Skip to content

Killing Tillman – Part One: The College Years

Note: This is the first of two articles about Ben Tillman’s imprint on South Carolina. Let no one mistake these articles as a defense of his views on race. My purpose is to show the progression of a populist reformer to a demagogue and how his legacy is not his name on Tillman Hall but in the structure of his 1896 state constitution and its deliberate inefficiencies that we labor under to this day. For the historical details contained herein, I am in debt to The Conservative Regime, South Carolina 1877 – 1890 by William J. Cooper, Jr., LSU Press, 1968.

Tillman Hall, the Clemson version not the Winthrop version, was built in 1893 and remains one of the school’s few original buildings in use. Constructed from patterned red brick atop a granite base, the impressive multistoried façade and prominent clock tower projects a sense of aged wisdom as only an old college building can.

Resting at the top of Bowman Field, students can see how the Hall’s Romanesque style contrasts sharply with the more economical Soviet styled buildings surrounding it. Originally called the Main Building, it was renamed Tillman Hall in 1946.

Over the past several weeks, Clemson University’s Graduate Student Senate and Faculty Senate have passed resolutions demanding that the school change the name of Tillman Hall. Newspapers across the state have called for serious discussion of the issue. Even the Rev. Jesse Jackson showed up to join the chorus but did not show us the money for the renaming rights.

All want old “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman scrubbed from Clemson University’s visual history due to his racist segregationist policies as Governor and U. S. Senator. In our post-modern, yet historically immature America, these attempts at obscuring or recasting our history will only increase, especially in the South. Imagine if these attempts were made in Great Britain, where historically significant buildings are on every corner bearing names of some past tyrannical royal figure. What a buzzkill to their tourism industry that would be.

Historical integrity does not concern those driven by mission statements. James McCubbin, Vice-President of the Faculty Senate and Professor of Psychology, was quoted in The Tiger as saying, “What we’ve done is made a statement that we feel that Tillman Hall has a negative impact on our mission success and in the name of developing a campus climate of inclusion and diversity, we have recommended that the faculty consider renaming.”

He went on to say, “Some people fear the slippery slope [of renaming buildings] — we start with Tillman, and where do we end? The slippery slope is a logical fallacy, and we feel that the deeds of Benjamin Tillman — while he has an important and valuable role in Clemson– we feel that his words and deeds in the disenfranchisement of a significant part of the population of South Carolina has an ongoing negative impact on the mission success of Clemson University.”

What was Tillman’s “important and valuable role in Clemson” that was significant enough to be termed “valuable” but not significant enough to bear his name? Has he attained the status of Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter books as “he who must not be named?”

Simply put, Tillman drove the passage of the Clemson College Act of 1889 that established the school as an agricultural college. He accomplished this act, not as an elected official, but as the leader of the Farmer’s Association who had been pushing for agricultural reforms since 1886.

At that time, agriculture remained South Carolina’s only major industry of note and was still mired in ante-bellum methods but without the enslaved labor force. Poverty was widespread and the farmers believed that an agricultural college devoted to research would help them diversify crop options and eventually bring some level of prosperity back to the state. The college became their main reform demand.

Looking back, we would think that establishing Clemson College would have been easy. Thomas P. Clemson had bequeathed the land and money to establish it as a state college. The remaining step was approval of the General Assembly – that great reform-killing machine in Columbia.

In 1886, the Legislature was controlled by a group of former Confederate officers and planters who had been instrumental in running out the Carpetbaggers. The “Bourbons” as they were sometimes called, not after the whiskey they surely drank but the French aristocrats whom Napoleon accused of never forgetting or learning from the past, attempted to re-establish some of the stability associated with pre-war South Carolina. They also supported extending public education, even among former slaves, and recruited northern textile manufacturers.

Though the Bourbons ranks included planters, they ignored the plight of the small farmers. By 1885, South Carolina farmers were measuredly poorer than they had been in 1870. These conditions gave fertile ground to Tillman when he gave his famous speech in Bennettsville on August 6, 1885. Along with accusing the Legislature of being responsible for the farmers “current descent into Hell,” he also had few kind words for the farmers who currently served as members of the Legislature.

Of them he observed, “He enters the State House as a farmer; he emerges from it in one session a politician. He went there to do something for the people. After breathing the polluted atmosphere for thirty days he returned home intent on doing something for himself. The contact with General This and Judge That and Colonel Something Else, who have shaken him by the hand and made much of him, has debauched him. He likes this being a somebody; and his first resolution, offered and passed in his own mind, is that he will remain something if he can.” Sound familiar? Some things never change in South Carolina politics.

Tillman’s speech started a conflict that flared in the Legislature for the next four years. He accused the state government of “extravagance” or what we would call “growing government.” His reformers challenged the increased salaries of state officials including the Governor, Lt. Governor, legislators and judges. They exposed the ineffectiveness of the Agriculture Bureau. They accused South Carolina College and The Citadel of monopolizing higher education in the state.

Though the Bourbons made concessions, they could never get in front of Tillman’s criticisms. With the establishment of Clemson College in 1889, Tillman achieved a highly visible and much applauded victory. The stage was set for his march to the Governor’s mansion in the election of 1890 and the subsequent constitutional convention that would usher in an age of pernicious and state-mandated racism.

Maybe Tillman’s detractors are correct and we should rename Tillman Hall as “You Know Who” Hall. Or better yet, sell the naming rights to Duke Energy – after they clear up that criminal coal-ash dumping problem. Or find some other corporation that’s not plagued with greed and corruption who could purchase the naming rights before the next market crash. Replacing history with consumerism seems to have become the American Way of showing what we now value.

Before we go that far, we could just acknowledge that Tillman’s fight to expand access to a college education, for farmers at Clemson and women at Winthrop, started a process that created a statewide university system that now benefits all South Carolina students. He started out as a significant reformer, as many demagogues do.

Coming next: Tillman codifies South Carolina’s original sin. Not slavery – that was our British inheritance – but segregation, a system that violated many South Carolinians belief in a just society of Christian charity, personal friendships and good manners and subjected a large portion of our citizens to daily humiliations, missed opportunity and denied justice.