COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Clemson University trustees voted Friday to rename its honors college, stripping from the program the name of former vice president and slavery proponent John C. Calhoun.
The university’s board also publicly requested permission from the state legislature to change the name of Tillman Hall back to its original name, the Main building. The iconic campus building currently honors “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, the governor and U.S. senator who used virulent racism to dominate South Carolina politics after Reconstruction.
Other than removing the confederate flag from state House grounds after a deadly attack on nine black Charleston church members in 2015, lawmakers have refused to take up any major changes of Confederate monuments. Change requires a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate.
Trustees cited the recent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which has spurred protests over racial injustice and police brutality across the country, as an impetus for the renaming. The honors program will now be called the “Clemson University Honors College.”
Calhoun, who was born in South Carolina, declared slavery a “positive good” on the U.S. Senate floor in 1837. Tillman led a white mob in 1876 that killed several black men in Hamburg, an Aiken County town where freed slaves had settled.
Following recent protests over racial injustice and police brutality, activists have renewed calls to remove monuments and rename buildings honoring the Confederacy, slavery and white supremacy across the state.
Clemson’s honors college was established in 1962 and named after Calhoun in 1981, and the university maintains Calhoun’s plantation home Fort Hill on campus.
Earlier attempts to rename the college have stalled. But in the week before Clemson trustees convened, an online petition by students calling for university administrators to support a name change drew more than 20,000 signatures. Clemson football alumni and onetime Houston Texans teammates DeAndre Hopkins and Deshaun Watson voiced support for the petition on social media.
Student, faculty and alumni organizers said Friday they were elated by the board’s decision, but emphasized that the symbolic act needed to lead to material changes for black students and other students of color.
“This needs to be the beginning of a much better, much more inclusive, much more diverse Clemson,” said Roann Abdeladl, a junior health sciences major.
After the Confederate flag was removed from statehouse grounds in 2015, South Carolina House Speaker Jay Lucas said his chamber would take up no more requests to alter or remove monuments under the Heritage Act, which requires a two-thirds vote to change the name of a historical building or move a monument.
But the Heritage Act, passed in 2000, has yet to be challenged in court. The law doesn’t include an explicit penalty if a local government chooses to act without the General Assembly’s approval.
In Clemson’s case, the renaming of the Honors College is not subject to the law as no building is named for it, a university spokesman told the Greenville News.
A spokesperson for Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office said they were reviewing the issue.
A message asking Lucas if he maintains his 2015 position that no other monuments or names should be changed under the Heritage Act went unanswered. Lucas has given no public indication his position has changed.
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said the state’s institutions of higher learning now have better role models to choose from than figures like Calhoun and Tillman. Rutherford has previously sought to remove a statue of Tillman from statehouse grounds and to add context to other statues there.
“Until it can be removed, we have to contextualize everything,” Rutherford said. “We need to know that monsters do exist, and those monsters played a pivotal role in South Carolina’s history.”
Earlier this week, Rep. Seth Rose, D-Columbia, stated he would introduce a resolution to remove the Capitol’s Tillman statue.
Jeffrey Collins in Columbia contributed to this report.
Michelle Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.