Edgar, voice of S.C. history, enters state hall of fame

COLUMBIA -- With a statewide public radio show, a best-selling state history and a steady flow of speaking invitations, Walter Edgar has become the best-known face and voice of South Carolina history.

His interpretation of the state's problematic political and social history has helped give voice to discussions about gender, race and slavery that many once found too worrisome to even attempt.

On Wednesday, the 64-year-old Mobile, Ala., native was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame, placing him alongside former governors, senators, famous artists and drafters of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

Each year, the S.C. Hall of Fame inducts one living and one dead person. Edgar will be inducted this year with Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1722-1793), a Lowcountry planter's daughter who was left in charge of the rice plantation at age 16 when her father went off to war. She became a widow at age 36. Despite her loss, she presided over a family that produced two of the fledgling nation's most important leaders, her sons Thomas and Charles Cotes-worth Pinckney.

Edgar, the director of the University of South Carolina's Institute for Southern Studies, is perhaps the best-known of a generation of historians in South Carolina who have filled the gaps in earlier histories that glossed over or omitted the contributions of native peoples, enslaved Africans and even politically disenfranchised women.

It is in part his lifelong work helping interpret those people's lives and works that has raised him to their stature. But it is, contemporaries say, his objective and enthusiastic personality that has helped propel his primary work, "South Carolina, a History," to become the University of South Carolina Press best-seller.

A.V. Huff, former Furman University vice president for academic affairs, historian and author, said Edgar has helped South Carolinians understand what the state has contributed to the nation.

"He's done it in a careful, measured way," Huff said. "He has looked at both our positive contributions and the major mistakes we made over the past 300-plus years, and he does it in a way that makes people listen to him. I think that's important."

"He doesn't condemn people of the past for their mistakes, but he helps us understand why they made those decisions the way they did," Huff said. "Historians sometimes wear blinders too. But we all strive to tell it as straight as we can. I think that's what Walter has been able to do."

Erin McKinney, who teaches nursing at USC, decided last year that part of her education had been neglected. She enrolled in Edgar's South Carolina history class.

"It's a class that will remain in my head and in my heart," McKinney said. "It gave me a new appreciation for my home state."

"That's not to say everything about our history was good," she said, adding that Edgar helped her think objectively about all aspects of South Carolina history, in the context of the times and values of their day.

The state history is in its seventh printing, with sales approaching 50,000 copies, said Curtis Clark, director of USC Press, an "almost unbelievable" sales record.

Clark said Edgar's name has tangible marketing value for his organization.

"His value is immeasurable," Clark said.