible renaming from more than 70 named buildings, rooms, monuments and grounds at the university identified by the commission. They were prioritized based on "student, faculty and community input," the interim report read.

Other buildings on the list have namesakes who were slave owners, Confederate Civil War figures and segregationists.

The buildings listed include: Barnwell College, Blatt PE Center, Gressette Room in Harper College, Hollings Library, Longstreet Theater, Maxcy College, McMaster College, Preston Residential College, Robert E. Lee Tree and Woodrow College.

Gov. Henry McMaster's office did not have an answer immediately Feb. 26 if he was related to Confederate Col. F.W. McMaster, namesake for the home of USC's School of Visual Art and Design.

Other notable buildings under consideration included USC's admissions office, library and student apartments named after slave owners — Francis Lieber, Thomas Cooper and James Henley Thornwell — as well as two dorms — one named for J. Marion Sims, who performed surgery on enslaved women, and another for Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan sympathizer Wade Hampton.

Each of the names will be reviewed by a subcommittee of the Presidential Commission on University History before going to the full commission. The commission will send any recommended name changes to President Bob Caslen and the Board of Trustees. Names approved for proposed removal by trustees go to the state Legislature, which has the final say.

The wellness and recreation center known around campus as "The Strom" has garnered much of the attention to date.

USC's board has been hesitant when it comes to Thurmond, a 20th century politician who started his career as a segregationist.

USC Board Chairman Dorn Smith, who is not on the commission, said Feb. 26 the board will wait to see what names are brought to trustees.

He told The Post and Courier previously he does not know how trustees will vote if the Thurmond fitness center is included in the committee's list for a new name. But the Williamsburg County heart surgeon said everyone has sinned, and there should be room for reconciliation and forgiveness.

Thurmond's longtime fellow senator, Ernest Hollings, is included among the names under review. Hollings was governor as the state's fight for segregation escalated in the early 1960s. Hollings' name was included "based on community feedback the commission has received," USC spokesman Jeff Stensland said.

The special history commission was established soon after Caslen started at USC in 2019 "to study and better understand the histories of the people whose names adorn our buildings, and — more broadly — to capture the voices and contributions of forgotten, excluded, or marginalized groups and individuals who positively contributed to the establishment, maintenance, and growth of our university.”

Even if the USC board approves any recommendations from the history panel, building names cannot be changed without approval from the General Assembly under state law. South Carolina's Heritage Act requires a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate to rename historical monuments, streets and buildings. 

If the board approves a name change, the building can only get a new name if approved by the Legislature. Trustees asked lawmakers in 2020 to remove Sims' from the dorm, but no action has been taken in the General Assembly.

"I don't mean to diminish the value of the commission or diminish the amount of work we’ve done but frankly it is advisory," Pastides told The Post and Courier on Feb 26. "The real work begins after the commission’s work and recommendations are given."

Lawmakers last had to overcome the requirements of the Heritage Act to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds after the racially motivated 2015 Emanuel AME Church massacre in Charleston.

Clemson University and Winthrop University joined USC in agreeing to ask the Legislature to change the name of a building on campus in 2020, but the efforts have gone nowhere because no bills have been introduced in the General Assembly. Clemson and Winthrop trustees voted to remove the name of Ben Tillman from campus buildings. Tillman, a former governor and senator, was an avowed post-Civil War white supremacist.

In addition to the renaming of buildings, USC's special commission also reported on its efforts to highlight the accomplishments of minority figures on campus, from developing walking tours highlighting aspects of Black History to consideration of a plaza commemorating the contribution of Black sororities and fraternities to the school.

While the commission has drawn criticism, including from some of its own student members, for drawing out the process, Pastides said he is hopeful this interim report will highlight the amount of work going into the effort — including four community forums to garner feedback and conversations with other universities that have gone through a similar movement.

Andy Shain contributed from Columbia.

Editors note: Information was added to this story related to former Sen. Ernest Hollings.

Reach Jessica Holdman at jholdman@postandcourier.com. Follow her @jmholdman on Twitter.

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