I first encountered Benjamin Ryan Tillman in my South Carolina history class in seventh grade. We used the textbook of Mary C. Simms Oliphant, who held the franchise on South Carolina history books in the public schools from the 1920s to the 1980s. Oliphant was the daughter of a Confederate general and the granddaughter of South Carolina romantic novelist and Southern nationalist William Gilmore Simms. She clearly considered it her mission to indoctrinate 20th-century South Carolinians — black and white — in her 19th-century social and racial attitudes.
Like millions of South Carolinians, I was exposed to Oliphant’s strangely moralist and romanticized narrative of South Carolina, from the first European exploration up to the 1950s, a story of courageous white people battling to create a colony, then a state, then a Confederate state in a hostile, unforgiving world. Part of that narrative — little more than a few paragraphs, really — was the story of Ben Tillman. There Tillman was presented in heroic terms as a reformer, who led the Agrarian Revolt to take state government away from the wealthy and powerful and give it to “the people.”
A few years later, as a high school student visiting Columbia, I met Ben Tillman in the form of his eight-foot bronze image on a granite pedestal in front of the Statehouse. The inscription on the pedestal confirmed what I had been led to believe. There it described his “life of service and achievement … In the home loving and loyal, to the state steadfast and true for the nation.” Even at that impressionable age of approximately 15, I had a love of history and my native state, and I felt a surge of satisfaction at discovering the bronze figure of the great man. Seeing the inscription there confirmed all that I had read.
It was not until I was an undergraduate at the University of Georgia several years later that I began to discover that almost everything I had learned in the first 18 years of my life was a lie. One of my first discoveries was African-American history. Until that time I had been taught that black people had been brought here from Africa, they had been slaves, and then … then … nothing! They had no history, no culture, no identity. The black people I saw on the streets and in the stores of my small South Carolina town every day were ciphers, as alien to my young eyes as creatures from another planet.
At UGA, I discovered John Hope Franklin, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Dubois, and Zora Neale Hurston. Learning that black people actually had a history and a culture was like discovering a secret, invisible nation hiding right here in our midst, should-to-shoulder with the white nation I had inhabited so blithely. It was a nation with its own history and heroes, its leaders and martyrs, its writers and artists, most of whom I had never heard of. I had never known that African Americans served in every American war, built the transcontinental railroad, journeyed to the Pacific Ocean with Lewis and Clark and to the North Pole with Robert Peary. I had not heard these stories because my teachers and school administrators, the white men who ran my state and who ran my church, even my own parents, did not want me to know about them. Perhaps most importantly, Mary C. Simms Oliphant did not want me to know them.
White people have long told America’s story — and especially the Southern story — as the saga of whites struggling to build a new civilization in the New World. By a great conspiracy of amnesia, black people have largely been left out of the American saga. In South Carolina, the conspiracy began in the seventh grade, where we were introduced to Oliphant’s The History of South Carolina. I was issued a 1958 edition in my 1962 class.
On page 13 of The History of South Carolina, Oliphant announces that there are only 500 Native Americans living in the state. She then devoted seven pages of text and illustrations to the cultures of the various tribes that once inhabited South Carolina, then nine pages to the failed attempts of French and Spaniards to plant settlements on the South Carolina coast. And in those 16 pages she expended more ink on Native Americans, Frenchmen, and Spaniards than she did on African Americans in all her 432 pages.
Of the hundreds of illustrations in Oliphant’s book, blacks were depicted in nine. Of those nine, two showed blacks picking cotton; a third is a 19th-century engraving showing blacks running a cotton gin, and another engraving shows blacks hauling cotton bales on the wharves in Charleston.
The only black person identified by name in the book was Denmark Vesey, the organizer of a failed slave revolt in 1822. Oliphant also mentioned the Stono Rebellion of 1739 and the Hamburg Massacre of 1876, a clash of white and black militias that signaled the collapse of Reconstruction. These were three of the most traumatic, transforming events in state history and did much to turn South Carolina into the veritable police state which it remained until recent decades. Yet these three events, taken together, receive less treatment than the Palmetto Regiment in the battles of Chapultepec and Churubusco during the Mexican War.
