Me and Jeff Davis are Finis: The Price of Confederate Heritage

moijefferson-davis-portrait

My journey through the culture of the Lost Cause and what had been (still is?) the cult of Jefferson Davis came full circle years after my initial visit to Beauvoir upon learning about the creation of the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library. This project was initiated by the Mississippi Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), which owns and operates the site, and through its lobbying efforts became a financial beneficiary of the State of Mississippi. On their own, the Sons were not successful in their efforts to raise money for the library. In fact, the money they raised was not enough to renovate the house, much less build a presidential library.

The original.
The original opened in 1998.

So the Sons lobbied state officials, especially then Governor Kirk Fordice, who confirmed his support for Confederate history during each year of his two terms in office by officially declaring April as Confederate Heritage Month. The SCV’s lobbying efforts to garner funds for the library were rewarded in 1993 when the state gave $1.5 million in bond funds for the project. Then, two years later, Governor Fordice signed a bill giving the SCV an additional $3 million. Thus, the State of Mississippi awarded $4.5 million in taxpayer funds to a private institution to create (without a hint of irony) the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library.  Not “Confederate Presidential Library,” mind you, but Presidential Library.

This kind of state support was common in the early twentieth century.  Throughout the South, state legislatures and local governments gave today’s equivalent of millions of dollars to erect Confederate monuments, build soldiers’ and widows’ homes, and fund other Lost Cause projects.

jimcrowedAs states poured funds into creating stone likenesses of Confederate soldiers, their black citizens suffered as schools were underfunded and many lived in abject poverty.  Not much has changed in the last century.  It may be 2015, but it wreaks of 1915.

In today’s Mississippi, most minorities and poor whites must attend substandard public schools where state expenditures on public education place the state at the bottom in nationwide rankings. And yet there always seems to be money for a historic site dedicated to a pro-slavery president of a defeated Confederate nation.

This was brought into sharp relief when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. It nearly wiped Beauvoir from the map and destroyed the library.  But have no fear, both the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) and the Mississippi Emergency Management Association (MEMA) came to the rescue. From a report from the Department of Homeland Security:

“As of May 18, 2010, Beauvoir had received a public assistance award of $17.2 million from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), a FEMA grantee, for damages related to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.”
Lost Cause Detritus: Beauvoir after Hurricane Katrina. Author photo, 2006.
Lost Cause Detritus: Beauvoir after Hurricane Katrina, 2006. Author’s photo.
Jefferson Davis Library and Museum, take two.
Jefferson Davis Library and Museum, take two.

Not only was Beauvoir restored, the library was rebuilt to the tune of $17.2 million dollars. This on top of the original $4.5 million comes to $21.7 million for the site. Let that sink in.

Understanding Jeff Davis’s role in the Confederate tradition has, for me, meant truly knowing what a hold the Lost Cause still has on the South. Are white southerners, as my colleague David Goldfield writes, “still fighting the Civil War?” Certainly some of them are.

What’s more significant, I would argue, is that the white South continues to honor, revere, and value Confederate heritage without putting up a fight at all.  It’s all around us if we look, and paid for by local, state, and even the Federal government–especially in the Deep South.

The price of Confederate heritage goes beyond the millions that were spent to commemorate it and the millions spent to preserve it. There’s a price to pay for honoring the heritage that I encountered through the memory of Jefferson Davis.  It’s a heritage that has come at the expense of African American progress and the region’s poorest citizens, black and white. It’s a heritage that has hampered race relations and civil rights. And, it’s a heritage that has hurt the region’s reputation throughout the nation.

Simply put:  Confederate heritage has cost the South too much.

Beauvoir, 2006. Author's photo.
Beauvoir, 2006. Author’s photo.

 

 

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Me and Jeff Davis, Part II: Beauvoir, Catafalques, and Head Start

In 1991, I moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to begin work on my Ph.D.  My advisor was Marjorie Spruill, a women’s history scholar who is now a professor of history at the University of South Carolina.  Knowing that my research interests centered on the Lost Cause, she told me even before I arrived at Southern Miss that I “must” see Beauvoir, the last home of the Confederate President.

