By Ray Smock
The reason I am coming out of retirement to be the Center’s Interim Director is because the current director, Jay Wyatt has taken an excellent position at the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC. This is a great opportunity for him. I am pleased for Jay to be able to work in the part of the National Archives that oversees all the committee records of Congress going back to 1789. The volume of those records rivals those in all the Presidential Libraries.
There is another reason I am coming back. I love the work. In November 2009, Brian Lamb came to the Byrd Center and conducted an interview with me for C-SPAN’s “Q&A” program. We talked about the Byrd Center and its mission, about Senator Byrd, who had just become the longest serving person in the history of the U. S. Congress, and Brian worked in a book interview about my biography of Booker T. Washington, published that year.
At the end of the interview Brian asked me how long I would keep doing the work. Without hesitation I said, “I will do this as long as I can because I love what I am doing.”
I stayed at the Byrd Center another nine years after that interview, retiring at age 77 in 2018. I left the Center in the capable hands of Jay Wyatt and Jody Brumage. I remained a member of the board of directors of the Congressional Education Foundation that oversees the work of the Center.
I recruited Jay in 2013 to come to the Byrd Center as Director of Programs and Research, with the probability in mind that he would be my successor, and that was the happy result in 2018. Jay’s contributions to the work of the Center have been immense, including the launch of a major touring exhibit on the career of Senator Byrd that went to twenty-two sites in West Virginia, and was featured twice in the U.S. Capitol. He served two terms as president of the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress; a national organization founded here at the Byrd Center in 2005. Jay and Jody both laid the major groundwork for the Center’s expansion into teacher training institutes and civics programs for West Virginia students.
The Center’s archive, including the extensive papers of Senator Byrd, are in the capable hands of Jody Brumage, who began his career here almost ten years ago, when he became a Shepherd University student intern. He has often said that his experience working in a major research collection was one of the best experiences he had at Shepherd, and that lead to his career in archival management.
Under Jody’s direction dozens of Shepherd students have experienced hands-on learning in our collections. His behind-the-scenes tours of our archive are popular because of his enthusiasm and knowledge of our collections. While working at the Byrd Center he completed a master’s degree from San Jose State University in Archives and Records Management. He has proven to be a talented and versatile part of our staff. With my return, Jody will assume even more responsibility as Director of Education and Outreach.
I am coming back to the Byrd Center to provide continuity while we plan for the future. We have much work to do. The Byrd Center needs to achieve a sound financial footing if it is to survive. The Center is a non-profit educational institution on Shepherd University’s campus. We receive no funds from the State of West Virginia, and the staff members of the Byrd Center are not paid as university employees.
We were able to build and operate the Center in the past from funds from several large federal grants, going back to the creation of the Center in 2002, when grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provided funds for program development. In recent years, the Center has relied on smaller grants for some of its programs, and from a growing cadre of local donors who have become indispensable to the Center’s survival.
It is a joy to see how the local community in and around Shepherd University has stepped up to keep the Center going. Several years ago we established a “Friends of the Byrd Center” group, under the leadership of Lisa Welch. More recently, Marianne Alexander has launched an effort to raise $200,000, of which more than $100,000 has been realized in just a few months. An anonymous donor provided a $60,000 matching grant that has encouraged larger donations. Both Lisa and Marianne, along with Sue Kemnitzer, serve on the Center’s board of directors.
We are working diligently to seek grants from the federal government, from private foundations, and from supportive entities like the West Virginia Humanities Council, which has helped us with grants to conduct our teaching training institute.
It would be a tragedy if the Byrd Center closed its doors and folded its tent, especially at such a crucial time in U.S. history when the nation is in a major struggle to save American democracy.
Like millions of Americans, I am still in shock over what happened at the U.S. Capitol just weeks ago. A mob of American citizens engaged in an insurrection against the greatest symbol of democracy in the world. They violently invaded the Capitol to stop the peaceful transfer of power in our presidential election. Nothing like this has ever happened before.
Even in the depths of the Civil War, no Americans attacked the Capitol. Yet just weeks ago Confederate flags were carried into the heart of our democracy, some used as weapons to assault members of the Capitol Police. Some of those in the riotous mob were former members of the U.S. military, who had sworn an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Something is terribly wrong when that oath gets turned up-side-down. The rioters shouted “This is 1776” as if they were patriots just like George Washington.
The Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education should be a part of a national network of institutions that promote a better understanding of Congress and the Constitution. We need all schools and all universities to take up with new urgency the need for public education about the purposes of government and the meaning of democracy. The federal government and all state governments must re-evaluate the importance of history and civics education.
“Knowledge is Power,” Frances Bacon said at the end of the 16th Century. That idea was burned into the minds of the Founders of this nation who saw the importance of knowledge about government to be of vital necessity to a free people who sought to governed themselves.
One of my favorite quotations of James Madison, who did so much to make our Constitution a reality, is:
"Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both."
My friends, we are in the midst of both a national farce and a national tragedy of monumental proportions. Ignorance is governing knowledge. Ignorance has been spread like wildfire by lies and misinformation through social media and polarized news. Ignorance has been spread from our own White House.
For the last half century there has been a steady erosion of confidence government at all levels. This undermines civil discourse and respect for constitutional government. Voters too often send people to state legislatures and to the U.S. Congress who are elected because they proclaim government is an evil that is standing in the way of their freedoms, when the opposite is the case.
Senator Byrd saw this erosion. He saw the hardening political lines that prohibited compromise. He saw how ignorance of history led to distortions about the narrative of America. Before he passed Senator Byrd had appropriated more than a half billion dollars in teacher training in history. This was a national program. Senator Byrd feared, as Madison and Jefferson feared, that a people ignorant of their own history and their own government was the greatest threat to the success of our experiment in representative government.
Without public knowledge of government, it could succumb to demagogues and tyrants. In 2010, when Senator Byrd passed, his Teaching American History program died with him. That idea no longer has a champion in the United States Congress. Education at all levels has suffered from the neglect of history and civics and we are paying a dear price for it.
With the help of all the Friends of the Byrd Center, I pledge to work to keep this vital part of the Shepherd University campus and this active community of citizens going strong as long as I can, until my successor is found. And it will be hard to find a strong successor unless we can demonstrate that our financial house is in order for the foreseeable future.
My heartfelt thanks to the faculty and staff of Shepherd University and to the many Friends of the Byrd Center, and to our Board of Directors, for all your support and encouragement as I return, for a time, to the task I love.
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The Byrd Center advances representative democracy by promoting a better understanding of the United States Congress and the Constitution through programs and research that engage citizens.
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Congressional History and Education