When historians record the most influential South Carolinians of the late 20th-early 21st century, they may turn not to politicians or the purveyors of popular culture but to one of their own, a courtly bespectacled professor with a wry and wicked sense of humor.
For 40 years, USCs Walter Edgar has gently promoted the audacious notion that women, Native Americans, African-Americans, Upstate mill workers and woodsmen ought to have as significant a place in the great mosaic of the states history as the powder-wigged Lords Proprietors, Revolutionary War heroes and Civil War generals who straddle the historical imagination.
He has expanded the states view of itself in college classes and public lectures, at Rotary Clubs and library gatherings, on public radio and television, in now-classic history books, unearthing wonderful little gems to support his voluminous research.
I brought people into the story where they should be, Edgar said. I didnt force anybody into the story.
Along the way, the 68-year-old Edgar, who is retiring from USC at the end of this month, became a kind of folk hero albeit one who sported bow-ties, khakis, and seersucker suits. He made history accessible, even arresting, as he held court in classrooms or roamed the state, speaking in his melodious Alabama accent of revolution and rebellion, slavery and segregation.
I call Walter the missionary historian, said Bobby Donaldson, a history and African-American studies professor at USC. Donaldson believes Edgar cleared the way for larger research on Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the modern Civil Rights movement, issues now probed in detail by African-American scholars.
Edgar seemed, and seems, as natural a Southern aristocrat as one could find. And in a way, that was the best way to make the medicine go down.
Who better to lay waste to the old romantic notions of Southern history, of gallantry and nostalgia for a Lost Cause, of a happy history where no one blacks, mill workers, farm laborers, returning veterans chafed at their place in a society or suffered at its hands? Here was a smart, unassuming, hard-working historian with a grand sweep of history and no dog in the fight willing to upend conventional wisdom or probe the unpleasant, one fact at a time.
Those (old) writers were seeing the state solely through rose-colored glasses, said Thomas N. Tom McLean, a retired newspaper executive and friend of Edgars. He gave people a broader perspective of the state. It wasnt all divided into plantation days, antebellum and modern post-antebellum. And the antebellum era wasnt always fritters growing on trees.
Edgar puts it like this: I dont like history behind picket fences. History, with all of its grandeur, conflict and contradictions, belongs to the people.
First of all, history should be a good story. You dont have to make it up, Edgar said in an interview last week. People say: Write fiction. I say: Why?
Warts and all
Thousands of South Carolina school children grew up on the stories of writers like Mary Simms Oliphant, who glossed over slavery, glorified the Civil War and saw Reconstruction as an invasion by federal hordes.
Some of the earlier histories said, We didnt do anything wrong, we were just victimized, said Joe Elliott, a retired educator who had to come to terms with his own family past as the grandson of the Clarendon County businessman who denied black parents a bus and sparked the Briggs v. Elliott school desegregation case.
Elliott thinks Edgar was successful because he presented the dark side of history as well as the states luminous moments without an apparent indictment. If hypocrisy is there, it will reveal itself. If theres injustice, it will reveal itself in his pages.
Edgar began writing his signature South Carolina: A History (USC Press, 1998) in the 1990s, more than a half-century after David Duncan Wallace published his three-volume History of South Carolina, which stood as the pre-eminent 20th-century reference.
One of the questions people say is, Whats different in what you wrote and what D.D. Wallace wrote? Edgar said. And I say, Well, if you were Native American, or female or African-American you really didnt figure into his story. He told the whole story of the Civil War in South Carolina, in I dont know how many chapters, and he never even looked at Mary Chesnuts diary sitting right down there in the Caroliniana Library, and he knew about it.
There is no better picture of the home front than hers, and it turned out there are a lot of other womens diaries and letters from the same period, he said, adding, And if you were from the Upcountry, you didnt really count either.
Wallaces magisterial history did foreshadow the modern historical tussles that were to come over the states noble but flawed history. In his introduction to a shortened state history published in 1951, Wallace asked: May we not hope that the time has arrived when the distance from ancient passionate crises and the maturity of our intellectual life make it possible for South Carolinians to study their past with intellectual frankness?
In many ways, that is what Edgar has done.
Through the sheer power of his research, Edgar has cajoled modern South Carolinians into a more nuanced understanding of the states history, warts and all. The book is in its ninth printing, with nearly 56,000 volumes in circulation.
