‘Represents the worst of the worst’: Rep. Rose calls for removal of Tillman statue from capitol complex

Updated: Jun. 15, 2020 at 11:31 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A state lawmaker is eyeing the removal of a statue on the State House grounds.

State Rep. Seth Rose, D-Columbia, plans to submit a resolution to the General Assembly to have former South Carolina Gov. Ben Tillman’s statue taken off the capitol complex.

Since 1940, Tillman’s statue has resided on the State House grounds.

“He openly took pride in murdering and punishing innocent African-Americans,” Rose said. “He does not deserve a place of honor.”

Amid nationwide and local protests against racial injustice, Rose felt compelled to take the first steps to remove Tillman’s place on the capitol complex.

“By doing nothing, by showing complacency, we are endorsing the terrible things that he stood for,” Rose said.

UofSC Professor of History Thomas Brown added: “Tillman was a guy who thrived in politics by exploiting prejudice and anger.”

Brown says Tillman represented those that wanted to end bi-racial democracy.

“It was going to depend on fraud and violence,” Brown said.

Brown explained Tillman’s major entrance into public life was the Hamburg Massacre of 1876. Tillman participated in the murders of more than six African Americans in an area near North Augusta.

“Tillman was proud of his part in that, one of his political calling cards the rest of his life,” Brown said. “Tillman did not serve in the Civil War. This was his service.”

Tillman was born in 1847 in Chester, South Carolina. He was a well-to-do figure.

Professor Brown said he was the wealthiest landowner in Edgefield County.

As a member of the Democratic party, Tillman served as South Carolina’s governor from 1890 through 1894 and later as a U.S. Senator.

Brown said Tillman’s primary purpose was to drive black people out of politics.

Tillman feared African Americans could seize control of the Senate in South Carolina.

He urged the state to consider creating a new state constitution to wipe out the one of 1868 that greatly expanded African American liberties by law.

By 1895, serving as a U.S. senator, Tillman’s plea was answered.

State delegates assembled to draft and ratify the new state constitution that limited the freedom of black men to vote -- a right granted to men of all races under the 15th Amendment, which was adopted into the U.S. Constitution in 1870.

The 1895 state constitution stated that to be eligible to vote, one must own a certain amount in property value, pay a poll tax and not have been convicted of certain crimes.

“A person who sponsored disenfranchisement of African Americans and really stood out in his time for his outspoken defense of lynching,” Brown said of Tillman.

Before Tillman’s rise to power in our state, laws passed early on in the Reconstruction Era expanded African American’s rights.

In 1868, South Carolina had its first state legislature with a black majority.

“That just blew white people’s minds,” said Lydia Brandt, an associate professor in Art History at UofSC.

Brandt stated that white people supporting the disenfranchisement of African Americans during the Reconstruction Era tried to ensure that what happened in 1868 did not happen again.

“The statue of Tillman is the end of that,” Brandt said. “He’s the end of that push back against Reconstruction when white people take back power in South Carolina.”

Brandt believes the paper in the hand of the Tillman statue is supposed to be the 1895 state constitution, which disenfranchised African Americans.

His statue, like other statues on the grounds, she says, does not provide historical perspective.

"When you say that a monument was potentially erected to acknowledge history, you're suggesting it is objective," Brandt stated. "You're suggesting that it is researched. Monuments are memory. They are ways in which we take history, the things that have happened, twist them, or manipulate them to serve the present."

Brandt says people evaluating whether a statue should stay or go should consider the circumstances of how it came to be.

“(Tillman) is going to be one of the bad guys of South Carolina history,” Brandt continued. “Those things will not change taking down the monument. When we leave monuments up, when we leave buildings named after certain people -- even if we are not the generation that named them that or put the monument up -- if we maintain them, we are signaling we agree with them.”

Professor Brown said support for the monument gained traction as the NAACP pushed for anti-lynching legislation. Tillman’s statue placed on the State House grounds by 1940 signaled opposition to that.

“Huge issue in South Carolina,” Brown stated. “White South Carolinians, the people buying the Tillman statue at least, resisted that legislation. Putting up the Tillman statue, a famous champion of lynching, was a way of resisting that anti-lynching legislation.”

And, the phrase “common people” engraved on the Tillman statue, according to Brown, directly supports white power.

“People of color were excluded from the common,” Brown said. “So, in that sense, that is as explicit of white supremacism as you’ll probably find in words.”

Tillman’s statue has stood on the State House grounds for 80 years now.

“He represents the worst of the worst,” Rose said. “Many of us are awakened to the issues we are facing. We need to heal. We need to come together. Part of that process is to look our ourselves and say what we can do better. Taking ‘Pitchfork’ Ben Tillman off the State House public grounds is part of that process.”

South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus Chair, Rep. Jerry Govan, agrees with Rose’s stance and eyes more significant changes -- starting with police reform.

“Priority has to be addressing what we can from a legislative standpoint because I think that’s where we can get immediate results,” Govan said. “It’s going to alliances that reach across party lines and racial lines.”

WIS received a response from Gov. Henry McMaster’s office on Rose’s proposal to remove the Tillman statue:

“The Heritage Act provides a good framework for how to deal with these issues – it preserves historical monuments while allowing South Carolinians to voice their concerns through thoughtful and democratic debate among their elected representatives. That debate has proven to be important in the past and needs to be prioritized in making these decisions in the future.”

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