The Transparency Incident of 1902- A Poetic and Incongruent Symbol is Born
by Edwin L. Turnage,
“McKissick! Make every shot count!”
Those were the words shouted to future USC President, J. Rion McKissick, who was clutching a pistol, as he and twenty-nine other Carolina students crouched behind a hastily-erected barricade on the Horseshoe in 1902.
On the other side of the barricade, an angry mob of 400 Clemson Cadets, armed with bayonets and swords, threatened bodily harm to the Carolina men and destruction of the South Carolina College. What had enraged the Clemson Cadets to such a degree? Merely the poetic and incongruent symbol of a fighting Gamecock. This was the Transparency Incident of 1902 and it is part of the history of the greatest rivalry in College football, South Carolina versus Clemson.
To understand the context of this armed confrontation between the Carolina and Clemson one must understand the roots and origins of this college football rivalry. The Gamecocks had been playing football from 1895, but to be frank and honest, the early South Carolina football teams were poor. Of course, the school itself was small, not even a University at that time. South Carolina College, which had been stripped of its University status by former Governor Pitchfork Ben Tillman and his political allies in the State Legislature, had only 79 students in 1890. By 1902, it was slightly better; there were just 200 students going to South Carolina College.
Clemson on the other hand, was a much more powerful institution. By and large a creation of Tillmanism, a populist political movement that germinated in South Carolina’s turbulent reconstruction era politics. Clemson was a great beneficiary of Governor Pitchfork Ben Tillman’s efforts. She was flush with revenue derived from taxes on tobacco, and Tillman, a notorious racist who condoned lynching while governor and later on the Senate floor, ordered African-American prisoners to labor on and improve the campus. Then a military school, Clemson had over 400 student-cadets in 1902.
The two schools began playing football against one another in 1896. Carolina won the first game, 12-6, but Clemson quickly overtook Carolina on the football field, winning the next five meetings. In fact, in those days, Clemson was one of the most powerful football teams in the southeast. In 1900, Clemson’s football team was coached by the legendary John Heisman, whose first “Tiger” team went undefeated. The 1900 Tigers also whipped South Carolina by the embarrassing score of 51-0. The defeat was so complete, that the two schools were unable to work out an agreement to play each other on Big Thursday in 1901. (Of course, the Clemson fans claimed that it was because South Carolina College was afraid Clemson would administer another whipping.)
As most serious fans of both schools know, back in those days the Carolina Clemson game was always played on Thursday during the State Fair in Columbia. As part of this event, every year the entire student body from Clemson–its entire Corp of Cadets– would come to Columbia for the game on Thursday. Afterwards, Clemson’s Cadets would remain in Columbia and march in the Elks Club Parade on Friday afternoon.
During the 1897-1900 parades, the Clemson Cadets wore garnet and black colors around their shoes. In this way, Clemson literally dragged the Carolina colors through the dust. Clemson also carried a big bass drum, which a Cadet beat upon as they marched. Inscribed on this drum was a picture of a roaring Tiger with the letters, “S.C.C” (South Carolina College), inside its mouth. This was, obviously, symbolic of Clemson eating up their old rival on the football field.
As a modern-day Gamecock fan, I can easily sympathize with the feelings these indignities must have inflicted on the students and supporters of the liberal arts oriented, South Carolina College. But endure it our people did, in hopes that someday the incredible might reoccur against all odds, a victory over Clemson in football.
Now folks, 1902 was a very special year for the Gamecocks. The school’s nickname, “Gamecocks,” did not become commonly accepted in South Carolina until 1903 when The State newspaper began referring to the team by that name. However, I’m confident that after you read about the Transparency Incident of 1902, you will agree that the 2002 South Carolina football team truly was the first Gamecock team.
Bob Williams, a Virginian, coached the 1902 football team. Williams still has the best winning percentage of any coach who has ever coached football at South Carolina (overall 14-3). South Carolina College began the 2002 season 3-0. The team would finish the year 6-1. The 1902 football team had a stifling defense. It surrendered just 16 points all season, and it shut out five opponents.
Prior to the Clemson game, the fourth game of the season, Williams hired Christy Benet as his assistant coach. Benet, a former guard on earlier football teams at South Carolina College, was reportedly an inspiring speaker.
