It’s an exciting time for historians, especially as we get nearer to the opening of the film “Free State of Jones” on June 24th. Part of the excitement has been generated by the marketing of the film (including during Game 7 of the NBA Finals!), but also the real sense that the history is being told as carefully as possible through the medium of film, which doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to telling “the true story.”
Below are some links that will assist you in learning more about the story behind the film Free State of Jones.
Author and historian Victoria Bynum’s interview about Jones County, the Civil War, the Knight Company and other interesting facts about the Free State of Jones is available on Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
The New York Times calls this a “film with footnotes,” a reference to the intensive research that went into the making of the movie. Learn about the history in this extensive website that accompanies the movie.
My friend and fellow historian, Victoria Bynum talks here about The Free State of Jones, the movie that is based on her superb book. Buy the book, watch the film, and learn something new about the Civil War.
It’s been forty years since I first saw the name “Newton Knight” in the footnotes of a Civil War history textbook as I headed home for the holidays on a greyhound bus northbound from San Diego to Monterey, California. Since that moment, I have thought about, researched, written, and talked about, the meaning of Jones County, Mississippi’s insurrection to the Civil War Era that our nation still struggles to understand.
Since 1992, I’ve published numerous works on Southern Unionism, opposition to the Confederacy, and the associated Civil War themes of guerrilla networks, women’s participation in home front uprisings, collaboration across racial lines, and retaliatory violence by Confederate militia and home front vigilantes.
I recently had the pleasure to attend a preview screening of The Free State of Jones. The movie unflinchingly depicts the…
Immigration from Mexico is very relevant to our understanding of the contemporary American South. It’s also been a political hot potato. To help us understand the history of Mexican immigration to our region, Pop South talks with historian Julie M. Weise, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Oregon, about her new book Corazón de Dixie: Mexicanos in the U.S. South since 1910.
PS: For general readers, why does your book begin in 1910?
Mexican-origin people have been a significant part of U.S. history since 1848, when the United States took what is now the U.S. Southwest from Mexico and made those who were living there into U.S. citizens. But 1910 is when the major narrative of Mexican American history shifts from conquest to immigration. The Mexican Revolution began that year, and the upheavals it caused kicked off the first major wave of cross-border migration; this only quickened due to demand for Mexican labor during World War One and the Roaring ’20s. Most people think of this migration having gone only to the Southwest; scholars have explored it also for the Midwest. But when one looks back to sources written at the time, it becomes clear that Mexican migrants were really everywhere in the U.S. during the 1920s — from Alaska to Pennsylvania, and indeed, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi. These latter migrations are the subjects of my book’s early chapters.
PS: How has the culture of Mexicanos added to the culture of the American South?
The influence of Mexicano culture on Southern culture has, at least until recently, been experienced at the very local level, and at times has even been deliberately hidden; this is part of why it has taken so long for their story to be told by historians. Mississippi’s signature Hot Tamales were most likely first brought there by the thousands of Mexicanos who lived and worked in the Delta in the 1920s-30s; yet, those Mexicano descendants who remained in the Delta deliberately assimilated into the white side of the color line and seldom acknowledged, let alone celebrated, their Mexican heritage. So until recently, the tamales were not closely associated with their original purveyors. Across the river, black and white people who lived in the Arkansas Delta in the 1950s –many still alive today– have vivid memories of the exciting cosmopolitan influence that Mexican workers brought to their small towns during that decade.
PS: What makes the experience of Mexicanos in the South similar/different from other regions of the United States?
During the Jim Crow period, Mexicanos struggled economically everywhere that they worked as low-wage, mostly-rural laborers; the South often provided them a bit more economic mobility than elsewhere but at other times, their economic conditions there were worse. However, the limits placed on Mexicanos’ life chances specifically by race were much less significant in the South than in the Southwest. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) was interpreted by courts to guarantee Mexicans’ legal classification as white, but Southwestern locations like Texas and California found workarounds and still solidified Jim Crow exclusion of Mexicanos from the privileges of whiteness.
By contrast, Mexicanos were oppressed by a distinctly non-white racialization in early 1920s Mississippi, but by the 1930s had successfully challenged that status and eventually assimilated onto the white side of the color line. Interwar New Orleans is perhaps best compared to Chicago or Los Angeles, urban locations that also had growing black and European immigrant populations in that period. My research shows that New Orleans is unique among these cities, the only place historians have yet uncovered where Mexicanos’ racial experiences were much closer to those of European immigrants (not just off-white Italians and Jews but even German and French immigrants) as opposed to their Mexicano counterparts elsewhere.
PS: In the current debate over immigration, there is tough talk about building a wall on the southern border of the U.S. to keep Mexicans out. Historically, how has the U.S. South evolved in its thinking about Mexican immigration to where it now includes support for a wall?
