Slave-owning, KKK-supporting namesake of Wade Hampton High sparks name-change controversy

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Wade Hampton III | Credit: Library of Congress

Dueling petitions about whether to change the name of Wade Hampton High School because its namesake was one of the South’s largest slaveholders has emerged as the latest controversy over what to do when the state’s past collides with present-day beliefs.

Wade Hampton High student Asha Marie’s petition on Change.org asking the Greenville County School board to “leave the school’s racist and unpatriotic name behind” by “refusing to honor a man who bought and sold human beings and was a traitor to his country”  has nearly 1,600 signatures, at press time. Three counter petitions to keep the name has more than 2,600 signatures combined.

It’s a debate that’s getting louder in the Upstate and throughout the country, especially in the South, a region that has been marked by dramatic reversals in attitudes and beliefs.

Two years ago, Clemson University’s Board of Trustees passed a resolution that called repugnant the actions and views of Ben Tillman, one of its founders and an unapologetic racist and virulent white supremacist.

But the board rebuked calls to rename Tillman Hall, one of the Clemson’s most iconic buildings, and instead decided to install three historical markers on campus as the first step to telling the school’s “complete history.”

Recently, a Confederate monument honoring Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard was removed from a New Orleans roundabout in the middle of the night.

“The essence of the debate is this: what do we do as a society when our public institutions and art memorialize individuals we would no longer choose to honor today?” said Furman University history professor Courtney Tollison.

Wade Hampton III was a plantation owner who rose to lieutenant general in the Confederate Army. He also served as South Carolina governor and a U.S. Senator.

Rod Andrew, a Clemson University professor who wrote a biography of Hampton, “Wade Hampton: Confederate Warrior to Southern Redeemer,” said the general’s supporters among the Red Shirts, a paramilitary group that used violence and intimidation to suppress the black vote, were responsible for the deaths of dozens of blacks in the 1876 gubernatorial election. But he said there was no evidence that Hampton himself supported or encouraged that violence.

And while Hampton raised money for the KKK, Andrew said the former governor wasn’t a leader or a member of the group.

“You can’t deny Wade Hampton was a racist, but he would be considered a moderate on race for his day,” said Andrew. “He believed whites should lead, but he also believed that blacks deserved basic protections and rights.”

Andrew said he doesn’t like the idea of basing decisions to change names and remove monuments on emotions rather than by education decisions.

“We need to take the opportunity to learn about these people. Usually, you’ll find they’re a lot more complex than we thought,” he said.

Marie’s petition said the values exemplified by Hampton — racism, bigotry, and a blatant lack of patriotism — are not the values of South Carolinians and should not continue to be enshrined in a place of learning. “In South Carolina, we remember our history, but we do not glorify racists and slaveholders,” the petition said. “By signing this petition, you stand with the minority students at Wade Hampton High and reaffirm the need to leave the school’s racist and unpatriotic name behind us.”

The petition suggested the school be named after late Greenville Mayor Max Heller, who escaped from Nazi-occupied Austria and is the man credited for starting the revitalization of Greenville’s Main Street and downtown.

The petitions against changing the name said doing so would change “everything the school has done,” including raising money for local charities and becoming a Blue Ribbon School, and would “disgrace the memory that many have had at the school.”

Tolleson said people should be assessed within the context of their times.

“Evaluating individuals based on our contemporary values is a never-ending cycle and one that undermines the value of history,” she said.

Andrew said it could be an expensive process to change the names of all buildings named after people who owned slaves and held views now considered racist. “If we do it, we should take the opportunity to truly learn about these people,” he says. “Usually, we’ll find they’re a lot more complex than we thought.”

“I wonder what values the next generation will condemn us for,” Andrew said.

Tollison agrees. “If our society gets in the habit of changing the names, we should anticipate that long after we are gone, the individuals we choose to honor today may very well no longer be in vogue in the future, and the names we select today in the 21st century will likely be changed as well,” she said.

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