He did it by digging through primary sources, uncovering letters and census reports, bills of sale and newspaper clippings, which provided tangible proof of motivations, whether economic or political or social.
As Ive told my students all these years, you cant look at history through the lens of the present. You have got to try to understand men and women in their time and what they did.
The accidental historian
Walter Bellingrath Edgar was born in the Gulf Coast town of Mobile, Ala., in 1943, the middle child of Charles Ernest Edgar Jr., a Mobile businessman, and Amelia Lyon Moore, a homemaker.
He was named for his great-uncle and godfather, Walter Duncan Bellingrath, a Coca-Cola executive and the creator with his wife, Bessie Mae Morse Bellingrath, of the Bellingrath Gardens and Home, a 65-acre estate in suburban Mobile. From his great-uncle and his paternal grandfather, Edgar gained a love of gardening and a lifelong interest in heirloom camellias.
His memories of his 1940s and 50s childhood are of a pleasurable, happy era far removed from the texting franticness of his 21st century students.
His paternal grandparents lived with the family, and his maternal grandmother lived just three blocks away. The three generations took their main meal together in the middle of the day. Then his grandmothers retired to their respective quarters for a rest. A rest, never a nap, he said.
He had the freedom to hop on the downtown bus and roamed the city. At 13, his maternal grandmother, who owned a number of properties in Mobile, asked him to take over her ledger books and make monthly calls to pick up the rents. She armed him with a little booklet on Mobiles history so he could stop along the way and absorb the sights and sounds of his native port city.
Edgar was the responsible one among his prep school friends at Mobiles University Military School, although not above getting into a little mischief, his friend Winston Groom said.
Walter was a pretty straight guy he was the one who kept the rest of us sane, said Groom, author of Forrest Gump and other novels. But he had enough moxey to don a dress and high heels for his role as the feminine heroine in their senior play.
Edgar entered Davidson College, his fathers North Carolina alma mater, in 1961, intending to return to Mobile and practice pediatric medicine with a family friend. Second-semester chemistry waylaid that ambition and he turned to the subject that interested him the most: history.
His father was aghast, he said, wondering what he would do with a history degree, except perhaps, enter law school.
In 1965, he came to USC, where he earned his masters and Ph.D. in history under the tutelage of the late William A. Foran and George C. Rogers Jr. Edgar married a fellow history graduate student, Elizabeth Betty Giles from Swansea, in 1966 and completed his Ph.D. in 1969, specializing in colonial history.
Then he spent two years in the Army, one in Vietnam, fulfilling an ROTC obligation. (He remained in the U.S. Army Reserves, retiring as a colonel in 1995.) He hoped his next academic stop would be Dartmouth, where he would research the papers of Daniel Webster on a National Archives post-doctoral fellowship. But, in 1971, he was assigned back to South Carolina and to the papers of Henry Laurens. He joined the faculty a year later.
The fact that I ended up back here was accidental, he said. Sometimes, he said, Rogers would send him to research a particular merchant and he would stumble on to a totally separate, but fascinating, tidbit.
And his question would be, Did you take it down? Edgar recalled. And I said, Well, its not related to what Im supposed to be doing. And he said, Whenever you find a nugget, take it down, you never know when it will be useful.
That advice paid off as he scribbled away on 5-by-8-inch index cards, still his preferred mode of recording data. By the time he was asked to do South Carolina: A History, he had a four-drawer file cabinet full of historical nuggets.
His fellow historian, Charles Joyner, an author and professor at Coastal Carolina University, recommended him to USC Press as the best, logical person for the task and Rogers, then retired, suggested the timing was right. He just said, You know Walter, you didnt realize it but this is something youve been waiting all your life to do, Edgar recalled.
Edgar had already had done some initial spadework. He had published papers on colonial history, and McLean, then executive editor of The State newspaper, had recruited Edgar to write essays for the 100th anniversary of the newspaper, pieces that would become the book, South Carolina in the Modern Age.
The study of South Carolina history was considered something of a sub-species, McLean recalled, with none of the cachet of medieval or Renaissance, or even southern history. But under Edgars hand, that perception began to change.
