Winthrop poll: Most say S.C. lawmakers should decide fate of historic names

The painting of former governor Ben Tillman has been removed at Winthrop University after someone wrote “violent racist” in red paint on the portrait.
The painting of former governor Ben Tillman has been removed at Winthrop University after someone wrote “violent racist” in red paint on the portrait. adouglas@heraldonline.com

The ghost of Ben Tillman might be safe on the campuses of Winthrop and other S.C. universities.

Most S.C. residents – 63 percent – say state lawmakers should decide whether to change the names of historical figures or events that adorn streets, parks or buildings, according to a new Winthrop Poll question asked exclusively for The State.

The results could be bad news for The Citadel, whose leaders want to remove a Confederate banner from a campus chapel, and to Clemson and Winthrop students and alumni who want to remove the name of Ben Tillman – a white supremacist, lynch-mob advocate and former S.C. governor and U.S. senator – from campus buildings.

A.D. Carson, a Clemson University graduate student advocating for the removal of Tillman’s name from that school’s Tillman Hall, said he was “not surprised” by the poll results.

“We talk about the so-called idea of rewriting history,” Carson said. But, he added, people do not spend enough time “attempting to empathize with the people who might be offended.”

Only a third of S.C. residents said the name changes should not require legislative approval. The poll surveyed 963 S.C. adults from Sept. 20-27, and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

“Folks advocating name changes, if they hope to win, have to do a lot more work educating people” on the issue, said Scott Huffmon, Winthrop Poll director.

Race and politics, he added, played some role in how those surveyed responded. Still, a majority of Republicans and Democrats, whites and blacks said the state should decide whether to rename buildings. But more whites and Republicans felt that way than blacks and Democrats.

The poll comes almost three months after state lawmakers decided to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds. They acted after pictures surfaced of the accused killer of nine African- Americans at a Charleston church posing with a flag. Removing the flag would help the state heal, flag opponents said.

The historic move required the support of two-thirds of lawmakers in the S.C. House and Senate. Afterward, House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, vowed not to address any other historical monuments or memorials.

Lawmakers created the two-thirds hurdle as part of a 2000 compromise that moved the Confederate flag from atop the State House dome, where it had flown since the 1960s, to a flag pole near the Confederate Soldier Monument on the Capitol grounds.

At the time, lawmakers feared backlash against other historical markers, so they voted to give themselves the final say on any changes to other monuments or memorials.

Efforts to alter historic monuments in some S.C. communities now are being blocked by that state law.

In Greenwood, the local American Legion wants to replace segregated plaques commemorating that county’s fallen servicemen from World War I and World War II with a single plaque that does not identify who is “white” or “colored.”

Reacting to the Winthrop Poll results, Greenwood Mayor Welborn Adams, who supports the effort to change the monument’s plaques, said most people initially see the issue as trying to change history.

“Whenever I’ve been able to explain that our monument was constructed by a local American Legion, and it’s the American Legion’s right to change it, that alters people’s perception,” Adams said.

In Florence, the city and veterans are at odds over a similar dilemma, fighting over whether to desegregate a World War I monument’s plaque that honors fallen servicemen.

South Carolinians probably know little, if anything, about those communities’ debates, Winthrop’s Huffmon said.

“While the flag as a symbol was integrally connected with a story that everybody heard about this summer, a lot of people aren’t hearing the debate about buildings and parks,” Huffmon said.

“The default (attitude) is, there’s a law and it sounds reasonable.”