South Carolina history still flowing for the master, Walter Edgar

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJune 16, 2012 

Walter and Conrelia "Nela" Gibbons Edgar at their Edisto Island home.

DAVID LAUDERDALE/THE ISLAND PACKET

I traveled to the feet of retired historian rock star Walter Edgar, and found him sitting on a screened porch on Edisto Island, a ceiling fan swirling quietly overhead as Fishing Creek glided through the marsh down by the dock.

"What have you learned about mankind," I asked, "in 40 years of poring over South Carolina history?"

"Human beings are human beings," he said.

Edgar, 68, stepped away from the lectern at the University of South Carolina in Columbia at the end of May. He also directed its Institute for Southern Studies, wrote the definitive history of the state, and edited "The South Carolina Encyclopedia."

"The one thing I would tell students in my introductory lectures on South Carolina history is that South Carolina was settled by human beings, and human beings make mistakes," he said.

He told students they would learn things about South Carolina that would not make them happy.

Edgar is credited with airing the state's history openly, without being judgmental. He is credited with writing African-Americans, women, Native Americans and mill hands into the state's history book for the first time.

"It's all part of the big mosaic of who we are."

'Anything but'

Edgar probably should not have been on Edisto Island, or anywhere else in South Carolina for that matter.

His father, a Mobile, Ala., businessman, was chagrined that his son had gone off to Davidson College and gotten hooked on history, not medicine or law.

His son ended up as the drawling, deep voice of the Palmetto State because "out of the blue" USC offered him an $1,800 graduate assistantship to study for a master's degree in history. That was 1965, and by 1972 Edgar had earned a doctorate, served in Vietnam, married Elizabeth "Betty" Giles of Swansea and joined the university faculty in Columbia.

One quick move sums up his contribution to South Carolina.

He revived a course taught by the state's previous preeminent historian, George C. Rogers Jr. It was called "Southern Cultural and Intellectual History." The graduate students who enrolled were teased with: "That will be a very short course."

But after writing weekly essays and reading one or two books per week of history, literature and political science, the students discovered "it was anything but."

"South Carolina history is so rich," Edgar said, "if I directed graduate students for 50 years, I would never run out of topics to study."

New challenges

He wishes South Carolina produced more scholars to mine its unique stories, from the Port Royal Experiment in Beaufort County to the arrival of tourism as a lasting industry.

Edgar is proud that Brent Morris, who is to join the University of South Carolina Beaufort history faculty this fall, was one of his undergraduate students. And Stephen Wise, another former student, is director of the Parris Island Museum.

But Edgar fears future historians face greater challenges.

Newspapers are shrinking, taking with them a smorgasbord of trusted information that puts life in context.

"Blogging," he says, "isn't going to do it. If someone wants to put together a collection of blogs, it could be like a journal. But then, how is it preserved? You can say you will put it on a disk, but new technology can make the disk unusable."

Then there is the question of saving government emails. "It may be good stuff, but how are you going to access it?"

People don't write letters or keep diaries like they used to.

And budget cuts have slashed the staff at the state archives.

People should write community and institutional histories, but they need training.

"If you write your church history, you need to place that church in the community," he said. "Nothing happens in isolation. It's nice to know who the elders and deacons were, but what role did that church play in the community?"

For the people

Edgar is doing more in retirement than tend his prized camellias. He's working on the history of his own church, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Columbia, and it's a very personal job.

After his wife, Betty, died in 2005, Edgar met Cornelia "Nela" Danforth Gibbons there. Her husband, David, died the same year as Betty, and they have now blended two families at her place on Edisto Island and his home in the Shandon neighborhood in Columbia.

He and Nela are together writing their church's history.

He will continue to interview authors and barbecue makers for his SCETV program, "Walter Edgar's Journal."

And he will continue to give lectures. Edgar and his colleague Larry Rowland of Beaufort, history professor emeritus at USCB, believe the stories swirling in their minds and notebooks came from the people and belong to the people. Constant tugs to share comes with the job, even in retirement.

Edgar has watched the stories change. The age-old tales of the hard-working, rough-edged Upstate vs. the godless, sinful Lowcountry don't resonate anymore, he said. And some counties steeped in history now have more newcomers than natives.

"In the post-World War II period, a lot of older South Carolina has begun to fade," Edgar said.

But he said South Carolina itself, as a collective, remains a unique place.

Still settled by human beings.

Related content:

At USC, Edgar is history

Walter Edgar's Journal

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