Oliphant clearly felt that slavery was a benign but necessary institution. “Most masters treated their slaves kindly,” she wrote. “[T]he law required the master to feed his slaves, clothe them properly, and care for them when they were sick.” Elsewhere, she wrote, “Most slaves were treated well, if only because it was to the planter’s interest to have them healthy and contented.” Slavery really wasn’t so bad: “The Africans were used to a hot climate. They made fine workers under the Carolina sun.” And besides, look at the benefits: Slave owners “said that Africans were brought from a worse life to a better one. As slaves, they were trained in the ways of civilization. Above all, the landowners argued, the slaves were given the opportunity to become Christians in a Christian land, instead of remaining heathen in a savage country.”
Rising sectional tensions also received Oliphant’s highly partisan treatment, though she offered scant explanation as to what the tensions were about. She described the split of the 1860 Democratic Convention in Charleston, how each faction nominated a presidential candidate, opening the door for Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans. She wrote of the Secession Convention of 1860 and its fateful vote on Dec. 20. She devoted no less than 16 pages to the founding of the Confederate government, the battles of the Civil War, the inevitable defeat. Yet only fleetingly did she suggest the great truth of that national tragedy — that 60 percent of South Carolina’s population in 1860 was black, the vast majority of them owned by white people. This demographic and economic reality dictated every important aspect of South Carolina’s culture and politics, then and for generations to come.
The Civil War — or Confederate War, as Oliphant insisted on calling it — inspired her most passionate prose. She was clearly captive to the Lost Cause mythology and the reckless romanticism of Margaret Mitchell, as when she described the depredations of the wicked Yankees. She wrote, “Sherman’s soldiers burned houses, ran off livestock, destroyed crops, and took everything that could be carried away. Many fine houses were destroyed by Sherman’s men. Among these was Woodlands, the home of William Gilmore Simms … One family was burned to death in their home,” she wrote.
“South Carolina suffered dreadfully at Gettysburg. Of the 472 men of the 14th Regiment, only 82 came out alive. Of 39 men of Company K of this regiment, 34 fell at the first fire.”
At Fredericksburg another South Carolina hero died. “Here Colonel Maxcy Gregg charged, at the head of his men, directly into the enemy’s fire, his horse rearing and pitching in terror. Gregg was mortally wounded in the fighting, but the battle ended in a great victory for the Confederates,” she noted.
And then there is Oliphant’s paean to her hero, Gen. Wade Hampton III: “On the Statehouse grounds, he rides in bronze, a towering figure on his mettlesome steed, the symbol of all that is best in South Carolina and the South.” Yet, in her 16 pages of fire and fury, Oliphant could not bring herself to mention the single bloodiest battle of the Civil War on South Carolina soil — the assault on Battery Wagner by the black troops of the Massachusetts 54th.
As for the slaves during the war, she wrote, “The Negroes for the most part stayed on the plantations or farms … The relationship between the whites and Negroes on the plantations was at this time very friendly. Most of the slaves had proved their affection and loyalty to their masters … For more than four years the women and children had remained on the land with only the Negroes to protect them.”
Oliphant also takes a very unreconstructed view of Reconstruction. “For the following eight years South Carolina was governed largely by a ruthless band of thieves,” she wrote. Reconstruction gave Oliphant another opportunity to portray blacks as passive and easily manipulated creatures. As slaves, they resisted their masters only when “stirred up” by Spanish agents or Northern abolitionists. As freedmen after the war, they were duped by Northern carpetbaggers into voting against the best interests of the state. Carpetbagging Republicans “took advantage of the ignorance and lack of experience of the Negroes … Those who did not vote Republican were threatened and mistreated.”
