When the University of South Carolina built a performing arts center in the 1980s, it essentially sold off the name to Ira and Nancy Koger, who donated $4 million of the $15 million cost.
The school did the same thing, although in a very different way, when it built a new fitness and wellness center in the late 1990s and named it for U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond. Sen. Thurmond donated only $10,000 of his own money, but the school leveraged the Thurmond name to raise money from his political supporters. And when it came time for the Legislature to vote on a $1 billion state bond bill that included $3 million for the center, the senator made phone calls to advance the cause.
The Thurmond Center, by the way, was a newer, spiffier model of the old Solomon Blatt Physical Education Center. It opened in 1972 and was named for the half-century speaker of the House and leader of what became known as the Barnwell Ring after Mr. Thurmond was elected governor in 1946, campaigning against “a small ring of cunning, conniving men” from Barnwell County. I probably don’t need to explain the purpose of naming a spiffy new building after the most powerful member of the body that appropriates all state funds.
The practice of naming things after people who give or could give their own or our money certainly isn’t limited to USC. It’s not cynical to assume that the Medical University of South Carolina considered it a smart investment to name a cancer research institute that would need federal funding after then-U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, or a biomedical research center after Mr. Thurmond.
It’s probably the cheapest and easiest way there is for government agencies to attract donations private and public.
It’s also a cheap and easy way for legislators to ingratiate themselves to donors or would-be donors, to win votes or just to pat each other on the back.
How else, besides that last category, to explain the letter that then-Sen. Robert Ford sent to fellow Charleston Sen. Glenn McConnell in 2003? “I am either the first, or second longest serving Black elected officials in the State of South Carolina,” he wrote. “I have been elected to public office since 1974 in one capacity or another. To date, I still don’t have anything named after me.
“This is my third term in the South Carolina Senate. During your terms in office, each of you have at least one object named after you, McKinley Washington, Jr., Ernie Passailaigue and also you. During Senator Authur Ravenel’s first term he had a $750 million dollar bridge named after him. ... My constituents ask me on a regular basis, ‘Why does everybody has something named for them except you?’ Therefore, I pose the same question to you.”
Mr. Ford, like at least three legislators who did have infrastructure named for them — Sens. Gene Carmichael and John Courson and Rep. B.J. Gordon — went on to be convicted on public corruption charges. I lost count of all the never-indicted legislators who had roads and bridges and boat landings named for them.
More often these days, the Legislature names infrastructure for people we’ve never heard of. This year the House voted to name another half-dozen roads after living people. If the session hadn’t been abbreviated by a global pandemic, the Senate likely would have concurred.
Not because our elected officials studied and debated and determined the state needed to honor these people. Rather, because individual legislators proposed the honors — perhaps for campaign donors, perhaps just for friends or relatives. Other legislators figured it wouldn’t hurt to go along but could hurt to object: At best, the sponsor would object to their attempts to honor their own constituents in asphalt; at worst, the sponsor could torpedo their substantive legislation.
I don’t know who decided to name Charleston’s Calhoun Street or Columbia’s Confederate Avenue or Greenville’ Wade Hampton Boulevard or all the other streets, schools, buildings, parks, counties and cities that are named for Confederates and outspoken white supremacists. Perhaps some of the decisions were quite deliberate and reflected the collective judgment of our state or communities as determined by their elected leaders.
I suspect, though, that most things have always been named as haphazardly as they are today. Clemson’s Main Building, for instance, was renamed in 1948 because a Clemson trustee was worried that his deceased father wasn’t getting enough credit as one of Clemson’s founding trustees. So like today’s legislators, he persuaded his fellow politicians to do him a favor and honor his daddy — this state’s most brutal and dangerous white supremacist, Ben Tillman.
Statues are hard. They are part of our landscape; they represent decisions by past generations not just to honor certain people but to invest time and money, sometimes painstakingly raised money, to bestow those honors. If we’re willing to be honest — which unfortunately we have refused to be so far — they can be transformed into powerful teaching tools.
Names are easy. They’re temporal things that are given and taken away and given again to someone else, frequently for reasons that have nothing to do with public sentiment or even the deliberate judgment of our elected officials.
Certainly we’d be wise to remember that a political culture that strips off the names of slave owners today could easily be replaced by one that strips away the names of African American leaders tomorrow. And it’s probably not a good idea to change road names that force people to spend their money accommodating a new address or cause confusion because the names are so well-known.
But there’s no legitimate reason for the Legislature to tell cities and counties they can’t change the names on their property just as freely as the Legislature always has done.