Inside | Read an essay by the minds behind this initiative
Dr. Walter Edgar truly knows South Carolina. Though not a “native son,” he has dedicated most of his life to the study of the state’s rich and complex history. Along the way, this noted historian and author, has written or edited several books on South Carolina, as well as taught and lectured on the state’s complicated, yet intriguing past.
Though retired from teaching, Edgar continues to enlighten the people of this state through lectures, and writings, and as the host of the popular radio show on ETV Radio, “Walter Edgar’s Journal.”
Edgar’s understanding and thoughtfulness of the complexities that is the history of South Carolina provides him with a unique perspective on the current social, political, and economic climate of the state. To listen to him speak is to be mesmerized by his knowledge and historical acumen, as he is open to discuss any aspects of the state.
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Phil Noble recently spoke with the man who is perhaps the “Preeminent Storyteller in South Carolina” to discuss, South Carolina’s often contradictory history and what it can tell about its future.
NOBLE: Your work always seems to have a theme of “community” in leadership…
DR. EDGAR: Being here and knowing one another as a small state has really helped during some difficult times. I’m thinking 1963, which I like to think of as the “Year of Decision” when strong black leadership and strong white leadership decided that South Carolina was no longer going to be a segregated state in terms of facilities or what have you. That took a lot of trust across racial divides, particularly given what was happening elsewhere. And then again in 1971 when the unitary school system came. It took folks knowing one another to make that work. I think those are two proud moments in South Carolina’s history.
NOBLE: South Carolina was once one of the richest and most prosperous states in the world. Talk about this historical prosperity and possibly how it can translate to today.
DR. EDGAR: In the Colonial Era, South Carolina was the wealthiest of the 13 colonies. It already had a favorable balance of trade with England, which meant capital was being accumulated here. Which meant it was also being invested here. In 18th century South Carolina people were willing to take a risk. That was one of the problems in the 19th century. In the 18th century, they tried cattle ranching. That worked for a while. Then they went to Naval Stores and the English changed the rules on Naval Stores and that wasn’t profitable. Rice came in as the big thing. Then they brought out Indigo. People talk about the global economy but South Carolina was a part of the global economy from the very beginning. One of the differences between then and now is in the 18th century and into the 19th century, after the Civil War, the colonial government and the state government was willing to invest in things like infrastructure. All of those cuts and canals and early roads and ferries were built by the colonial government to help get products to market. The railroads in this state were primarily funded not by private enterprise, but the state of South Carolina. The Bank of the State of South Carolina was exactly that, which helped fund economic development. So the state was willing to invest in economic enterprise. In the 21st century you don’t think so much in investing in infrastructure although Phil, we sure do need it. Look at the status of our roads.
NOBLE: In looking at the next stage of our economy as we move from the agricultural/ textile manufacturing industries to the digital age, what do we need to be focused on in order to become an economic power again?
DR. EDGAR: Education. We’ve got to invest. It’s not a question of taxation. It’s a question of investment. And I’d put right behind that, we need to get our infrastructure in better shape and we’re talking about roads, bridges…. It might be nice to have BMW up there in Greenville, but if the highways aren’t working properly between there and Charleston, people can decide, “We’ll go to the Port of Savannah. We’ll go to the Port of Georgia.” We’ve got to invest in South Carolina. That’s not a dirty word.
In the 1920s this state did two things: 1. It passed this thing called the 6-0-1 Act which said the state would pick up six months of funding for public education if the local school district picked up 1 month. And the “0” was if someone wanted to throw some money in from the County then they could. Then in 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression they passed an Omnibus Highway Construction Bill that in today’s money is about $850 million, and this is a poor state, which created those farm-to-market roads that were trying to help those poor cotton farmers get stuff to market in the 1920s. If it was going to help the economy, the state was willing to invest.
NOBLE: Why has that consensus broken down? What is it that has happened over the last “X” amount of years where that community leadership consensus has broken down?
DR. EDGAR: Part of it has to do with the fact that we no longer have much home-based senior economic leadership. Whether you’re dealing with the banking industry or the media, that’s huge. In the 1960’s when we were looking at the issues of race we had the leading textile executives. The leading banking executives. The media people who owned WIS and Cosmos Broadcasting all said “We’re not going to put up with this.” That makes a difference.