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Reconsidering Ben

With protests sparking debate, could Tillman's statue come down at SC Statehouse?

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Democratic candidates jockeying for the 2020 presidential nomination and residents of Columbia march and rally at the Statehouse on the annual King Day at the Dome event honoring the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Jan. 20. Photo by Thomas Hammond

He stands there, watching over it all.

As he has since 1940, the statue of the late former South Carolina Governor and U.S. Sen. Benjamin Tillman presides over a prominent spot on the north lawn of the South Carolina Statehouse.

It’s a monument to a man who was an avowed white supremacist who worked tirelessly to deny African Americans access to the ballot box and, as noted by Historic Columbia, once bragged that he “shot negroes and stuffed ballot boxes” in the racially charged 1876 Hamburg Massacre.

In his 1975 book Strain of Violence: Historic Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism, late noted author and historian Richard Maxwell Brown called Tillman simply, “the best-known and most vitriolic Negrophobe in America.”

Despite these ugly facts, Tillman stands in one of the most prominent spots on the grounds. Other than the South Carolina Monument to the Confederate Dead, which sits directly in the center of the field of view of the Statehouse, there is perhaps no monument on the grounds that is more visible from busy Gervais Street than Tillman’s.

Which means that, in recent weeks, old Ben’s likeness has witnessed scenes that would have infuriated the actual man.

The grounds in front of the statue have often been crowded, as collective thousands of people have shown up for protests and rallies against racial injustice and police brutality following the death of George Floyd, an African American man who was killed after a white police officer in Minnesota kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes.

The racially diverse protesters on the Statehouse grounds have made speeches, delivered police reform demands to state lawmakers, sang “Amazing Grace,” hoisted countless signs and posters that hammered home the message that Black Lives Matter, and have generally stood firm in a moment of solidarity against decades of police violence and systemic racism.

All the while the former governor has stood there looking east, almost as if he is overseeing all that happens in the courtyard in front of the capitol — even the protests where mostly young activists have passionately demanded that government turn the page on long-standing racial inequalities.

Certainly, Tillman is not the only person enshrined on the Statehouse grounds with a troubling history as it regards race.

Late former governor and U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, who has a statue on the south side of the complex, was a segregationist. J. Marion Sims, who has a monument on the northwest corner of the Statehouse complex, was a pioneer in gynecology who is reported to have conducted experiments on enslaved women without anesthesia — Steve Benjamin, Columbia’s first African American mayor, has long called for the Sims Statehouse monument to come down. (A statue of Sims in New York’s Central Park was removed in 2018.)

Even the statue of first President George Washington at the base of the Statehouse steps has tendrils that extend into America’s dark history with race, as Washington was a slaveholder.

But Tillman’s particular brand of incendiary racism — as just one more example, a biography of him on Clemson University’s website notes that Tillman “often defended lynching in his public statements, once saying that in certain circumstances he would be willing to lead a lynch mob himself” — has now cast a renewed light on whether a monument to him should continue to stand on Statehouse grounds.

At least one lawmaker believes it should not. State Rep. Seth Rose, a Columbia Democrat, says he thinks the Tillman statue should come down, and he’s willing to file legislation in an effort to make it happen. Rose tells Free Times the backdrop of the recent protests has made the presence of a shrine to Tillman particularly galling.

“What I cannot not turn a blind eye to, for me, walking into the Statehouse and passing a man who openly stood for racial injustice and took great pride in punishing African Americans, for him to have a place of honor on our Statehouse grounds, and for me to see protesters peacefully assembling about racial injustice and have a man like ‘Pitchfork’ Ben Tillman looking down over a square in which they are assembling, is repulsive to me,” Rose says.

Of course, how the statue might be removed is fraught with uncertainty. It has long been presumed to be protected under the state’s Heritage Act — part of a compromise that resulted in the Confederate flag being removed from the Statehouse dome in 2000 — which prohibits the removal or altering of historic monuments without two-thirds support in both chambers of the Legislature.

Though Rose, an attorney, argues the Tillman statue wouldn’t technically be protected under that act, any legislation that would seek to remove it would likely need robust support in the Republican-controlled Legislature, and previous moves to take down Tillman have failed.

But if there has ever been a moment when there was perhaps the slightest crack in the door in regard to taking down the Tillman memorial, this might be it. Across the country, various governments and institutions are making changes to monuments and other pieces of iconography with troublesome ties to race.

For instance, in Virginia, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has committed to removing a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond. The University of Alabama is removing several Confederate plaques on its Tuscaloosa campus. And changes have hit the sports and cultural world, too. NASCAR announced the display of the Confederate flag would be banned at its events, and country band Lady Antebellum says it will now simply go by Lady A, (sort of) dropping the reference to the mansions that have long been associated with slavery days.

Locally, there is a change.org petition — one with more than 12,000 signatures as of June 13 — to rename the Strom Thurmond Wellness Center on the University of South Carolina campus. And, on June 12, Benjamin ordered city staff to temporarily remove a statue of Christopher Columbus from Riverfront Park after it was vandalized multiple times recently.

