The protest began with a number: 715 victims of police violence in 2016.
The movement intensified with a building: Winthrop University’s Tillman Hall.
Around 70 students and faculty participated in a lively, exuberant and peaceful march on campus Wednesday to raise support for renaming the school’s administration building, which protesters say represents a man who espoused racist ideals.
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The group, made up primarily of members from four different student organizations, marched and chanted from Winthrop’s DiGiorgio Campus Center to Tillman Hall, where they staged a five-hour sit-in that included passionate speeches, high emotion and a letter-writing campaign.
“Ben Tillman is rolling in his grave,” said Candace Livingston, with the Winthrop chapter of the NAACP. “We won’t stop until (police) stop shooting innocent black lives.”
The protesters said the building’s name promotes a racist legacy. They want it changed to reflect the diversity on campus. Some students and faculty called for changing the name of the building to Main Building – its name before 1962.
Winthrop has one of the most diverse student bodies among state universities, where almost a third of the undergraduates are black and some two-fifths of students identify as non-white.
Tillman, who was South Carolina’s governor in the early 1890s and a U.S. senator until his death in 1918, was instrumental in both founding Clemson University and establishing Winthrop College as a teaching school for women. But he was also famous for his violent rhetoric against the state’s black population as a supporter of lynch mobs.
“It’s a symbol of hatred, prejudice and white supremacy,” said Samantha Valdez, a graduate student with the Student Socialists Union. “For us to keep up our diversity on campus, we need to change these elements on campus.”
Much of the passion came out of the anguish some students feel over recent police shootings, including that of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte. Students used a prop coffin to write the names of those affected by police violence and cited a Washington Post report that over 700 people had been shot and killed by police this year alone.
Erasing the name on campus of a known racist would be a positive step forward, protesters say.
Faculty members and administrators were supportive of the demonstration and applauded the students’ willingness to take their fight to the public eye. Provost Debra Boyd told students that many called Tillman Hall simply the “administration building” and challenged students to continue their peaceful efforts.
“Nothing will happen if we just talk about it,” Boyd said.
Several student leaders met with Boyd and the campus heritage group, which studies issues at the school and includes members of faculty, staff, students and alumni.
One student, Gabriel Paxton, said the group discussed sitting down with Winthrop President Dan Mahony next week to discuss the building. Mahony was out of state Wednesday.
Officials say the school alone cannot change the name of Tillman Hall. The South Carolina Heritage Act, passed in 2000, prevents anyone from changing the name of any street, bridge, structure or park that has been “dedicated in memory of, or name for, any historic figure or historic event.”
Changing the state law requires a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly.
Clemson University also has a building named in Tillman’s honor and a statue of Tillman sits on the Statehouse grounds in Columbia.
This isn’t the first time Tillman has become a public issue at Winthrop. Two alumni attempted to request a name change in 2014.
Several speakers talked about what the recent racial strife meant to them before many began to sit down and start a mass letter-writing campaign to reach out to local legislators and ask for their support on the Tillman issue.
Five hours after the midday protest began, leaders said they were satisfied their message was heard.
“I think it went very well,” said Paxton. “It was the best-case scenario, because we weren’t sure if we were going to meet resistance at the door. Administration did well to put the first step forward, and I hope we can work together to achieve racial harmony.”
Winthrop has previously attempted to distance itself from the violent racism of Tillman’s past. The university discontinued a 75-year-old Tillman Award last December, in favor of the President’s Award for Academic Excellence, awarded to students with the highest GPA at graduation.
Last summer, the school quietly changed its description of Tillman Hall on its website to better reflect the figure’s controversial nature.
The original text read that Tillman was described as “South Carolina governor, U.S. senator, and the driving force behind state support for Winthrop ... a staunch supporter of agricultural populism ...”
However, on July 7, Tillman was described was also described as an avowed white supremacist, architect of state Jim Crow laws, and a violent advocate of lynch law.”