From the 1960s-90s, Mexicanos became an important rhetorical symbol for white conservatives in Southern agricultural towns. Mexicanos came to be seen as a not-black minority with whom white conservatives and Evangelicals could “build bridges” across race lines without directly confronting slavery and Jim Crow. This was an opportunity to make amends for their opposition to civil rights for blacks, while at the same time having a convenient foil with which to criticize blacks’ work ethic. In that sense, the growing population of Mexicanos in conservative parts of the South shaped particular local cultures of pro-immigrant conservatism, which defied (and often butted heads with) national trends in anti-immigrant politics during the late twentieth century. For example, local white conservative legislators would regularly do everything they could to prevent immigration enforcement, and white Evangelicals invested disproportionately generous resources ministering to Mexicanos as opposed to white or black poor people in their communities.
Paradoxically, the South’s integration into the nation, and the adoption of California-generated images of Mexicanos as unworthy consumers of whites’ tax dollars, has made local conditions and policies progressively harsher for the South’s Mexicanos since about 2005. These movements have been based more commonly in the region’s least “Southern” spaces–suburbs and exurbs–rather than its traditional rural areas, though that may be changing as we speak thanks to forces unleashed by the campaign of Donald Trump. While some say the Southernization of U.S. politics accounts for its rightward turn in the 1980s, it’s the Westernization of Southern politics that accounts for the South’s recent turn to the right on immigration.
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Writing Corazón de Dixie while teaching courses on global migration, I began to notice intriguing parallels between the ideas of Mexican workers and their government officials about what migration was supposed to accomplish for Mexican men in postwar Arkansas, and the ideas about migration held by migrants (Spanish, Italian, and Turkish among others) who worked in northern Europe, particularly Germany, during the same period. I am excited to be now learning German and perfecting my French so that I can study the ways these discourses moved across the Atlantic, and perhaps the Pacific as well, in the postwar period.
When I moved to south Mississippi in 1991, I joined a diverse community of gay people. One of the most fascinating individuals I ever encountered was a black man known throughout the community as Miss Bootnanny. She stood 6′ 5″ tall and when I saw her, it was usually at the little gay bar in Hattiesburg called Le Bistro–affectionately known as the Cha Cha Palace or simply “the Cha Cha.”
The ‘Burg was not a large enough city to have segregated gay bars–by gender or race–so we ALL went to the Cha Cha. Miss Bootnanny’s story, the little bit I gathered, was that she had been a drum major at Jackson State University, that out of drag she worked for a local garden center, and on any day you might see her twirling her baton on a public street or in the parking lot of the Sunflower grocery store.
While I never actually saw Bootnanny during the day to confirm the latter, she left no doubt that she had once led a marching band and knew how to twirl batons. Her talent extended to fire, as I learned when I watched in amazement as she twirled flaming machetes, an impressive talent, to say the least. On a “normal” weekend at the Cha Cha, though, she always made an entrance.
One night, it went like this: I was standing around chatting with friends when all of a sudden there was a commotion and we all stopped to look, because Miss Bootnanny had arrived. In she walked, dressed in a sparkling, sequined onesie, carrying one of those flag corps flags. She marched her way around the entire bar hoisting it into the air like the Pied Piper of Fabulous, which she was. (Note: Currently seeking a photo of Miss Bootnanny to add to this piece.)
And yet, I know that her life could not have been easy despite those moments of pure joy. Growing up black in America is difficult enough. And while I have written elsewhere that gay acceptance can be found in the rural Deep South, I know very well that there are limitations–particularly when LGBT expressions are further complicated by race and evangelical religion. To say nothing of poverty.
Having one Miss Bootnanny in a small community makes her eccentric, one of “our own,” and “non-threatening.” But when more than one come together, much less five, and demand to be seen, that’s another story entirely.
Enter the Prancing Elites–the subject of a new reality TV show currently airing on Oxygen.
The Prancing Elites Projectfollows a dance team made up of five openly-gay black men who live in Mobile, Alabama, and model themselves after the J-Settes–the all-female dance team that performs with the Jackson State University marching band. The Elites wear make-up and dress like the J-Settes, too.
The Prancing Elites live to dance–whether that’s in the stands while a marching band plays, being part of a parade (any parade), or performing for a New Year’s Eve party full of white folks. The latter has elicited some harsh criticism on YouTube, which makes one long for the voice of Langston Hughes to offer his critique of the ways of these white folks.
You may have also seen The Elites on America’s Got Talent or a talk show called The Real. Yet in their new reality show on Oxygen, the realness is not just the love showered on the Prancing Elites from across the nation, a result of the media attention they’ve received. It’s also the hateful responses from both black and white members of their local community and, in some cases, even close relatives.
And while they put on a brave face, and even regard their passion for dance and being openly gay as part of a longer tradition of southern civil rights, one can quickly discern that navigating this landscape of love and hate can be difficult for these young men to endure, as they must carry the added weight of being black and gay in a region that so often despises both.
When I watch the Prancing Elites, I have several reactions.
I fear for their safety. I feel the pain of rejection of a community that uses religion to justify its hate and disapproval. And yet, I admire their courage to stand up to the bigotry of racists and homophobes.
I cheer them on in their bid to change the world for the better not by leaving the South, but by remaining here and trying to make a difference for those who want to follow in their dance steps. And I am buoyed by their confidence and the positive reactions they get from the same community.
I hope they squeeze all they can from the fame rollercoaster before the cameras go away and, in the process, help to make a better way for those like Miss Bootnanny who, all those years ago, simply wanted to be herself.