Early image of Beauvoir, the Last Home of Jefferson Davis
Early image of Beauvoir, the Last Home of Jefferson Davis

Officially known as the “Shrine of Jefferson Davis,” Beauvoir is located on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast and lives up to its name “beautiful view,” as it looks out on the Gulf of Mexico. What intrigued me, however, were the exhibits in the museum adjacent to the home. During my initial visit, I toured the museum, operated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), and recall reading on one of the introductory exhibit panels the following: “During the dark days of Reconstruction. . .”  The Lost Cause was alive and well.

The Davis catafalque and death mask.
One of the Davis catafalques on display at Beauvoir is exhibited along with his death mask.

One of the fascinating artifacts on display in the museum was one of the catafalques that, in 1893, carried Davis’s body in parades following his disinterment from Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans, as it made its way to Richmond, Virginia, for reburial in the Capitol of the Confederacy. This was my first encounter (there would be others) with the macabre aspects of the Lost Cause, Victorian in its fascination with death. In fact, I learned, Davis didn’t have just one funeral, he had two. One following his death in New Orleans in 1889, and then a second four years later.

This wasn’t all.  Because he was the “one and only” Confederate President, Davis’s body was taken to Richmond on a funeral train decorated with black bunting–similar to the one that carried Abraham Lincoln back to Illinois following his assassination. As the Davis train it made its way north, from New Orleans to Richmond, it was often interrupted by mourners in small towns along the route who gathered along the tracks to offer flowers to the Davis family.

The catafalque that carried Davis's body through New Orleans for his first funeral in 1889. Courtesy: Louisiana State Museum
The catafalque that carried Davis’s body through New Orleans for his first funeral in 1889. Courtesy: Louisiana State Museum

On the way to Davis’s final resting place in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery, there were designated stops in Birmingham, Alabama, and Raleigh, North Carolina. Beginning with New Orleans, Davis’s coffin was hoisted onto the catafalque and pulled through the streets of each city as part of a parade of men, women, and children who vied to be selected participants. (I have often thought about the unfortunate souls who rode in the wagon immediately downwind from the catafalque.)  Then, on the day of this second burial–May 31st, 1893–75,000 people turned out to pay their respects. Mourning Davis’s death had clearly not been completed in 1889.

It was routine to cross paths with the memory of the Confederate president while living in Mississippi, the state he represented in the United States Senate. A year after my arrival I made a research trip to Tulane University, just two hours from Hattiesburg. Yet my most vivid memory of that time was not what I found in the archives, but what I saw on my drive there.

DontBlameMe
It was 1992, the year Bill Clinton became president, and bumper stickers with the phrase “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Bush,” were everywhere. But these Mississippians gave it new meaning with the message “Don’t Blame Me, I voted for Jeff Davis.” Here was another reminder of the hold the Lost Cause had on the Deep South.

The former Jefferson Davis Elementary school and former site for a Head Start program in Hattiesburg, MS.
The former Jefferson Davis Elementary school and former site for a Head Start program in Hattiesburg, MS.

There was also the time, while driving around Hattiesburg, I noticed something quite spectacular when I drove past a defunct elementary school that now headquartered a Head Start program, which served a population that was largely minority. It was one of those moments when you do a double-take and rub your eyes, because across the front door of the building a banner read “Jefferson Davis Head Start Program.”

As I came to learn, public schools in Mississippi and across the South were named or renamed for Confederate heroes, often at the behest of the local UDC chapter. In this case, Jefferson Davis Elementary School. I’m sure, dear reader, that the irony of this is not lost on you when you consider that the name of the Confederate President, an advocate of slavery, became associated with a program that helped black children get a head start. Think on that.

Return next week for Me and Jeff Davis, Part III: “I name you ‘Jefferson Davis.'”