Meanwhile, a change.org petition in support of removing the Tillman memorial, as well as several other monuments, from the Statehouse had garnered more than 8,400 signatures as of June 13.

Plus, Rose and other critics of the Tillman statue might have get an indirect boost from Clemson University. The college’s board recently asked lawmakers to remove the white supremacist’s name from Clemson’s most prominent campus building. In addition, students and alumni at Winthrop University have started a petition to the rename the Rock Hill school’s Tillman Hall.

As protests in the South and nationwide bring forth a reckoning with racism that has been a long time coming, now is a time when monuments are, as much as ever, being reconsidered.

Could it be enough to finally knock Tillman from his prominent perch?

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Demonstrators gather in front of the South Carolina Monument to the Confederate Dead on the Statehouse grounds. Photo by Thomas Hammond

Context is Key

Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, the plaques and inscriptions on the Tillman statue in front of the Statehouse make no mention of his shooting black people or stuffing ballot boxes or supporting lynch mobs.

Rather, the words describe Tillman — who was governor from 1890 to 1894 and a U.S. senator from 1895 to 1918 — as “the friend and leader of the common people,” one who “taught them their political power and made possible for the education of their sons and daughters.” It describes him as a “patriot” and a “statesman.”

But while the monument itself doesn’t make mention of Tillman’s philosophies and guiding principles related to race, historians say the circumstances surrounding the timing of the statue’s placement show some clear clues.

Lydia Brandt is an associate professor of art and architectural history at the University of South Carolina, and the author of the book First in the Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the American Imagination. She Is writing an extensive guidebook to the monuments at the Statehouse, which is set to be published by the USC Press next spring.

Brandt also was a key curator of a series of Statehouse tours in the last year, sponsored by Historic Columbia, which offered greater context of each monument on the Statehouse grounds. A virtual version of that tour remains available on Historic Columbia’s website.

The historian notes the campaign to build a statue in memory of Tillman began in the 1920s, several years after his 1918 death. Gov. John Gardiner Richards spearheaded a commission to establish the monument. When the statue was eventually unveiled in 1940, it came at a time when there were rumblings against the Jim Crow laws and racial discrimination in which Tillman was instrumental.

“If you think about the moment that it was unveiled, it was the moment that the South Carolina NAACP is starting to form, it’s when African Americans in South Carolina are starting to push back publicly against Jim Crow, and it’s when the federal government is beginning to push back against Jim Crow,” Brandt tells Free Times.

“So, by erecting a statue of Ben Tillman, the man who really solidified not only the ideology of white supremacy, but also the laws that would lay the groundwork for Jim Crow in the 1895 [state] Constitution, they are celebrating all of that, and building that monument as an affront to the rise of black power.”

Robin Waites, the executive director of Historic Columbia, notes the organization’s efforts to provide context for all of the various monuments on the Statehouse grounds, and to spark discussions in the community about any changes they’d like to see in regard to the statues.

She understands why Tillman has moved to the front of the line among monuments being discussed for possible removal.

“When we understand the history of Ben Tillman, what he stood for and what his actions were, he is firmly entrenched as an avowed white supremacist in South Carolina and in the country, for that matter,” Waites says. “That is not a position we espouse to be of value. It’s divisive. … But, as an organization, we are committed to telling an inclusive story, a complete story and an authentic one that sheds a light on our past.

“This is a monument that, if there was one on the Statehouse grounds that was going to be removed, this would be number one on the list to do.”

It would certainly be on S.C. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford’s list. Rutherford, an African American Columbia Democrat, filed legislation more than a decade ago in an effort to get the Tillman monument removed, though the effort failed.

He tells Free Times he still thinks it should come down.

But he also wonders why the plaques that adorn the Tillman statue don’t offer a look at his stance on race.

“He called and openly advocated for the killing of black people,” Rutherford says. “What I have never understood is, with someone who lived so out loud, why if they were going to put his statue up, why they didn’t pay homage to how he lived. Why didn’t they put his speeches up there, about lynching negroes and killing negroes and stopping negroes from voting? Put that up there, so people can understand that evil truly exists.

“Now, it should come down. But, if it’s not, at least tell the truth about someone that would have shuddered to think that all of his messages about killing black people died with him.”

Rutherford goes a step further, adding that he thinks Tillman Hall — a prominent building on the campus of Clemson University, which Tillman was key in establishing as an agricultural and mechanical school in the late 19th century — also should have its name changed.

A couple days after the state representative’s conversation with Free Times, Clemson’s board of trustees moved to do just that, approving a resolution requesting authority from the state General Assembly to change Tillman Hall’s name to “Main Building,” which is what it was originally called. Leading lawmakers — including state Senate President Harvey Peeler and House Speaker Jay Lucas — did not respond to recent requests for comment from The Post and Courier regarding possibly renaming Tillman Hall.

