Ben Tillman, Racist, Terrorist, And Murderer: Time To Take Down His Statue?

Ben Tillman, Racist, Terrorist, And Murderer: Time To Take Down His Statue?

The current situation whereby students in government schools are politically indoctrinated to benefit a political party, is not new.


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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.”    Read More:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *