Panel denies funds over pro-Confederate speaker

May 24, 2011
Panel denies funds over pro-Confederate speaker
By Phil Kabler

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In its first meeting since half of its citizen members resigned in protest, the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission Tuesday awarded four community program grants totaling $11,160 — but tabled one funding request because of the event’s controversial keynote speaker.

The Guyandotte Civil War Days festival committee requested a $2,547 grant to help fund its annual re-enactment of the Nov. 10, 1861, Confederate raid of the Cabell County community.

Commissioners voiced concerns over the event’s planned keynote speaker, H.K. Edgerton, a pro-Confederate author and lecturer who contends that large numbers of slaves "went to war with their masters" to fight against the Union.

Edgerton, who is black, headed a 2002-03 "March Across Dixie," defending the Confederate flag as a symbol of the South. He also contends that slavery was not a significant factor leading to the Civil War.

"This guy’s been very controversial from time to time," Commissioner Rick Wolfe said Tuesday.

Victor Thacker, a dean at Davis & Elkins College, added, "The last thing we need to do as historians is give more bad history to our students."

Commissioners debated Tuesday whether to award the grant but exclude any funding for Edgerton’s appearance.

However, since any events that receive commission grants are permitted to use the state sesquicentennial logo in advertising and promotional materials, there was concern that any sponsorship would appear to be an implicit state endorsement of Edgerton.

The meeting was the first since four of the eight citizen members of the commission, including vice chairman, noted Shepherd University historian Mark Snell, resigned over concerns the commission is emphasizing tourist-friendly festivals and re-enactments over educational and academic efforts.

Education and Arts Secretary Kay Goodwin, who serves as commission chairwoman, downplayed the divisiveness Tuesday.

"As you can see, this is a very talkative and opinionated group, and we’re happy to have that," she said after Tuesday’s meeting. "We were sad to lose those who resigned."

Later Tuesday, Goodwin issued a two-page statement defending the commission’s decision to provide what she termed "much-appreciated support for local groups organizing their own events."

She stated, "A minority of the commission’s original members disagreed with the decision to fund community programs, and, unfortunately, some members chose to resign because of that disagreement.

"There is no question, however, that assisting local sesquicentennial commemorations falls squarely within the commission’s mission: to promote awareness, celebrate the unique creation of the state of West Virginia and the role of its people during the Civil War era, and its continuing effect on our people," Goodwin stated.

Culture and History Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith, who participated in the meeting via teleconference, commented, "We commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and we celebrate statehood."

That comment was apparently directed at Snell, who in a Sunday Gazette-Mail article faulted Reid-Smith for the commission’s emphasis on promoting festivals and re-enactments. Snell went on to say he believes it is inappropriate to treat the 150th anniversary of America’s bloodiest conflict as a celebration.

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