The trustees also approved changing the name of the Calhoun Honors College — named after the slavery-defending former U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun whose Fort Hill plantation became the land on which Clemson was founded — to the “Clemson University Honors College.”

“I know that not a single black child who plays football should consider going to Clemson University,” Rutherford says, referencing the Tillman Hall debate. “Not one. Not as long as they still have a building named after that man. You can’t affect where you happen to be born, because you are born there. But you can change where you choose to go to school.”

Rose has suggested perhaps placing the Tillman statue in a museum or at another site that is less public than the Statehouse grounds.

On a recent afternoon, Columbia resident Charles Beckett, walking the Statehouse grounds on a break from his job at a nearby office tower, tells Free Times he’d be in favor of removal of the statue, and thinks a museum might be a good place for it. He says he has long been troubled by Tillman’s history

“I really would like to see the monument down, out of public eyesight,” says Beckett, an African American man. “If people wanted to learn more about him or read about him and go see the statue, I think it would be best for them to put it in a museum. Put it in a museum, with those statues and those philosophies.”

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Stephen Johnson of Columbia stands by the monument to Benjamin Tillman during the Public Defenders March for Black Lives on June 8. Photo by Thomas Hammond

How Might Tillman Come Down?

Though there might be renewed talk of taking down the Tillman Statehouse statue, how or if that is accomplished remains uncertain.

For his part, Rose is questioning whether the Heritage Act would apply to Tillman.

The section in the act regarding monuments and memorials reads, in part, as follows: “No Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, War Between the States, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War, Native American, or African-American History monuments or memorials erected on public property of the state or any of its political subdivisions may be relocated, removed, disturbed, or altered. No street, bridge, structure, park, preserve, reserve, or other public area of the state or any of its political subdivisions dedicated in memory of or named for any historic figure or historic event may be renamed or rededicated.”

A monument that is protected under that act needs a two-thirds approval from both chambers of the General Assembly to be removed or altered.

Rose says Tillman doesn’t have any history with the wars listed in the act, though, as noted on the monument at the Statehouse, he did chair a U.S. Senate committee on naval affairs.

“He was not a Confederate soldier,” Rose says. “The statue itself states nothing about him being a Confederate soldier, of any sort. It doesn’t mention anything about the Confederacy. I just don’t believe it applies.”

Meanwhile, spokesman Brian Symmes says Republican Gov. Henry McMaster believes that the Heritage Act provides a “good framework” on how to deal with the removal of monuments.

“It protects historical monuments, but it also allows South Carolinians to voice their concerns through robust and important debate through their elected officials in a public way, which is how these decisions need to be made,” Symmes says. “It’s worked in the past, and the governor believes that that sort of public dialogue, where all voices on either side of the issue are heard, is important. He thinks that it needs to be prioritized in future decisions like [the Tillman monument], just like it has been in the past.”

The most well-known Heritage Act debate to this point was over the Confederate Flag in 2015. That was the year the flag was finally removed completely from the Statehouse grounds. The Legislature approved the removal of that flag from the Statehouse lawn after white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine parishioners at historically black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, including state Sen. Clementa Pinckney.

Rose tells Free Times he plans to file legislation regarding Tillman as soon as possible, but realizes that realistically might not be until the pre-filing period in December ahead of next January’s legislative session. Lawmakers are returning to Columbia later this month, but there are limitations one what they can take up at that point.

Rutherford, the House Minority Leader, admits he’s unsure if there will be momentum for a Tillman removal measure when the new year rolls around.

“When something happens between June and December, is it going to last [as a hot topic] until we get back into session?” he speculates. “The answer is, ‘I don’t know.’”

And there hasn’t been widespread indication that Republican lawmakers are ready to have the debate. Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, an Edgefield Republican, told The State that he wouldn’t support the removal of the monument, even though he calls Tillman “one of the most evil S.O.B.’s that ever lived.”

“It’s a reminder of where this state has been, and part of my charge is to make sure that we don’t go back there,” Massey told The State.

Rose says he thinks that many of his colleagues, in their hearts, believe that the Tillman statue should be gone. But he’s admittedly not sure they’re ready to take action.

“I believe there is two-thirds of the Legislature that agrees with the premise that ‘Pitchfork’ Ben Tillman should not be honored on our Statehouse grounds,” Rose says. “But I don’t know if there is two-thirds of our state Legislature that has the guts to vote and take a stand to do something about it.”

For Brandt, the historian and author who has led contextualizing tours of the Statehouse grounds, the continued debate over the Tillman monument shows that the past might not be as long ago as it may seem on the surface. In a moment of civil unrest and debate about racial injustice in America, discourse about the firebrand former governor seems as timely as ever.

“It proves that these monuments continue to be powerful, and that, for many people, these monuments are not history,” Brandt says. “They are right now. They speak to people right now. So, that, to me, shows that the monuments are still alive, and potentially really problematic.”

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