Reckoning with and remaking southern landscapes of white supremacy

Erstwhile managing editor Caroline Grego reflects on how the built environment and histories of white supremacy intertwine in her homestate of South Carolina. A warning: This post contains racial slurs in quotes, blotted out but nonetheless present in skeleton form.

‘When Lee surrendered at Appomattox, every man in the Confederate Army, every man out of it, North and South, knew that two things had happened, had been settled forever. First, that the Union was restored and that we were to be a Nation hereafter. Second, that slavery was dead, and that the African would no longer own a master. We knew that these two things occurred when Appomattox came. We did not know that Nation, while spelt with an “N,” would ultimately come to be spelt with a “N—–.”’[1]

This is a quote from “The Negro Problem and Immigration,” a 1908 speech of Benjamin Tillman’s, the foremost racist demagogue of South Carolina politics in his day. I read it at Clemson University’s Special Collections and Archive, located in the Strom Thurmond Institute. Already wound tight by a day of reading Tillman’s papers, I rushed through the transcription of the speech delivered at the South Carolina State House, standing to take photographs of the pages. Then that quote leapt out at me, and I sat down heavily. Tillman, of course, did not censor himself. He rarely did, wielding his incendiary rhetoric as a blunt force instrument. Given what we know of Tillman, it should be no surprise that the speech was breathtakingly virulent in its racism. Once I overcame my initial shock, though, I began to realize why that quote had elicited that reaction. Yes, it was a grotesque distortion of one of the most liberatory moments in a national history where those occasions can feel achingly few and far between. What lent it additional cruelty was the context in which I read it.

In South Carolina, individual statues glorifying white supremacists exist within a ubiquitous built environment of plaques, Confederate flags, schools, universities, and historic homes that were erected as testament to the same. The entire state is pervaded with these commemorations, sometimes to the point of suffocation. Their real meaning rests in how the symbolism mimics the society. Those visible symbols emblemize points within a wider system of racism that casts its net over the whole of American history, granting them immense significance in their visibility. Of course, those points are far from the whole story of white supremacy in the state. Statues of particularly infamous and abhorrent figures, like Ben Tillman, mean that their histories may surface into the public consciousness, but so much more lies beneath. The power of those symbols lies in their connectivity to a larger history of white supremacy, which may not be as explicitly commemorated on the landscape. In focusing on white supremacy, I do not intend to ignore the unremitting resistance that Black South Carolinians have mounted against it for centuries. Instead, I advocate for a keen understanding of the breadth and depth of how white supremacy has functioned throughout the state’s history and how embedded it is in the landscape of the state—to cultivate the kind of knowledge necessary for a serious reckoning with that history on the part of white South Carolinians.[2]


The statue of John C. Calhoun at Marion Square, which stands a couple hundred feet away from Mother Emanuel AME Church, in Charleston, South Carolina. Photo by author.

Tillman serves as an entry point into this lineage, which began long before his birth and continues after his death. He commanded the power of paranoia in crafting a white supremacist state. He knew that white supremacy must forever be an ongoing project that rises to meet new challenges to its authority, rather than a complacent hegemony. Tillman understood that white supremacy required constant vigilance and violence for its maintenance, for Black South Carolinians never allowed it to breeze along uncontested. In Tillman’s worldview, white supremacy might be inherent and natural, but its rule was constantly under threat—so he warned. More must be done. More would always be necessary. Tillman was not the only white politician to recognize that an array of weaponry—legislation, political offices, vigilante and state-mandated violence, local customs and ordinances, a galvanized base, and racist rhetoric—must stock white supremacy’s arsenal. Indeed, South Carolina’s history offers one of the most brutally vivid illustrations of that point. To study South Carolina’s political history is to trace an almost unbroken lineage of white supremacy stretching to John Locke, who assisted in drafting South Carolina’s colonial constitution in the 1660s. The constitution gave enslavers “absolute power and authority over [their] negro slaves.” Only Reconstruction, during which Black South Carolinians crafted a government based on civil rights for all citizens, provided a substantive reprieve at the level of state governance.

