Two calls to change names tied to the Confederacy occurred in Rock Hill Friday. One was the call by the Winthrop University Board of Trustees to change the name of Tillman Hall back to Main Hall – a move echoing this exact call at Clemson University last week and similar to the one at the University of South Carolina to remove the name Sims from a dorm; the other an effort to rename Confederate Park.
The move to change names with Confederate roots, however, is stumped by the state Heritage Act, a 2000 bill that forbids the changing of any public place names connected to historic people or events.
Nevertheless, the Winthrop board voted unanimously on Friday to ask the South Carolina General Assembly to change the name of one of its main buildings so that it would no longer honor Benjamin Tillman, an outspoken proponent of slavery whose name is prominently tagged on structures and streets in the South.
In its resolution, the board wrote that it is “deeply saddened and concerned by the recent tragic events that have taken place in our country as well as the continued acts of injustice and inequality that run deeply in our society.”
The student who started the petition to see the name change through, Winthrop sophomore Tiana Neal, spoke at the rally at Confederate Park.
“What made me start it,” Neal said, “was that I realized [that] the names of the victims of police brutality is ever-changing, but the reasons are always the same. We can’t just stay silent and we can’t just be angry in the moment, and then it’s another one – another name.”
The rally began as a march from Fountain Park down Main Street and then down the road on which the park faces – Confederate Avenue. Less than a block away is an apartment complex named Confederate Park Apartments, in one of the most Black-heavy sections of the city.
Rev. Gavin Gabriel, one of the organizers of the march and rally – which was formally organized by the York County chapter of Moms Against Racism – said that the presence of a place called Confederate Park in a Black neighborhood just doesn’t fit anymore.
“For a Black father or for a Black mother to have to explain to their child that it’s [called] Confederate Park because people still uphold the values [of the Confederacy] is unacceptable,” Gabriel said. “It’s unfair, and it makes those who live in the community feel as if they’re less than.”
Gabriel said, however, that he and Moms Against Racism are open to adopting a name that still allows people an option.
“Confederate Park sits on Confederate, Jackson, and Pickens, ,” he said, naming the streets the park
touches. “And on the other side, Liberty Avenue. We think that that’s a great option [to call it Liberty Park]. We also think that Legacy [Park} would allow for those who support the Confederacy to feel that they still have some stake there.”
The turnout for the rally was about 150, on a sweaty night that turned rainy. The original event on the park’s grass was moved beneath the open-air shelter, where a nearly half-and-half mix of Black and White donned masks, raised their fists in the Black Power salute, prayed, and called for continued momentum to remove names that offend many residents.
The rally was peaceful and, generally, optimistic. Clinton College President Lester McCorn embodied most of the messages spoken Friday when he said, “Change only occurs when people make up their mind that it’s time for a change; when people make up their mind that it’s time to breathe again” -- a reference to George Floyd who’s last words were a plea that he couldn’t breathe under the weight of a police officer’s knee.
Ayende Alcala, a teacher at Sullivan Middle School, was more direct.
“I can’t breathe,” he said as he peeled off his mask to speak. “To be honest, I wish I wasn’t here today. Or at least here today like this. I was hoping to be here today, in my dreams, to celebrate the emancipation and the freedom of my foremothers and my forefathers. Yet I stand before you today sorrowed; a pain in my heart over the same conditions that we suffer day in and day out in these streets.”
Alcala took to task the assumption that racism does not exist in Rock Hill the same as it does elsewhere, just because the city does not have a Michael Brown, who was killed by police in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. He said this absence does not mean that racism doesn’t exist here. He cited a 1968 speech by Coretta Scott King that elicited “tears and cheers” at the time, he said, but, 52 years later, is still being cited in speeches, where people chant and march, but the problem of racism persists.
“Racism is not just the negative stereotypes and things that one person says to another,” he said. “It goes to when you go to a certain side of town and all the needs are met, but then when you come to our side of town it’s a much different picture.”
Alcala called upon attendees to compel changes to the economic and institutional roots that create imbalances and injustices.
“How many [young] people may not lose their lives to a gunshot, but they lose it from lack of opportunity?” he asked.
Rock Hill Mayor John Gettys, who also spoke at the rally in the park, said that while the city can’t change its past, it can do something about where it’s headed.
“It’s the future that we get to define in some way,” he said. “We can all claim a heritage to some degree, but not all of it is good. We can control our present and we can control our future.”
Rally organizers called upon the state Legislature to repeal the Heritage Act so that cities can make their own decisions about what they deem to be acceptable and what they deem to be offensive.
Scott Morgan is the Upstate Multimedia Reporter for South Carolina Public radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan.