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One Man's Battle

By James Brooks
Press Staff Writer

H.K. Edgerton marched through Johnson City and across the campus of East Tennessee State University, his stars and bars held aloft on a bamboo pole, stepping smartly to the cadence of some distant drummer. He was there to do battle with the history department, and considering that he is a black man upholding the heritage of black Confederate soldiers, Edgerton certainly marches to the beat of a different drummer.

According to him, assistant professor of history Andrew Slap once asked a black student named T.K. what the Confederate battle flag meant to him, and he replied he was reminded of his great-great-grandfather who was a Confederate soldier.

“Slap denied this and said he had his family history wrong and that the Sons of the Confederate Veterans perpetrated the myth of blacks fighting for the South in order to shore up their image, even though he had his (great-)great-grandfather’s pension papers,” Edgerton said.

He sought to lodge a complaint with Department Chairman Colin Baxter, but learned he was out of town. Slap was not due in his office until late in the afternoon, following a class.

Edgerton next marched on the administration building and was directed to the office of academic affairs, where he was told to first contact Baxter, and if not satisfied to next talk with Dean Gordon Anderson, and finally with Provost Bert Bach.

“I find you have to work to the top before you get anything done,” Edgerton said. By this time three white students from Maryville were following him. “He’s already a legend in Maryville,” one said.

Edgerton is from Asheville, N.C., where he says he is a past president of the NAACP and chairman of the board of advisers of the Southern Legal Resource Center, which he said is the legal arm of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

“I’m using Johnson City as my training ground for my march from Lynchburg, Va., to Washington, D.C., where I’m going to talk with the president about the kind of treatment we are getting. For now I’m staying at ETSU until somebody tells me something,” he said.

When reached for comment later in the day, Slap said he remembered the incident occurring in his class more than a year ago.

“The individual talked to me about it outside of class and said his great-great-grandfather was honored by a Confederate regiment and gave a Web site, but in checking it I discovered he was listed as a cook. The Confederates did use blacks as cooks and teamsters, but did not regard them as soldiers,” Slap said.

“Later, in the late 19th century Confederate groups said that blacks fought for the South in order to take the racial issue out of their desire to fly Confederate flags over state capitols. Research shows that the Confederate congress tried unsuccessfully to enlist black regiments, but these men agreed among themselves that if exposed to battle they would switch to the Union,” Slap said. “We have records of Confederate senators opposing any use of black troops because they said it would destroy what they were fighting for, which was slavery.”