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Debate over renaming buildings at the University of South Carolina has simmered for years.
In October 2019, former USC President Robert Caslen created the Presidential Commission on University History to study the issue of renaming buildings. And after the death of George Floyd in the spring of 2020, students, faculty and advocates intensified calls for the university to act on renaming campus landmarks bearing the names of people who were tied to slavery, segregation or racism.
The commission recommended removing the names from 11 campus structures, and offered the names of 14 African Americans that could potentially replace them. Now, USC Interim President Harris Pastides will decide whether to send the recommendations to the board of trustees, who could then decide whether to accept those recommendations and make an official proposal on renaming structures.
Ultimately, though, the decision is up to the state Legislature. Under South Carolina’s Heritage Act, two-thirds of the state’s lawmakers would have to approve changing any of those names on USC’s campus — a high hurdle to clear.
The names of these campus landmarks “will stand as a permanent testament to our collective history,” Pastides said in a letter to students and faculty on July 14.
What will that testament be?
Here’s a look at the 11 controversial namesakes the commission has recommended for removal, including their contributions to South Carolina and USC history and insight into why their legacies strike a complicated chord.
What: Built in 1910, Barnwell College is the home of the USC psychology department.
Who: This building is named for Robert Barnwell, who served as the third president of South Carolina College from 1835-1841. A Beaufort, S.C., native, Barnwell was a senator in both the U.S. and Confederate States of America.
In 1832, Barnwell signed the Ordinance of Nullification, which set up a battle between President Andrew Jackson and South Carolina. The Ordinance of Nullification, or “act of defiance” against the federal tariff, created an ideological crisis that would continue for the next 30 years and contribute to secession and the Civil War.
Commission Findings: The commission recommends removing the name of Robert Barnwell from this building.
Blatt PE Center
What: Built in 1971, the fitness center offers a gym, outdoor recreation gear rentals, bike shop, racquetball and squash courts, an indoor pool and more.
Who: The Blatt PE Center was named for for Solomon Blatt, who was a member of the S.C. House of Representatives, representing Barnwell County for 54 years. Blatt also sat on USC’s Board of Trustees in the 1930s and ‘40s and was the S.C. Legislature’s Speaker of the House from 1937 to 1946, and again from 1951 to 1973.
Blatt helped spearhead the passage of South Carolina’s right-to-work law in 1954 and was was one of the state’s most ardent segregationists.
Like some of his contemporaries, Blatt’s attitude towards integration changed over the course of his life. According to one scholar’s research, although Blatt “was an architect of the state’s massive resistance (to integration) ... by contrast, (he) spoke proudly of the state’s racial progress when he retired as speaker of the South Carolina House, and in 1974 voted for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.”
Commission Findings: The commission recommends removing the name of Solomon Blatt from this building.
Gressette Room in Harper College
What: The Gressette Room is housed within Harper College, which was completed in 1848. It was an early meeting place of the Euphradian Society, a literary and debate society that addressed issues including philosophical, social, religious, and political issues of the day, with other campus organizations. Several of The Euphradian Society’s debates centered around the merits of slavery, during which it concluded there was no way to emancipate enslaved people in a way that was beneficial to them.
Harper College currently houses the USC Honors College, and the Gressette Room is used as a gathering space for lectures, banquets and other events.
Who: The Gressette Room was named for L. Marion Gressette, who represented Calhoun County in the S.C. House of Representatives from 1925 to 1932. He was also a state senator from 1927 to 1984.
Gressette was part of a legislative committee, known as the “Gressette Committee,” that resisted school desegregation in South Carolina. The committee was also sometimes called “Gressette’s Graveyard” due to its successful rejection of proposed civil rights legislation. In 1978, Gressette “successfully prevented ratification of the federal equal rights amendment,” according to South Carolina Encyclopedia.
After Clemson College integrated in the 1960s, Gressette changed his stance on desegregation. He worked with integrated delegations during the 1970 Democratic convention and later became a legislative patron of South Carolina State College after part of Orangeburg was added to his district.
Commission Findings: The commission recommends removing the name of L. Marion Gressette from this room.
