Built by mostly African American convicted laborers in the 1890s, Old Mainl is one of the oldest buildings on the Clemson University campus. This also happens to be a site where instances of resistance have occurred. Resistance actually started in the 1890s when some of those convict laborers--many of whom were arrested for petty crimes--ran away from their confinement.
Among those who escaped was Dock R. Harris on November 1, 1890. It is not known if Mr. Harris was caught or remained free, nor is there information on where he went after he escaped.
This building is also where Harvey Gantt, the first African American student at Clemson, registered for classes on January 28, 1963. In the 1960s, Gantt attempted to gain admission into Clemson to complete his architecture degree, but was refused. Afterwards, Gantt sued the University. After a lengthy, difficult legal battle, Gantt regained his admission. He was one of the pioneers who broke Clemson’s tradition of being an all-white college.
Clemson trustees changed Old Main’s name to “Tillman Hall '' in 1946 in honor of South Carolina former governor and senator and Clemson trustee Benjamin R. Tillman. This name change was initiated by Benjamin Tillman’s son, William Tillman, during the 50th anniversary of the institution's opening. Although Tillman helped establish the university, he was also a white supremacist who advocated the murder of African Americans. In other words, Benjamin Tillman has a bloody and controversial history. And many, understandably and wisely, did not want that history to be celebrated.
On September 9, 2015, Clemson students protested against the building being named after Tillman and requested that the building revert back to its previous name, Old Main. This event became part of the “Reclaim Old Main'' campaign. Protesters believed the building’s current name was an antithesis to the welcoming and diverse community Clemson University aspired to be. The name upheld and celebrated an individual who encouraged division and violence as opposed to peace and unity. As a result, students and their allies found this homage painful, and decided to speak up against it.
In June 2021, Clemson trustees requested that the State Assembly grant a one time exception to the Heritage Act to allow Clemson University to revert the name of the building to Old Main. The request is still pending.