Who Was Ben Tillman?
Who Was Ben Tillman?
Historic Columbia supports the removal of the Benjamin R. Tillman monument from the South Carolina State House grounds. To read a full statement on this topic, please click here.
We of the South have never recognized the right of the Negro to govern white men, and we never will.
- Benjamin R. Tillman, March 23, 1900
Throughout his political career, which spanned from 1890 until his death in 1918, Benjamin R. Tillman used two methods to silence Black voices in South Carolina: intimidation through violence and the suppression of legal rights. In a 1909 speech at the Red Shirt Reunion in Anderson, SC, Tillman boasted about his role in the 1876 murder of six Black militia members, whom he called “negro thugs.” White leaders celebrated the “Hamburg Riot” as a key victory of the 1876 Red Shirt paramilitary campaign, which successfully intimidated Black voters and stuffed ballot boxes to ensure the election of Wade Hampton III, and with it, the end of Reconstruction. Today, these murders are known as the Hamburg Massacre, one of the earliest lynchings in South Carolina.
Although he began as a perpetrator, Tillman later used his platform as governor and senator to serve as an instigator of and advocate for racial violence. Perhaps his most well-known pronouncement occurred in an 1892 speech, when, as governor, he vowed that “I would lead a lynching”--a claim carried by the state’s leading newspapers. His election to the governorship in 1890 unleashed what human rights activist Modjeska Monteith Simkins later called “an era of lynching.” By the end of the decade, at least 53 men, 51 of whom were Black, were lynched in South Carolina.
Yet, Tillman was most proud of his role in the Constitutional Convention of 1895, which introduced an “understanding clause” and poll tax as barriers to the vote, designed to eradicate Black participation in government. In a speech to his fellow United States Senators five years later, he reminded them that, “We [South Carolinians] did not disfranchise [sic] the negroes until 1895. Then we had a constitutional convention convened which took the matter up calmly, deliberately, and avowedly with the purpose of disenfranchising as many of them as we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments....” This speech affirmed a sentiment repeated throughout his career on the national stage about the role of African Americans in American democracy:
We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.
The initial fundraising effort for this statue, over a decade after Tillman’s death, was spearheaded by Governor John Gardiner Richards Jr. to honor his former mentor. Richards reminded potential donors that “It was through [Tillman’s] efforts that the constitutional convention of 1895 was held and during this convention he….made Democracy forever safe [for white people] in South Carolina.” Other pamphlets and speeches describing the planned statue were more explicit in praising the language of the 1895 constitution, which “legally disenfranchised the negroes” and gave the “common white man…a firmer hold on political power.” This disenfranchisement had allowed local leaders to codify Jim Crow laws in the ensuing decades, creating a race-based class system that seemed insurmountable to many South Carolinians.
When the monument was unveiled in 1940, then-senator James F. Byrnes proclaimed that “the fight [Tillman] waged for the masses of the people is an abiding inspiration to all true lovers of democracy.” Yet many of the monument’s biggest supporters were simultaneously resisting anti-lynching legislation making its way through Congress and would soon become legal opponents of the newly formed South Carolina Conference of Branches of the NAACP.
While Tillman represents the most obvious strain of white supremacy in our state, there are powerful reminders of individuals who embodied the same ideals throughout the community---from buildings, streets, and monuments to endowed scholarships and awards. Historic Columbia remains committed to contextualizing these narratives and engaging in conversations with Richland County residents about how to collectively move forward, with a goal of creating more equitable and just civic space.
Since Columbia’s 1786 founding, the grounds of the South Carolina State House have grown into a 22-acre complex featuring 7 buildings and more than 30 monuments. South Carolinians have constructed, altered, and reconsidered this space for more than 230 years—and continue to do so today.Learn More
During the course of four centuries, Columbia’s black community transformed itself from that of a predominately enslaved population to a society whose members overcame the restrictions of Jim Crow and charted the course of the Civil Rights era. Join us on a tour to learn their names, their stories, and their legacies.Learn More