Edgar founded USCs public history program and in 1979 was asked to rejuvenate the colleges Institute for Southern Studies as its director. Along the way, he became the most insider outsider the state has ever seen, said Bob Ellis, the institutes assistant director. Edgar helped lure top-notch faculty from across the university to teach institute classes. One of those professors, Robert Brinkmeyer, will succeed Edgar as institute director.
Edgars annual fall semester course on South Carolina history was always packed, although students warned each other that Edgar would take roll and actually call on them in class.
Somehow, even with his teaching and advising load, even after publication of the history, he found time to take on the job of editing The South Carolina Encyclopedia, a 1,120-page volume of 2,000 entries about the Palmetto State published in 2006.
His work ethic and energy became legendary, although daughter Eliza said it seemed ordinary at the Edgar household that the dining room table was laden with page proofs and that family vacations revolved around stops at historical sites.
We came to realize that things were a little bit different in our house, said Eliza Edgar, who works in Washington for the U.S. Marshals Service. There was always this sense of inclusiveness, and then he was a stickler for details and facts, and a stickler for grammar.
In his final push to finish South Carolina: A History, Edgar took a sabbatical year 1996-97 and buried himself in the study at his home and in the South Caroliniana Library, alerting everyone he knew, including reporters, to call back when the year was up.
The rule was the only people who could get through were my sister and me, my mom, his dad, my moms mom and his graduate assistant, Eliza Edgar said. But then a representative for journalist Jim Lehrer, of the PBS Newshour, called.
My mom said you can call back in a year, Eliza Edgar recalled, And the lady said, Dont you know who he (Lehrer) is? And mama very nicely said, I know exactly who he is, and we watch his show every night, but you are still not getting through.
What Walter loves
With more than a dozen books under his belt, with all those historical facts swirling in his head, so many conversations to carry on, youd think Walter Edgar lives and breathes only history.
But think again.
There are many things Walter Edgar loves: South Carolina beaches, barbecue, heirloom camellias, his hometown, the game of squash, great stories, public radio, inquisitive children, veterans, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, his family. Especially his family.
He has described his first wife, Betty, a girl from South Carolina who taught history and geography, as his muse and his best editor on the History and other manuscripts. They raised two daughters, and when Betty suffered an aneurysm and stroke at the age of 44, he cared for her diligently as she recovered. In 1998, she was discovered to have dementia, later diagnosed as Picks Disease. Again, he cared for her until her death in 2005.
In 2007, he married Cornelia Nela Danforth Gibbons, a fellow parishioner at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, who had lost her husband, David, the same year that Betty Edgar died.
Nela called him after hearing a catch in his voice as he was interviewing writer Dorothea Franks on his weekly public radio show, Walter Edgars Journal.
And Dottie said to Walter, Dont you believe in miracles?, and I just got the sense from listening that it was very difficult, and it was about the time of the anniversary of Bettys death, Nela said.
Edgar thought about asking her out to dinner after that telephone call. But first, he visited Trinitys graveyard to check the date of David Gibbons death Edgar did not want to call unless it had been a year since his passing.
Now the couple has meshed their families each had two grown daughters into one boisterous clan that includes five grandchildren.
I think that we shocked them all, Edgar laughed, of their decision to remarry. He recalled that his younger daughter, Amelia, called up early in their courtship to say, Youve mentioned this Nela person about six times. How old is she?
Nelas daughter Caroline, told her, Mama, when dad died, you did, too, Nela Edgar said. And I think Eliza and Amelia felt the same way about Walter. She said, If this gets our parents back, we are all for it.
They have settled in Edgars Shandon home, with its rows of neatly alphabetized books and his collection of old pottery. They enjoy vacations at Nelas Edisto beach house and relish the prospect of more travel.
But that voice of South Carolina wont take a vacation for long. Although he says he has no plans to teach again, Edgar will continue his radio show and his lectures. He and Nela are working on the history of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and are planning for the cathedrals upcoming bicentennial. At last, he has moved the last boxes from his university office and tagged books and memorabilia for his colleagues, his graduate students and his grandchildren.
People say, Is it bittersweet? Well, no, he said. I think Im leaving at the top of my game.
Edgars final public lecture before he becomes professor emeritus will be delivered on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in USCs Belk Auditorium to the national meeting of The Historical Society, a Boston University organization.
The title of his talk, appropriately enough, is a subject near to Edgars heart: Whose History is it Anyway? Reaching Real People.
Reach Click at (803) 771-8386.