As generations of school children have been taught, the Reconstruction government was rife with corruption, but in a period of astounding political corruption nationwide, what went on in the state was not remarkable — and it certainly didn’t end with Reconstruction. What South Carolinians have not been taught is that blacks showed far more restraint toward whites in their exercise of power than whites showed toward blacks. Reconstruction in South Carolina was led by a number of courageous and talented African Americans, including war hero and congressman, Robert Smalls; Benjamin Franklin Randolph, who was murdered by white terrorists in an ambush in 1876; and Richard Cain, who helped draft the progressive state constitution of 1868. Yet none of these important individuals was named in Oliphant’s history.
Instead, she dwelt upon the heroic defenders of the South — “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman’s Red Shirts and, to a lesser degree, the Ku Klux Klan. Both groups were terrorist organizations whose excesses in defense of white supremacy Oliphant smugly justified: “The sight of the mounted klansmen in their white robes was enough to terrorize the Negroes. When the courts did not punish Negroes who were supposed to have committed crimes, the Klan punished them.” Unlike the KKK, Tillman’s Red Shirts were openly connected to the state Democratic Party. They terrorized Republicans and blacks and hijacked the election of 1876. Or as Oliphant told it, the Reconstruction government collapsed “and South Carolina was once more in the possession of its own government.” What she meant, of course, was that the 40 percent white population was in control of the government.
Thirteen years after the end of Reconstruction, the Upstate-led Agrarian Revolt unseated the pro-business Bourbon Democrats, who represented the interest of Charleston’s aristocracy, and disenfranchised black voters and established Jim Crow rule. The man who lead the revolt was Ben Tillman.
Modern historians generally regard Tillman as a fire-breathing racist, opportunist, and demagogue who played on the worst of human nature to promote himself to the highest levels of state government. But to Oliphant, Tillman was a hero and a reformer: “Tillman … was a great man,” she wrote. After leading the white populist uprising in South Carolina, Tillman rammed through the constitution of 1895. “It forbade marriage between whites and Negroes and prohibited mixed schools,” she reported with satisfaction. Through poll taxes and terror, African Americans were barred from the ballot box, or, as Oliphant euphemistically put it, “Tillman’s ideas prevailed, and Negroes were discouraged by various means from voting.” She had only one criticism of Tillman: “The great blot on Tillman’s career was his treatment of Wade Hampton, the state’s great hero.”
Ben Tillman’s long and bloody public career began in 1876 at what would ultimately be called the Hamburg Massacre.
The then 29-year-old Tillman led the members of the Sweetwater Sabre Club, a.k.a. the Edgefield Redshits, against a local militia group, all black. Several African-American militia men were killed in a pitched battle with red-shirt-wearing white terrorists. After the militia surrendered, five of them were called out by name and executed. A few weeks later, when vigilantes captured a black state senator named Simon Coker, Tillman was present when two of his men executed the prisoner while he was on his knees praying.
Later, the terrorist leader Tillman explained his intentions on that fateful July 8 day: “It had been the settled purpose of the leading white men of Edgefield to seize the first opportunity that the Negroes might offer them to provoke a riot and teach the negroes a lesson; as it was generally believed that nothing but bloodshed and a good deal of it could answer the purpose of redeeming the state from Negro and carpetbag rule.” In a 1909 speech at a Red Shirt reunion in Anderson, Tillman reiterated this point, noting that he believed in “terrorizing the Negroes at the first opportunity by letting them provoke trouble and then having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable.”
He added, “That we have good government now is due entirely to the fact that Red Shirt men of 1876 did all and dared all that was necessary to rescue South Carolina from the rule of the alien, the traitor, and the semi-barbarous negroes.”
After the Hamburg Massacre, Tillman was proclaimed a hero by a good portion of the white population and he began a career as an agrarian reformer and “man of the people” in addition to being a champion of the state’s pro-lynching law and voter intimidation.
In 1890 he was elected governor. But Tillman was no reformer and proved to be little different from the corrupt and self-serving regime his agrarian reform campaign replaced, according to historian Walter Edgar. “Rampant nepotism and office-seeking made a mockery of rotation in office,” Edgar wrote. “Tillman himself was guilty of seeking favors and gifts while governor. Local [Tillman] officials went on a stealing spree that rivaled the days of the old [Reconstruction] administration.