A noxious genealogy of white supremacy thus undergirds many of South Carolina’s institutions. On that day in late July in the archives, I felt immersed in its lineage. I was at Clemson University to look at Tillman’s personal letters, notebooks, papers, and speeches, held in a building named for Strom Thurmond, the twentieth-century senator who built his career on opposing Black civil rights. The building is located on land once owned by John C. Calhoun, the architect of Confederate thought.[3] The founder of the university, Thomas Green Clemson, married Anna Marie Calhoun, Calhoun’s favorite daughter who served as Calhoun’s copyist and clerk during his time as senator. Clemson bequeathed Calhoun’s land to the state to establish a land-grant institute. Tillman, while governor, ensured that Clemson’s vision came to fruition and spoke at its opening in 1893. Calhoun’s home, Fort Hill, remains in the middle of campus, partially sheltered from easy view by old trees. The school’s original building, Old Main, was renamed for Tillman in 1946, an act repudiated though not undone by the university’s board in 2015.


A plaque that, on the other side, explains the renaming of Old Main as Tillman Hall, in the background. Photo by author.

Clemson University made Tillman the namesake of the school’s most iconic building, but that was not the only honor heaped upon Tillman in the 1940s, though he died in 1916. On a gray day in May 1940, Senator James Byrnes delivered the keynote address at the dedication of Tillman’s bronze statue on the State House Grounds. Byrnes, who as a young lawyer found a mentor in Tillman, was also a representative to the U.S. House (1911 – 1925), a U.S. Senator (1931 – 1941), an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court (1941 – 1942), and the U.S. Secretary of State (1945 – 1947).[4] Byrnes pointed to Tillman’s youth during the Civil War and Reconstruction, during which “the state saw its most treasured ideals and institutions converted into unhappy memories,” in a typical racist disavowal of emancipation and Reconstruction. But then, “like the Romans of old, [white South Carolinians] found a man of destiny” in the “genius” Tillman.[5] Byrnes described Tillman’s 1895 state constitution, which disenfranchised African Americans, as “another imposing monument to Senator Tillman’s vision, his tenacity of purpose and his indomitable will.” Byrnes’s long political career finished with a stint as governor of South Carolina from 1951 to 1955, in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, during which he promised that “Whatever is necessary to continue the separation of the races in the schools of South Carolina is going to be done by the white people of the state.”[6]


The Tillman statue. Courtesy Sean Rayford, for the Charleston City Paper.

Byrnes’s two most prominent contemporaries in the state, Coleman Blease and Ellison Smith, were men he often clashed with or campaigned against—but they were all three nonetheless agreed on the point of white supremacy. Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith, a U.S. Senator from 1909 to 1933, declared that his primary goal as a congressman was to “keep the N—–s down and the price of cotton up” and walked out of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 1936 when a Black minister gave the invocation.[7] Blease, another protégé of Tillman’s, cultivated the vote of white mill hands in the upstate and the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan to gain political office as governor (1911 – 1915) and U.S. senator (1925 – 1931).[8] Mill hands, derided and stereotyped by wealthy whites as uneducated, slovenly drunkards and gamblers, rallied around Blease for his excoriation of the state’s “aristocrats” as “some fellow who does nothing, lives on his daddy’s name and doesn’t pay his debts.”[9] In a demonstration of devotion, one mill hand once shouted at a rally, “Coley, I’d vote for you even if you was to steal my mule tonight!”[10] Blease’s ostensible class critique was tied to racism and paranoia. Education of Black southerners, he said, would “ruin a good field hand, and make a bad convict.”[11] And on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1929, Blease read “N—–s in the White House,” a poem written by an anonymous author in 1901, in protest of First Lady Lou Hoover having tea at the White House with Jessie DePriest, the African American wife of an Illinois congressman. The poem threatened political and social chaos as the ultimate consequence of granting African Americans any access to the halls of power, however symbolic the gesture.[12]

The man who brings this line all but to the present is Strom Thurmond, also memorialized in bronze on the State House grounds and in the institute on Clemson’s campus. Thurmond launched his career by forming the States’ Rights Democratic Party, better known as the Dixiecrats, in opposition to Democratic President Harry Truman’s desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces in 1948. After filibustering a 1957 civil rights bill for over twenty-four hours, he switched to the Republican Party in 1964 in support of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act of that year. Succeeded by Lindsey Graham as senator, Thurmond died in 2003 after serving in the Senate for forty-eight years.


Photograph of the Strom Thurmond statue at the South Carolina State House. Courtesy WikiCommons.