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.
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.
As 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.”
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.
I have privately shared my story of Jefferson Davis’s hair with friends and colleagues over the years and felt it was time that I came out so I can reveal it to others.
Historians who have studied Civil War memory, myself included, rarely make mention of its relation to Victorian culture. There are obvious connections, which I encountered regularly—particularly the Victorian passion for collecting human hair—hair as relic, hair as keepsake, hair as jewelry, and as sacred memento.
One particularly fascinating story involved the display of a “hair wreath” at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in 1895. Jeff Davis’s hair was at the center of this wreath and was interwoven with the hair of several other Confederate heroes including Robert E. Lee, Raphael Semmes, Frank Cheatham, Nathan Bedford Forrest, D. H. Hill, Joseph E. Johnston, Edmund Kirby Smith, Bushrod Johnson, and James Longstreet–making it a literal treasure trove of Confederate hair. (I was unable to locate an image of the hair wreath. My apologies.)
Reading about hair is one thing. Encountering it firsthand is quite another. While I was working through a manuscript collection at Duke University, which contained the papers of a well-known UDC leader, I came across an envelope marked “Jeff Davis’ Hair.” This was, indeed, an archival moment. I paused, held my breath, and looked around to see if anyone had noticed what I had just found. I’m not sure why, but I thought someone might grab it and make a mad dash for the door.
I nervously lifted the fold of the envelope that revealed, honest to goodness it did . . . hair! I felt confident that this was indeed a lock of Davis’s hair, the older Davis to be sure, because it was gray. It had to be his: these were the Clement Clay Papers and the UDC member I was researching was Virginia Clay Clopton, a dear friend and frequent correspondent of the former Confederate president.
Did he clip it and send it to her himself, I wondered? When he got his hair cut, did he have a servant sweep up the locks to send to special friends? I didn’t notify anyone of my find at the time, and though shaken I continued my research when, what seemed a nanosecond later, I came to another envelope, similarly marked, and yes, hair again! Virginia was special, indeed.
As I came to learn, Confederate hair is a valuable commodity. The online auction site eBay has a category called “historic hair and hair collectibles.” Samples of Jeff’s hair are currently being auctioned in a range from $125 for a single “authenticated” strand, to $299 for 8 strands collected while he was imprisoned at Fort Monroe in Virginia, to $4,000 for an authenticated strand from the Upper Deck Company called “A Piece of History Hair Cuts.” Upper Deck is known for its sports-related trading cards, but branched out in 2008 with these hair collectibles you see to the right. I have no idea what makes this strand “authentic” and more valuable than the one that cost $125.
And so, friends, what this means is that the locks of Jeff Davis’s hair I encountered in the archives was a veritable Confederate hair bonanza that could have paid off my college loans! Alas, I am not a thief.
Next week, in Part V of “Me and Jeff Davis,” I’ll discuss the annual ritual in Richmond, Virginia, celebrating Davis’s natal day in a ceremony known as the “Massing of the Flags.”
Of the many bizarre stories about Jefferson Davis, the one about the renaming of his grandson takes the cake and gets a creep factor of 9 out of a possible 10.
The story of Davis’s death and subsequent funerals is made even more unusual by the reaction of the white South to the fact that once Davis died, there were no more direct descendents with the name Jefferson Davis. And this would not do. Junior died during the yellow fever epidemic of 1878. So responsibility for carrying on the name fell on the shoulders of little Jefferson Davis Hayes, the Confederate chieftain’s grandson by his daughter Margaret Howell Davis Hayes.
The story of his name change captured my attention, particularly when I read Margaret’s obituary, which described how the young boy “receiv[ed] the name in baptism over the coffin containing the body of President Davis.” Let me repeat. The name change occurred in a “baptism over the coffin” of the deceased Confederate president.
When Davis died in 1889, his body lay in state in New Orleans, and it was here that the name change was made. According to the account in the Confederate Veteran, Margaret Hayes “begged” Mississippi’s Governor Robert Lowry and other state officials to legalize the name change of her five-year old son to honor the Confederate president and preserve the name Jefferson Davis by changing his name from “Jefferson Davis Hayes” to “Jefferson Hayes Davis.” “The child was sent for,” the author wrote, “and the Governor, taking him on his knee, explained in simple language what he wished done.” The account suggests that little Jefferson understood what was being asked of him and, after a moment of silence, “burst into tears” and told the Governor “I specs I’ll dess have to be named for my poor dead dranpa, who isn’t dot anybody at all named for him.”
What followed in this retelling reveals some of the more macabre aspects of the Lost Cause, as Governor Lowry took the young boy into his arms, and walked over to the “dead chieftain.” He then lifted the Confederate flag that draped the coffin and proceeded to swaddle the child with it before making his pronouncement: “I name you ‘Jefferson Davis.’” And, soon after, the State of Mississippi followed through on its promise to confirm the name change, doing so by an act of the state legislature.
You can’t make this stuff up, folks.
In part IV of the serial “Me and Jeff Davis,” I’ll discuss the significance of Confederate hair. Yes, hair.