What: Built in 1855, Longstreet Theater is a 312-seat arena stage used for theatrical performances and classes.
Who: The theater was named for Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, former president of Emory University who served as president of South Carolina College from 1857 to 1861.
Longstreet was a slave owner and had a conflicted history of treatment of enslaved people. While he advocated for humane treatment of enslaved people and taught his slaves to read and write, Longstreet also authored writings encouraging South Carolina College students to “protect southern rights, including slavery.” He was a supporter of the Civil War and encouraged students to enlist in the Confederate Army.
Commission Findings: The commission recommends removing the name of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet from this building.
Preston Residential College
What: According to the University of South Carolina, Preston Residential College is a dormitory and the school’s only “residential college,” which integrates “academics, leadership, and community into one unmatched, immersive experience.” It was built in 1939.
Who: Preston Residential College is named for for William Campbell Preston, an alumnus of South Carolina College and the school’s president from 1845 to 1851. Preston was also a lawyer, a member of the S.C. House of Representatives and a U.S. Senator.
Preston supported pro-slavery politics and vehemently defended the southern slave economy. He supported nullification of tariffs on British textiles that many southerners believed would threaten their economy. The nullification controversy ushered in an ideological schism that would later lead to secession and the Civil War.
Commission Findings: The commission recommends removing the name of William Campbell Preston from this building.
Robert E. Lee Tree
What: A magnolia tree in front of McKissick Museum on the Horseshoe.
When: According to a note published in The Gamecock student newspaper on May 28, 1954, a marker in front of the tree was installed by the Daughters of the Confederacy. Only seven days prior, the U.S. Supreme Court had issued its decision on Brown v. Board of Education, which determined that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional.
Who: General Robert E. Lee was the commander of the Confederate States Army during the Civil War.
Commission Findings: The commission recommends removing the name of Robert E. Lee from this marker. It also notes that a faculty member at the USC School of Law said, “I walk by the tree and the marker twice a day on my way to and from the Law School and never a day goes by that I don’t think of the intent that must have motivated the people who were responsible for its installation.”
J. Marion Sims Residence Hall
What: The second women’s dorm on campus, J. Marion Sims Residence Hall was built in 1939. It is now part of the university’s Women’s Quad, along with McClintock and Wade Hampton College.
Who: Dr. J. Marion Sims was a gynecological surgeon credited with major medical advancements, including treatments for vesicovaginal fistula, an often fatal complication of childbirth. Ethical controversy clouds Sims’ achievements, however, as he performed surgical experiments without anesthesia on enslaved women who could not consent to the procedures.
In 2020, the USC Board of Trustees said they would ask lawmakers to approve a name change for the dorm.
“This is an important effort to address (institutional) racism that has existed within the history of our university, and I applaud the board’s decision to act on this,” former USC President Robert Caslen said in a statement at the time.
Commission Findings: The commission recognized that the recommendation to rename Sims Hall was made prior to the formation of the commission and its criteria to guide its recommendation process. It quotes USC graduate Jazmyne McCrae suggesting the hall should be renamed to “honor Henrie Monteith Treadwell … one of three African Americans who integrated the University of South Carolina in 1963.”
Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center
What: USC’s premiere fitness center, featuring a basketball court, climbing wall, fitness equipment, outdoor gear rentals, bike shop, racquetball and squash courts, indoor and outdoor pools, sand volleyball courts, a sauna and more. The center was built in 2003, the year Strom Thurmond died.
Who: Strom Thurmond was South Carolina’s longest-serving U.S. Senator, serving for a total of 48 years from 1954 to 2003.
The State’s 2003 obituary for Thurmond wrote that as senator, he blocked national bills that would have granted equal rights to Black people in the U.S., and “in the 1950s, he even voted against statehood for Hawaii because its population wasn’t white enough.”
Thurmond set the Senate’s filibuster record in 1957 in an effort to defeat a civil rights proposal. He voted against the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and he urged the FBI to investigate whether Martin Luther King Jr. was a communist.
