Group claims responsibility for Tillman vandalism

For The Johnsonian

Black figurines hanging from a tree by nooses were discovered Sunday outside Winthrop University’s Tillman Hall with a sign reading “Tillman’s Legacy.” The building has been the center of many controversies because it is named after an avowed white supremacist.

The vandalism was discovered and reported by Winthrop alumnus, Dillon Donalds, who was at Tillman Hall for a photoshoot with a current Winthrop student.

“I was taking grad photos for a current student…on the steps of Tillman. We had just completed the shoot and we started to walk to our cars when we noticed it [the display],” Donalds said. “At first we were confused and in complete disbelief but then we noticed the sign and it confirmed that [the display] represented black men hanging from nooses.”

Jeff Perez, Vice President of University Relations released an update to students and faculty Monday afternoon.

“The Winthrop University Police investigation of a display near Tillman Hall on Sunday has yielded a claim of responsibility by a group who asserts its action is a protest over the Tillman name on the main administration building. The imagery used has been deeply hurtful and threatening to many on campus. This incident will be fully investigated, and those responsible will be held accountable,” Perez stated.

“Association of Artists for Change” is the group allegedly taking claim for the display. However, Association of Artists for Change is not listed as an official organization on Winthrop University’s website.

In a statement released Monday, the organization states that the display, “is a work which aims to disrupt the aesthetic veil the building has, eliminating the ability to forget the 18 men who were lynched during Benjamin Tillman’s years in office.”

The organization pushed further to say that the imagery of the display is meant to force its viewers into a conversation about the history of Tillman’s namesake.

“The strong imagery forces disruption and makes the truth unavoidable. The work is intended to incorporate the willing and the unwilling into a dialogue about the building and its history,” stated the organization.

While the organization claiming responsibility for the display claimed that this was a piece to provoke a conversation about the building, many Winthrop students, like Sandez Werts, have said this display has left them feeling uncomfortable.

“Regardless of the intent of the creator, I felt threatened by the display. We have seen numerous things like that displayed on campuses nationwide with the intent to frighten a certain group of people. A group of people who suffered lynchings just because of the color of their skin, often at the hands of people [like] Benjamin Tillman,” Werts said. “I understand making a ‘statement’, but at what cost? Our reactions to this event here are valid and should be heard. I can only hope that the people responsible listen to the reactions of others and be mindful of how this could incite fear among our community. Am I asking for censorship? No. I'm asking for common sense.”

The display was found around 4:45 p.m. on Sunday in front of Tillman Hall and police are said to still be investigating, according to a Winthrop University police report.

Officers found 18 black stockings that had been hung from the tree, according to the report. The stockings were filled with mulch and dirt and were soaked from the morning rain which led officers to believe that the display was placed sometime Saturday night or Sunday morning.

President Dan Mahony, addressed students and faculty in an e-mail Monday morning stating that there was an ongoing investigation into who was responsible for the display.

“Winthrop Campus Police are currently investigating a display found this Sunday by Tillman Hall. The display, consisting of a sign with the words "Tillman's Legacy" and a number of abstract black spray-painted figures hanging from branches of a nearby tree, was immediately removed when reported to police,” Mahony stated in the e-mail.

Officers were not able to obtain surveillance footage of the vandalism nor could they establish an absolute time frame of when the act took place, according to the report.

This is not a first time occurrence, however, Tillman Hall has been the center of many contentious conversations and acts on campus within the past two years, due to the namesake of the building.

In July 2015, someone vandalized a portrait of Benjamin Tillman in the lobby of Tillman Hall causing about $3,000 worth of damage to the painting.

One month later, on Winthrop’s convocation day someone vandalized the outside of the building again.

Then in September 2016, students participated in a die-in, to commemorate the lives lost to police brutality in the DiGiorgio Student Union and then marched to Tillman Hall for a sit-in in protest of the name of the building.

Tillman, an avowed racist, South Carolina governor and U.S. senator, participated in lynchings and boasted about it. He was instrumental in founding Winthrop University and Clemson University, both have buildings named after him and have been the center of debates about renaming the buildings.