Me and Jeff Davis, Part VI: Living on Jefferson Davis Highway

Map_of_the_Jefferson_Davis_Memorial_Highway
This map does not show the alternate routes I mention here, but it offers you an idea of what the UDC had in mind.

In 1913, UDC President-General Rassie White conceived of a memorial project unlike any other. The organization’s success with monuments was evident throughout the South and in some northern cities, including Chicago. Even San Francisco had a Confederate memorial in the form of a park planted with southern trees.

But it was the opportunity to honor their man once again that led President-General White and the Daughters to suggest that a highway, named for Jefferson Davis, be created. The transcontinental route would extend from ocean to ocean and wind its way through southern states, beginning in Washington, DC, and ending in San Diego, California.

2004-D03-315There would also be two auxiliary routes: one from Davis’s birthplace in Fairview, Kentucky, to his last residence, Beauvoir, on the coast of Mississippi. Surprisingly, the other route would follow Davis’s escape route through the South to the site of his capture in Irwinsville, Georgia. Surprising, since this route ended at the place where the controversy erupted over his capture in feminine attire.

The Daughters’ did not fully succeed in completing this highway memorial, as some sections of the road were built but not connected as a continuous coast to coast route. Today, only some parts of the highway carry the Davis name. One, ironically, is U.S. 80 in Alabama, particularly the segment from Selma to Montgomery. It was indeed on this road, named for Jefferson Davis, that the Reverend Martin Luther King led the march that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a story recently dramatized in the movie “Selma.”

The other route, U.S. 1 in Virginia, also carries the name Jefferson Davis Highway. It was through this section of the memorial that I again crossed paths, literally, with the memory of the Confederate president.

In 2001, I moved to Arlington, Virginia.  Friends of mine directed me to some apartments in the area known as Crystal City, adjacent to National Airport (I’m one of those who still resists the name change to Reagan National for good reason.)  Because I had to make a quick decision, I settled on an apartment in this section of Arlington.

jdhwyMy new address, and a big surprise to me, was none other than Jeff Davis Highway. As serendipity would have it, it was there, with a Jeff Davis address, that I put the finishing touches on the manuscript that became Dixie’s Daughters.

For more information on this highway, see: Richard F. Weingroff, “Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway,” U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration website, http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infastructure/jdavis.htm

My Lost Cause journey with Jeff continues.  Come back next week for Part VII and the story of Jeff Davis and his crown of thorns.

 

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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.'”