Historical commemorations often invite spirited debates over the purpose of commemoration itself. Should the primary purpose of our commemorations be to celebrate our shared past and reaffirm our communal and national identity? Should the primary purpose instead be to educate us not only about the heroic but also the horrific aspects of our shared past? Think, for instance, of the uproar over the Smithsonian's Enola Gay exhibit for the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II (as well as continuing controversies over a subsequent exhibit involving the aircraft).
The West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission has been dealing with a similar controversy over the past year. Disputes over whether the commission should promote educational programs or support local commemorative events geared toward tourists (and their disposable income) led to the resignation of several academic historians from the commission, a development that we discussed in a previous blog post. As a new article in the Charleston Sunday Gazette recounts, the commission is facing a new controversy. At issue is whether or not the commission's funding of local commemorative events extends official state sanction to them. Institutions and events that receive funding from the commission are required to use the state sesquicentennial logo on its printed material, giving those materials the state's literal imprimatur. The commission has funded Guyandotte Civil War Days, a three-day event scheduled for early November, which will feature a talk by H. K. Edgerton, a pro-Confederate speaker and re-enactor who promotes the Black Confederate myth. By funding this event, it could appear that the state's sesquicentennial commission implicitly sanctions Mr. Edgerton's controversial interpretations of black involvement in the Civil War.
At Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin has periodically debunked Mr. Edgerton's repeated claims that thousands of black southerners fought for the Confederacy, and his most recent post about Mr. Edgerton announced that he had been dropped from the Guyandotte Civil War Days schedule. Now, however, Mr. Edgerton is back on the schedule. He is unquestionably an engaging speaker, and he has gained relatively widespread notoriety from his many appearances and Youtube videos, usually arguing that free and enslaved blacks fought alongside white Confederates in solidarity. Mr. Edgerton likely will attract a significant audience, and his talk might add to the "success" of Guyandotte's Civil War Days, but at what cost? His claims typically lack historical evidence, except to cherry-pick and fetishize individual stories of black southerners "serving" on the front lines.
What is the West Virginia sesquicentennial commission's responsibility in this regard? Should the commission expect a certain level of expertise in the educational events it funds? Does the commission bear any responsibility to question or challenge Mr. Edgerton's
typically spurious claims about the war, or should it simply state that the opinions offered at such events do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the state or the commission on the causes and conduct of the war? In other words, what standards and practices should we expect from our public institutions charged with commemorating the Civil War?