Meanwhile, the 1902 Clemson team was clearly a dominant force on the field. The 1902 Clemson team also brought a 3-0 record to the Big Thursday game. Included amongst the Clemson wins was a 60-0 thrashing of North Carolina State, as well as wins over the then very powerful football teams, Georgia Tech and Furman.
Clemson had John Heisman as their coach. The Heisman Trophy is awarded to the best college football player in the NCAA in his honor. Heisman was a noted trick play artist. According to contemporaneous newspaper reports, Clemson was so confident of a victory over South Carolina College on Big Thursday, October 30, 1902, that the Cadets were offering bets with odds of four and five to one. What those over-optimistic Clemson Cadets didn’t know was that their Tigers were about to meet the first Gamecock team.
The game itself was described in both The State and The Greenwood Index papers as one of the “prettiest games of football ever played.” The Gamecocks jumped to a quick 12-0 lead. The Gamecocks gained the advantage by simple old-fashioned football. They played great defense. Clemson did not get a first down in the first half. Meanwhile, the Carolina offense ground out first down after first down running the ball up through the middle of the line. Thus, the Carolina football team twice marched methodically down the field, running the ball through the middle of Clemson’s line. Junior Fullback, Guy Gunter, scored the two touchdowns on short runs. (Touchdowns were only worth 5 points in 1902.) Converting on both extra points, Carolina led 12-0 at halftime.
But this was Clemson. It had a weight advantage, a great football team, and a great coach. In the second half of the game, the Tigers stormed back. First, Clemson scored on a 60 yard trick play run by a halfback named Sitton, an end around play. Then, the Tigers took possession of the ball at the beginning of the fourth quarter and began a determined drive. The drive stalled, however, on the South Carolina 20-yard line, and the Gamecocks took over midway through the fourth quarter. The Carolina offense then proceeded to run out the clock by grinding out first downs through the middle of the Clemson defensive line. Thus, the game ended in a 12-6 Carolina victory.
This was a monumental upset! After such a long victory drought, what joy and happiness this brought to the students and fans of South Carolina College. One football player was quoted in the 1903 Garnet and Black as stating, “Well, Old Pards, how about we just lay down and die right here.” Oh, were the South Carolina students were in happy and celebratory.
That is when the transparency arrived, and things got a bit ugly. That Thursday evening, Carolina’s students obtained a drawing by F. Horton Colcock, a Professor at South Carolina. The drawing depicted a bedraggled tiger beneath the crowing gamecock. (See a replica of the transparency at the top of this article. This picture was referred to as a “transparency” by the 1902 newspapers.
It was a poetic and incongruous symbol, a proud Gamecock crowing over a powerful feline, the tiger. Perhaps in an era when football teams were typically named after ferocious beasts, it was the unique quality of a Gamecock, crowing over its beaten, apparently stronger foe. The symbolism of Professor Colcock’s drawing was beautiful and the liberal arts students at South Carolina fully appreciated its meaning. Thus, on Thursday evening, South Carolina’s students began carrying the transparency around Columbia as they celebrated the football victory.
It is not clear what it was about Professor Colcock’s image that triggered such a hostile reaction from the Clemson Cadets, but it had a detrimental affect on their minds. Enraged by the Gamecock symbol, the cadets attacked the Carolina students all over Columbia on Thursday night. The State paper reported that in two separate attacks, the cadets destroyed the offensive transparency, and wounded half a dozen Carolina students with sabres, swords and bayonets. The Greenwood Index also reported on the Thursday night incident. “Several students were slightly cut with knives and left the scene with blackened eyes and swollen faces and some scalp wounds made by canes and stones.”
As reported in The State newspaper, the Clemson Commandant, Lt. Sirmyer, an Army Officer from West Point, approached the South Carolina Assistant Coach Benet Friday morning after the assaults. Sirmyer warned Benet that the Carolina students would be wise not to carry Professor Colcock’s “offensive transparency” in the Parade on Elks Club Friday night. Ominously, Lt. Sirmyer told Benet if the Carolina students did not heed his warning and if they had the temerity to carry that transparency in the parade, he “would not be responsible” for any violence that might ensue. The State reported that after this meeting, “It was openly and repeated stated by the Clemson Cadets that they would break up South Carolina College that night if the transparency was used.”