I know that this is a lot of information, though it still feels woefully piecemeal. I frequently feel the need to prove the pervasion of white supremacy in South Carolina history through such an onslaught. Then, sometimes I need to remind myself of the purpose of this exhaustive cataloguing of racism. I know, too, that bearing witness is not enough, that it will not magically produce change. I am also aware that some—too many—Americans might find the blunt racism of these historical figures appealing and consider it laudable proof that white supremacy is a truly American institution. What if I have helped them to construct a welcome family tree? That is a cynical fear, and a bitter one, though perhaps not entirely without reason.

What I return to as the meaning of this work, then, is the assembly and circulation of deep historical knowledge that counters the vast arsenal of white supremacy. This has value other than its inherent historical importance. Well-known individuals like Calhoun and Tillman held a great deal of power, but placing them within a longer lineage of white supremacy eliminates plausible deniability to racism’s historicity and illuminates its persistence today. White supremacy is not static; it adjusts to every new context in a cycle that historian Ibram X. Kendi has described as one of racial progress met with racist progress. Ensuring, then, that each new form of white supremacy is seen for what it is at every step is vital labor.[13]

The deliberate amnesia that so many white South Carolinians have cultivated to advance white supremacy—Byrnes’s characterizations of Tillman’s career as an example—should not be allowed to endure. In throwing open the doors of history and casting light on a lineage too frequently either elided or cast in bronze, justice-minded southerners endeavor to realize a democratization of historical understanding. Many scholars, activists, community organizers, and teachers, most of all those who are African American, have been toiling away at this work in the South for centuries and have refused to give up. That work is at a crucial juncture right now, as activists, historians, and some local politicians chip away at the visible symbols of white supremacy across the South, from New Orleans to Chapel Hill—and as they strive to forge a comprehensive understanding of how white supremacy informs the present, disseminating this knowledge through books, articles, protests, and historic sites both re-interpreted (like Monticello) and newly designated (like the Reconstruction Era National Monument). The landscape needs remaking, not just to reduce the overcrowding of commemoration to specific white supremacists, but to grasp the full meaning of the state’s history and to push towards a future informed by historically-minded justice.

If you’d like to learn more about organizations in South Carolina doing impressive, necessary work connecting history to the public, here’s a few (there are more out there though!): the South Carolina Progressive Network; Historic Columbia; the South Carolina Arts Commission; Columbia SC 63; McLeod Plantation Historic Site; the Slave Dwelling Project; and the Penn Center. And if you’d like to read about two examples of what the work of remaking historic sites can look like, check out my piece from last spring on the Woodrow Wilson Family Home and the Mann-Simons Site, both in Columbia, South Carolina.

[1] Benjamin R. Tillman, “The Negro Problem and Immigration,” January 24th, 1908, (Columbia: Gonzales & Bryan, 1908), p. 18. In the Benjamin R. Tillman papers, the Special Collections & Archives of Clemson University.

[2] Deliberate use of “white South Carolinians,” because I don’t think that it is my position to tell Black South Carolinians what they ought to spend their time reckoning with.

[3] See Manisha Sinha’s book, The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2000), for more on Calhoun’s role.

[4] The full text of this speech is in The State, May 2nd, 1940, page 7.

[5] Byrnes, then a senator and a hearty supporter of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, also spent much of the speech describing Tillman as the “first New Dealer,” presumably to whip up support for his pet cause among his constituency. This isn’t quite the post for his claim, which deserves attention.

[6] This quote is a well-documented one and can also be found in Jason Morgan Ward’s Defending White Democracy: The Making of Segregationist Politics & the Remaking of Racial Politics, 1936 – 1935, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2011), p. 122.

[7] “Curtains for Cotton Ed,” Time, August 8th, 1944.

[8] To learn more about Blease, read Bryant Simon’s excellent article, “The Appeal of Cole Blease of South Carolina: Race, Class, and Sex in the New South,” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 62, No. 1 (Feb., 1996), pp. 57 – 86.

[9] Ibid, 79.

[10] Ibid, 64.

[11] Ibid, 83.

[12] It was originally composed in response to President Theodore Roosevelt inviting activist Booker T. Washington to the White House, an event about which Tillman declared “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that n—– will necessitate our killing a thousand n—— in the South before they will learn their place again.” Quoted in Stephen Kantrowitz’s excellent biography, Ben Tillman & the Reconstruction of White Supremacy, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), p. 259.

[13] Read more about this process in Kendi’s brilliant book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, (New York: Nation Books, 2016).

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