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Who Was Ben Tillman, Whose Statues Appear All Over South Carolina?


Many of us pass statues in public places every day on the way to work, school, the grocery store. They become wallpaper, part of the scenery. But there are people behind each of those statues, monuments and plaques. And as we examine our painful, racist past in this country, it's worth examining those statues as well. That's what we're doing this week in a series of conversations.

Today, Benjamin Ryan Tillman - a statue honoring Tillman went up at the South Carolina Statehouse in 1940. His name is also on a building at Clemson University. He was a longtime senator from the state, serving from 1895 to 1918. He was governor before that. And he was an ardent racist who terrorized African Americans seeking the right to vote.

University of Wisconsin-Madison history professor Stephen Kantrowitz literally wrote the book on Tillman. It's called "Ben Tillman And The Reconstruction Of White Supremacy."


STEPHEN KANTROWITZ: Thank you. Glad to be here.

CHANG: OK. I just want to start at the beginning. Where did Ben Tillman grow up? What was his backstory?

KANTROWITZ: Ben Tillman was born into a very wealthy slaveholding family in Edgefield, S.C. He was born in 1847, and that means that he turns 18 in 1865. So the world in which he's raised ends at the moment that he becomes a man, and he spends the rest of his life trying to reconstruct the kind of dominance that his class had always assumed it would have - economically, politically and in other ways - over African Americans in a world that doesn't have slavery in it anymore. And I think that, more than anything else, really captures who Ben Tillman was and what he tried to do.

CHANG: And he goes on to act on these racist views he developed early on in life through a militia called the Red Shirts in South Carolina. Tell us who the Red Shirts were.

KANTROWITZ: The Red Shirts were kind of Klansmen without the hoods who followed the Klan, which was put down by the federal government in the early 1870s as a kind of open anti-Reconstruction militia in South Carolina, a paramilitary organization of young white men and some Confederate officers whose purpose was to overthrow the state's Republican government and replace it with a white supremacist Democratic government.

CHANG: And to be clear, the Red Shirts perpetrated several massacres of Black people, right?

KANTROWITZ: They did indeed. Tillman is most famous for his participation in one called the Hamburg Massacre, which took place on July 4 in the river town of Hamburg, S.C., right across the river from Augusta. A African American unit of the state militia had refused to surrender their weapons to the paramilitary - to the Red Shirts. And the Red Shirts came to town, besieged them in their militia room, knocked down the wall with a cannon they brought over from Augusta and, when the men fled, fired on them, caught a bunch of them and then decided which of them to execute. And it's not clear what precisely Tillman's role was in that, but he bragged forever after about knowing that this moment had called for cold-blooded murder. And that's what they perpetrated.

CHANG: And after his involvement in the Red Shirts, Tillman was later elected governor not in spite of those Red Shirt massacres, but potentially because of them, right?

KANTROWITZ: Yes. Tillman rose to power on a slightly different agenda. He rose to power claiming to be the friend of what he called the farmers, by which he meant ordinary white men. I would argue that he was not actually the friend of ordinary white men, but he did imagine that the state's future had to reside only in the hands of white men and only in the hands of those white men who would forswear any political coalition with Black men.

And that - as much as his overt white supremacy and his threats to murder Black people and his actual perhaps murder of Black people was key to Tillman's whole political program - not just white supremacy as anti-Blackness or murderous attacks on Black people, but also attacks on white people who would make political coalition with Black people. That's a really important part of what white supremacy was and is and how it functioned and functions.

CHANG: Now, he was governor for four years in South Carolina. He left a major mark on the state. Tell us how.

KANTROWITZ: The biggest single thing that Tillman did was sort of mastermind the creation of a new constitution for the state, the Constitution of 1895. He had already moved to the Senate by that point, but he was clearly in charge of that process and led the referendum that led to calling the Constitutional Convention in which they perpetrated massive fraud for the umpteenth time.

The Constitution of 1895 is best known to us as a disfranchising constitution. It effectively stripped the vote from the overwhelming majority of Black South Carolinians. It also effectively stripped the vote from a huge number of poor white South Carolinians. And turnout plummeted after that constitution went into effect in 1895. And this, I think, is part and parcel of Tillman's whole program - is that most white men probably couldn't be trusted to do the right thing consistently and prevent Black people from returning to positions of political power. And therefore, they, too, needed to lose the vote for the greater good of white supremacy.

CHANG: And how would you characterize Tillman's record as a senator after he left the governor's mansion?

KANTROWITZ: Tillman made great hay off of his commitment to white supremacy as a senator and kind of gloried in the reputation he had as the wild, violent embodiment of the white supremacist South. He - it's hard to tell sometimes whether he was putting this on or doing it deliberately or whether it was just coming right out of him, but he would refer constantly to his pledge to lynch Black men who were accused of raping or attempting to rape white women. He would allude constantly to his participation in the Hamburg Massacre. He would essentially say to audiences around the country, white Southern men will not allow African Americans into positions of political power. And to the extent that you encourage them to or allow them to, you are going to provoke us to murderous violence, so don't do it.

CHANG: So, obviously, you have spent a long time thinking about Benjamin Tillman. How do you feel about all these monuments to this man?

KANTROWITZ: It's always struck me as bizarre, honestly, in the same way that monuments to Robert E. Lee or to the Confederacy generally have struck me as bizarre - that people who so perfectly represent values antithetical to the ones that the United States claims to stand for can be celebrated in public in a way that monuments and other, you know, civic representations do.

So honestly, it's just been a kind of incredulity. But I think as you said at the beginning, we grow up with these things as wallpaper. And it takes us time and attention and energy to learn to see them as something other than wallpaper and to see past the respectability and the bronze and the rest and to actually understand that they're human stories being told.

CHANG: Yeah. Stephen Kantrowitz is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Thank you very much for helping us understand who this man was.

KANTROWITZ: It's my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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