Name changes a sure sign of tipping point?

I was somewhat stunned when I heard last Friday that Clemson University’s trustees had just decided to abandon their stubborn reluctance to taking “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman’s name off the most prominent building on campus.

This is a sure sign that we have reached some kind of a tipping point in race relations as a nation.

The issue had been a thorn in the trustees’ side ever since groups of students, many of them African-Americans, began raising the obvious point that it seemed wrong to have the landmark of an institution dedicated to 21st-century values named after an avowed advocate of lynching of black South Carolinians.

I admit, my first reaction when people began to call for the name change a few years ago was that it just wouldn’t seem right for that revered red brick building with its iconic clock tower to go by any name other than Tillman Hall.

But it had, in fact, gone by another name — “Old Main,” until the 1940s, I later learned.

Now, I can see both sides of this issue.

My great-great-grandfather George Washington Barnett was a member of the Second Arkansas Riflemen in the Confederate army from 1862 until the end of the war. His brother, Thomas, was killed in the battle of Prairie Grove, Ark.

Neither one of them ever owned any slaves. They fought for the defense of their homeland against the Yankee invaders — and probably because they didn’t have much choice in the matter.

On the other side of my family, my great-great-grandfather James Jefferson Dockery did own a few slaves for a time, but he became convinced of the evil of slavery and set them free. He ended up fighting for the Union, while his family was severely harassed by the rebels, who considered him a deserter.

I think most Southerners probably have similar family histories. I’d hate for anyone to dishonor any of my ancestors for their service during this most tragic episode of our nation’s history. But anything that glorifies a government whose purpose was to uphold the institution of slavery is a travesty and an affront to the descendants of slaves and to all freedom-loving people.

And that’s what the Confederacy was.

It’s just a shame that the war ever had to be fought, and a shame that even decades after the war we had violent racists like Pitchfork Ben Tillman railing about lynching black people.

But the karma from the great evil of slavery carries over through more than the few generations that have passed since emancipation. The past, as William Faulkner said, is not even really past.

Yes, Tillman did play a key role in Clemson becoming a state institution of higher education. But as the trustees acknowledged Friday, his views were so far out of line with what Clemson has become that it really doesn’t make sense to leave his name on the school’s most important historical structure.

Of course, the trustees have known that ever since this issue arose. But I suspect they also knew in previous years that many of the university’s alumni — and donors — didn’t want the change. They wouldn’t want to appear to be backing down under pressure from groups that were perhaps more liberal — and more multicultural — than Clemson’s core constituency.

But this current racial justice movement that was sparked by the brutal, senseless killing of a black man by a white cop in Minneapolis has gathered enough momentum to change many hearts and minds. That’s why I say we’re at a tipping point when the board of a university built on a former plantation in one of the most conservative states in America decides to change course like this. It means its constituency has changed.

It didn’t hurt that two of Clemson’s greatest African-American football heroes — Deshaun Watson and former Daniel High School star DeAndre Hopkins, now multimillionaire NFL players — joined thousands in signing a petition to take Tillman’s name off the building, and to take John C. Calhoun’s name off the university’s honors college. Calhoun, of course, was the one who said slavery was not an evil, but a “positive good.”

The board’s previous attempt at quelling the unrest over Tillman Hall — raising public awareness of the racist roots upon which Clemson was built — was at least a step in the right direction. But it didn’t make much sense to apologize for Tillman and honor him at the same time by leaving his name on the building.

The important thing is that people understand the history. I grew up in Clemson and graduated with a degree in history from the school and somehow never learned much about Ben Tillman’s dark side until the past few years. All I knew was that his nickname, “Pitchfork,” had to do with his dislike for Grover Cleveland and that he was one of the instigators of the animosity between Clemson and the University of South Carolina.

But he was a more violent-minded bigot than most, even in that era in which belief of white supremacy was the norm.

Changing the name of the building will require action by the state legislature, under a law that was put in place some 20 years ago when the state finally took down the Confederate battle flag from atop the Statehouse dome.

I’m sure there will be some debate in the General Assembly, with the old guard arguing that erasing Tillman’s name is just the first step on a slippery slope that would lead to pressure to take Tom Clemson’s name off the university. Clemson did serve in the Confederate army, but he was nothing like Tillman.

Considering that the trustees were unanimous in making their request, I can’t see any reason why our legislators wouldn’t honor it.

Old Main it once was. Old Main it should be once again.