Finding Benet unbowed by his threat, Lt. Sirmyer resorted to political pressure. He went to General Jones, Columbia’s Chief of Police, and asked for the Chief to order Benet not to display the Gamecock transparency. Thus, shortly before the parade, Benet met with Lt. Sirmyer and the Chief. Both urged Benet to talk the Carolina students out of displaying their transparency during the parade. The Chief said he saw nothing offensive about the transparency, but he wished to avoid trouble. Benet considered the request, but decided it would be wrong to acquiesce. He told the Carolina students that they must carry the transparency or they would, in effect, reward the whining, political maneuverings, threats, and violence against them by the Clemson representative, Lt. Sirmyer.
Therefore, Carolina students did proudly carry their transparency in the Big Thursday parade. They had earned the right by the football victory. As the Clemson cadets marched by students waving the Gamecock image at them, Lt. Sirmyer urged restraint. At the Capitol where the parade ended, however, Sirmyer told the cadets to “behave like soldiers.” Then he added, “while on duty.” The amendment to his order was met with cheers by the 400 cadets. Lt. Sirmyer dismissed the Clemson cadets, and retired from the scene. The 400 Clemson boys proceeded straight up Sumter Street toward the Horseshoe, and were, according to Benet’s statement published in the paper, “very angry and excited.”
Before the approaching Clemson mob arrived at the campus, word reached the Carolina students and they built barricades. The students, including future President McKissick, armed themselves with pistols and repeating rifles. When the 400 Clemson cadets arrived waving their swords, sabers and bayonets, they faced approximately 50 Carolina students behind the barricades. The State paper correctly pointed out that the Carolina students were entitled to protect themselves, and their residences on the South Carolina College campus from the Clemson mob. The State said that most were armed “with pistols and several with repeating rifles.”
Fortunately, Benet learned of the approaching Clemson Cadets and he intervened to avert loss of life. Meanwhile, Lt. Sirmyer, the Clemson Commandant and leader who stated he would not be responsible for the bloodshed that resulted from the display of the transparency, was absent.
Recognizing the gravity of the circumstance–one that could easily have led to multiple fatalities–Benet stepped David-like between the two sides and offered to resolve the dispute by fighting any one of the Clemson men that they might choose. When this proposal was not accepted, Benet argued that the two parties should form a committee to arbitrate their differences. By this time, authorities and police began to arrive, and Benet’s suggestion was adopted. The Committee decided that the Carolina students would burn the transparency–an image easily reproduced–and Clemson agreed to cheer Carolina, a further humiliation for the Clemson Cadets. This accomplished, the two sides disbursed. Very fortunately, no death or further mahem resulted.
But here the transparency incident did not end. Upon learning news of the incident was reported in The State newspaper, the President of Clemson, P. H. Mell, wrote a letter, justifying the lawless behavior of the cadets. He also argued that Lt. Sirmyer had properly performed his duties, and he implicated Benet and the Carolina students who lacked the “good sense” not to display the transparency.
Clemson’s President Mell stated in his letter that the image on the transparency was “too much for them to bear,” meaning the Clemson cadets. He argued the violent actions of the Cadets were justified because the City of Columbia had refused to prohibit the Carolina students from displaying the offensive Gamecock symbol in the parade. Therefore, President Mell wrote, the city, “assumed responsibility for the transparency, its intended insult and the results occurring therefrom.”
The failure to acknowledge responsibility and recognize that the Clemson cadets had acted lawlessly and breached the peace of the City, provoked a strong and direct response by the Editor of The State, A. E. Gonzales. Gonzales specifically blamed Lt. Sirmyer for the incident. He stated that President Mell should immediately dismiss Lt. Sirmyer as the Commandant of Clemson’s Corp of Cadets. “One judges a tree by its fruit,” wrote Gonzales. “The fruits of Lt. Sirmyer’s actions have been lawlessness and provocation of domestic war.”
Please Clemson fans, this November, as the loudspeakers in Williams Brice ring over and over with the beautiful sounds of a Gamecock crowing, do not be bitter or angry. Rejoice with us as we Carolinians celebrate in our victory. Let us celebrate our victory, and please don’t get mad at us about our Gamecocks.