After Thurmond’s death at age 100, his biggest secret came to light. In the 1920s, Thurmond had fathered a daughter with a 15-year-old Black maid. At the time, Thurmond was 22. His daughter’s name — Essie Mae Washington-Williams — as well as those of Thurmond’s four other children, is etched on a State House monument.
Late in his career, Thurmond was honored by an organization of South Carolina’s Black mayors for his service to their communities, and some civil rights leaders praised him for his efforts to help Black South Carolinians. He voted to renew the Voting Rights Act in 1982 and for a federal holiday to honor King in 1983. In his last campaign for U.S. Senate in 1996, Thurmond received 20% of the Black vote, a high for Republicans in the state during that time.
Commission Findings: The commission recognized that the push to rename “The Strom” was led by former Gamecock athletes including Marcus Lattimore and Moe Brown.
It also writes that those advocating for renaming the center cited Thurmond’s defense of segregation, filibuster of the Voting Rights Act, campaign for the U.S. presidency as a member of the “Dixiecrat” party, and his fathering of Essie Mae Washington-Williams.
Those who opposed renaming the wellness center cited how Thurmond secured “funding for scholarships, building projects and other educational pursuits during his tenure as the nation’s longest serving U.S. senator,” as well as President Joe Biden’s 2003 eulogy for Thurmond, during which he said “I do not believe that at his core (Thurmond) was a racist.”
The commission recommends removing the name of Strom Thurmond from the wellness center.
Thomas Cooper Library
What: Constructed in 1959, the Thomas Cooper Library is the flagship library for the University of South Carolina.
Who: Thomas Cooper was the second president of South Carolina College, serving from 1820 to 1834.
While living in his native home of Westminister, England, Cooper wrote pamphlets arguing against slavery. But upon arrival in South Carolina, Cooper purchased two enslaved families and opposed tariffs on British goods that threatened the southern slave economy. In later writings, Cooper expressed beliefs that “slave labor was an economic necessity and that the white race was superior.”
In early 2021, a group of students, led by the newly formed USC chapter of the NAACP, announced they would now call the Thomas Cooper Library the Willie L. Harriford Library. Harriford, who died in 2018, was USC’s first Black administrator, a U.S. Army veteran and the founder of the Theta Nu chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
Commission Findings: The commission recommends removing the name of Thomas Cooper from this building. Willie L. Harriford’s name was not one of the 14 names recommended by the commission for future naming opportunities.
What: Thornwell College was completed in 1913, and was the first dormitory built on campus since 1848.
Who: This college is named for James Thornwell, who graduated from South Carolina College in 1831 and was later elected professor of belles letters and logic in 1837.
Thornwell laid the groundwork for the Presbyterian Church to accept that Christians were permitted to own slaves, and in 1845 the Presbyterian assembly agreed with Thornwell’s report “that the existence of domestic slavery is no bar to Christian communion.”
Commission Findings: The commission recommends removing the name of James Thornwell from this building.
Wade Hampton College
What: The original Wade Hampton residence hall was built in 1924 but was was destroyed in 1959. A new building built in its place retained its original name. It was the first women’s dormitory for the school and is now part of the women’s quad along with McClintock and Sims Hall.
Who: Wade Hampton College is named for Wade Hampton III, a lauded Confederate military officer who rose to the rank of lieutenant general despite having limited military training. Born in 1818 in Charleston, Hampton grew up on a plantation around many enslaved people..
Hampton’s cavalry participated in several major Civil War battles, including the First and Second Battles of Manassas and the Battle of Trevilian Station.
After the war, Hampton became South Carolina’s first post-Reconstruction governor from 1876 to 1879 and later served as U.S. Senator from South Carolina from 1879 to 1891.
What the commission says: The commission references Jazmyne McCrae, a USC graduate student and a leader in the Repeal the Heritage Act effort, who advocated renaming buildings to mitigate the University’s “racist” past.
“Hampton was a Civil War general and a large plantation and slave owner who later became the state’s governor and dismantled Reconstruction policies that gave African Americans voting and other civil rights,” the report states.
The commission recommends removing the name of Wade Hampton from this building.