Edgar adds, “For the state’s farmers, support of whom was the reason the reform movement had come into being, life was little better for all of Tillman’s promises.”
Under Tillman’s administration the anti-Charleston state created the Dispensary system, by which the state held a monopoly on the sale of alcohol. Tillman’s biographer, Francis Butler Simkins, called the Dispensary the “most profound, insidious, and widespread agency of corruption” in South Carolina history.
As governor, Tillman had the legislature call a convention to draft a new constitution in 1895 for the purpose of disenfranchising the last black voters in the state. Tillman always considered this his greatest achievement.
Tillman went to the U.S. Senate in 1895, where he remained until his death in 1918. He used the Senate floor and the Chatauqua circuit to become the nation’s loudest and most famous proponent of white supremacy, or in his own words, “preaching to those people the gospel of white supremacy according to Tillman.”
Nearly a century after Tillman’s death, we understand that he was no hero. And we are free to discuss his life and his place in South Carolina history in a way that previous generations could not. Today we know him as a murderer and a terrorist, a proud white supremacist who made war on the people of this state. I recently created a website, downwithtillman.com, which, as the name implies, advocates the removal of the Tillman statue from the front of the Statehouse. Those are hallowed grounds. They should be reserved for consecrating the noblest of our citizens, the proudest moments of our history. Clearly Tillman does not measure up.
Since the downwithtillman.com website went up, the predictable critics have fallen into three categories. First are those who say that Ben Tillman is forgotten to the vast majority of South Carolinians. Why bring attention to him and stir racial animosities with this campaign? To this I say that racial animosities are here already. They have been here for centuries as the proponents of white supremacy have tried to pretend there is harmony between the races. When someone points out an injustice, he is labeled a troublemaker, an agitator. Why do you want to go stirring things up? they ask.
I want to stir things up because there is a lot that needs to be discussed and resolved in this state. There are many generations of unacknowledged crimes that must be confronted. Talking about Ben Tillman is a good place to start.
Others say that removing the Tillman statue represents a rewriting of history. It is the expunging of an important man from the public record. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I want Tillman to be remembered. I want his words and deeds to be recorded in the history books for all to see. Maybe we will recognize and avoid such a monster in the future.
As for rewriting history, that has already happened. In fact, it has been whitewashed. Read the inscription on the Tillman statue. It says nothing about the campaigns he waged to kill and disenfranchise African Americans. It treats him only as a benign and munificent man of the people.
Finally, to those who say it is not proper to remove the monuments and shrines our forefathers erected, I say, nonsense! We have the power to change our state and federal laws, to change our state and federal constitutions even. Indeed, we have the responsibility to change those laws and institutions which no longer serve us, which no longer represent us. Why should we be bound forever and eternity to the monuments and shrines which our ancestors handed down to us?
Every generation has the right to choose the people and the causes it wishes to enshrine in its public places. Across the South, citizens are questioning the monuments and names on the landscape, especially those associated with the Confederacy. In recent years, controversial plaques were removed from the capitol building in Texas and the Confederate flag came down from the top of South Carolina’s Statehouse. In December 2013, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s name was removed from a public school in Jacksonville, Fla.
At the beginning of the 2009 legislative session in Columbia, Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Richland) filed a bill to remove the Tillman statue. It never got out of committee in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Since that time, the legislature has found the will to pass a Voter ID law, something that would have probably brought a smile to Tillman’s gruff face. After all, he once said, “We have done our level best. We scratched our heads [to find ways to take blacks off the voter rolls]. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.”
Republicans of course deny it, but Voter ID is a thinly veiled effort to take the vote from African Americans and poor people. There is a straight line between Ben Tillman and the forces that run the Statehouse today. We must confront that tradition. We must talk about Ben Tillman, what he stood for, and why he is in front of our Statehouse. And when we are done, we should agree that it is time to bring him down.