Despite athletes’ pleas, USC board won’t consider renaming Thurmond building Friday

Despite pleas from some of the University of South Carolina’s most decorated athletes in recent memory, the USC board of trustees will not consider renaming a building named after Strom Thurmond at its June 19 meeting, a school spokesman confirmed Thursday.

The calls to rename the building came on social media from former women’s national player of the year A’ja Wilson, two-time Olympic gold medalist Natasha Hastings, former SEC men’s basketball player of the year Sindarius Thornwell, and a host of football stars including Marcus Lattimore, Alshon Jeffrey, Jadeveon Clowney, Gerald Dixon, Mike Davis, Damiere Byrd and more.

When Lattimore came across the message and the images, it clicked for him.

“That’s a no brainer,” Lattimore said. “It was a no brainer for me to support something like that. Because things like that are what hold us back and plague South Carolina. It’s a stain that everybody sees when they walk by, because it’s someone who represented exactly … the exact opposite of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

He said the message went out across several group texts with fellow Gamecocks athletes and they also wanted to voice support. At the moment, the athletes are in conversations about making changes, but there aren’t any next steps firmly set in stone. He expects the school will at least be open to listening.

As of Thursday, online petitions to rename the Thurmond building at Blossom and Assembly streets has more than 15,000 signatures and a separate petition to rename the Sims at Women’s Quad building has more than 3,700 signatures.

After USC President Robert Caslen announced he is formally calling on the board to ask the S.C. Legislature to rename the women’s dorm Sims at Women’s Quad, calls grew for the school to also push to rename the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center.

Should the Sims building be renamed, it’s unclear what the new name would be.

Those in favor of renaming the buildings point out that although J. Marion Sims is considered the father of modern gynecology, he performed medical experiments on slaves. Those in favor of removing Thurmond’s name from the fitness center note that he was an ardent supporter of segregation in the 1940s and 1950s, though he eventually changed those beliefs.

USC board of trustees chair John Von Lehe told The State on Monday that the “issue of renaming buildings will be on the agenda for Friday.”

Thursday, USC spokesman Jeff Stensland told The State that Friday’s board meeting will cover only Sims at Women’s Quad.

According to SC’s Heritage Act, only the state legislature can rename historical monuments and buildings, and must do so by a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate. The act was passed in 2000 as part of a deal that brought the Confederate flag off the state Capitol dome.

Protests are drawing battle lines in the debate over the Heritage Act again.

The act went too far and tied the hands of universities, towns and cities when it comes to making decisions, said Sen. John Scott, a Richland County Democrat.

“Twenty years later this thing has come back to haunt us,” Scott said. “If they want to change the name, they should have that option.”

Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington County Republican, believes taking Strom Thurmond’s name off the building is a “bad idea” and a debate about the issue shouldn’t be a priority compared to other problems, such as the state’s education system being unable to contact thousands of students since the coronavirus hit.

“Things need to calm down before we start calling for things to be removed and things to be taken down,” Shealy said.

A Republican colleague in the House sees it differently.

“The University of South Carolina and our other public colleges and universities should be allowed to make decisions on the names of their buildings just as they make many other decisions on a day-to-day basis,” said Rep. Nathan Ballentine, a Republican who represents parts of Richland and Lexington counties. “The General Assembly should not stand in their way.”

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, said he has had a personal relationship with the Thurmond family since he prosecuted the drunk driver that killed Thurmond’s daughter, Nancy, in Five Points in the early 1990s.

“I’m not someone to opine on that,” he said of changing the Thurmond center’s name.

But he said he believes the Heritage Act “sets up a process which is constitutionally suspect. I would be in favor of local governments making those decisions.”

For state Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, the renaming of buildings and the removal of statues and monuments is not just policy — it’s also personal.

He is a direct descendant of Civil War Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton III, whose statue is on the State House lawn, and N.G. Gonzales, founder of The State newspaper. Gonzales was murdered by militant racist Ben Tillman’s nephew, James Tillman, who was lieutenant governor at the time, and a monument to the publisher stands on Senate Street across from the State House. Tillman was both a South Carolina governor and U.S senator in the 19th century. He was instrumental in the founding of Clemson University, and his statue stands on the State House lawn.

Finlay’s father, the late Columbia Mayor Kirk Finlay, has a statue in his namesake Finlay park in the capital city.

Those are just a few of the nods to his ancestors across the state.

Finlay said he is “glad USC is deliberating it, and (expects) they will follow the law as laid out by the Heritage Act.” He has been told by legal authorities that the Heritage Act is binding, he said. “But I’m not a lawyer.”

“I have a strong opinion that the Heritage Act is there for a reason and is the law we live by,” he added. “But my opinion at this point doesn’t matter in terms of the General Assembly. That is something we will have to take up (when the legislature reconvenes) in January.”

Calls to rename buildings named after — and remove monuments that honor — segregationists, racists and Confederate figures has reached a fever pitch after George Floyd, a Black man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck while he pleaded for air.

USC’s cross-state rival, Clemson University, has removed the name of John C. Calhoun, a former U.S. vice president and slave owner, from its honors program and has asked the state Legislature to rename Tillman Hall, named after Ben Tillman.

Unlike Sims, Calhoun or Tillman, Thurmond is a recent memory for many South Carolinians, as he died in 2003. Monuments and statues to Thurmond exist throughout the state. And many institutions and colleges — including Clemson and Winthrop — still have programs, awards, scholarships, buildings and more that still bear his name. A public high school in Thurmond’s home county of Edgefield also is named for him.

Heather Armel, a 2014 South Carolina graduate, was a crucial force behind the push to rename the Thurmond building that went viral on Wednesday night. In the midst of the protests nationally, she was searching for a place those themes intersected with her life, and a friend’s Instagram post pointed her to the Thurmond center.

Coming from Virginia, she didn’t know much about the longtime senator and ardent fighter for segregation, but it stood out how a building near the heart of student life had made the name ubiquitous on campus without that historical context.

“I just spent like the next hour, making the petition, making graphics for it and started to share it,” Armel said.

That was two weeks ago, and it steadily picked up steam. Hastings and Byrd were the first athletes who posted Armel’s graphics, but on Wednesday, Lattimore and Jeffery, big-name stars when Armel was on campus, got involved, helping spur other athletes to join in speaking up.

Armel said she’d been working with a group running, with a larger goal of rolling back the law that prevents changing the names of certain historical buildings. She said taking Thurmond’s name off the wellness center seemed like a good first step because of its prominence in the student experience and place at a heavily trafficked part of campus.

Staff writers Travis Bland and Jeff Wilkinson contributed to this report.

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