Bidding Adieu to Confederate Monuments in New Orleans

Jefferson-Davis
Jefferson Davis Monument, New Orleans.

In the wake of the human tragedy Charleston, South Carolina, where nine members of Emanuel AME Church were murdered by a white supremacist neo-Confederate, there has been a push in southern states to remove the symbols of the region’s Confederate past.  Until now, only battle flags have been targeted.

But recently, the city council in New Orleans voted to remove Confederate monuments from its urban landscape, including those to Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, as well as one to the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.  Council members accomplished this feat through an ordinance that defined these monuments as a public “nuisance.”

According to the ordinance:

They honor, praise, or foster ideologies which are in conflict with the requirements of equal protection for citizens as provided by the constitution and laws of the United States, the state, or the laws of the city and suggests the supremacy of one ethnic, religious, or racial group over another.

This angers Confederate sympathizers like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy who believe that such memorials honor their ancestors’ sacrifices.  It also makes some historians a little uneasy, as they worry about erasing history, arguing that even when that past is ugly it should remain as a reminder to never repeat that past.

Yet much of what the ordinance says is true.  Confederate monuments were erected in a moment of white supremacist backlash to black progress and were not simply memorials to honor ancestors.  They were that, but they were also powerful symbols of white rule serving notice to black citizens that they were, at best, second-class citizens.

Unveiling ceremonies, Jefferson Davis Monument in New Orleans, 1907.
Unveiling ceremonies, Jefferson Davis Monument in New Orleans, 1907.

When the Jefferson Davis Memorial in New Orleans was unveiled in 1907, it was attended by thousands of white citizens. The ceremony included over 500 children from the city’s white public schools who formed what were known as “living battle flags.”  These children, dressed in the colors that make up the flag, were then arranged on a stand so that they formed a Confederate battle flag.  In that formation, they sang “Dixie” and even “America.”

But make no mistake, the loyalty expressed by white southerners during this and similar ceremonies across the South were first and foremost to the former Confederacy.

Monuments and memorials are generally a reflection of the values of the generation that originally placed them there. In 1907, the Davis monument reflected the values of a generation of whites dedicated to the idea of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Indeed, during speeches given at unveiling ceremonies across the South, they said as much.

So how should we consider removing such monuments and memorials?

If landscapes are constantly evolving, can the removal of the Confederate monuments in New Orleans or elsewhere be understood as part of that evolution and a reflection of values of the current generation?

Others will see this as a historic preservation issue.  As most of us know, preservation is a difficult sell under the best of circumstances.  Some buildings get preserved, while others are razed in order to build something new in its place.

In this, I am reminded of a statement made by a curator at the National Museum of American History many years ago during one of my visits.  She discussed how the museum had previously exhibited women’s work in the 18th and 19th centuries by showcasing several spinning wheels of various sizes. She asked, rhetorically, “how many spinning wheels are needed to demonstrate that this was the kind of work most women did?”  Not an entire room full.

The same might be asked about the hundreds of Confederate monuments and memorials that are found across the southern landscape.

How many are needed to demonstrate that a generation of southern whites built monuments to the Confederate past?

 

 

 

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Me and Jeff Davis, Part IV: A Confederate Hair Bonanza

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.

A hair wreath in honor of a Union soldier.
A hair wreath in honor of a Union soldier.

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.

58614966One 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.

For $4,000 you may have this single strand of Jeff's hair.
For $4,000 you may have this single strand of Jeff’s hair.

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.”

 

 

 

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.'”

 

Me and Jeff Davis: The Serial

moijefferson-davis-portrait

This week, and for the next several weeks, Pop South will offer a serial called “Me and Jeff Davis,” based on an essay I wrote for fun but for which I never found the right publishing venue.  Now that I have a blog and we are still in the midst of the Civil War sesquicentennial, why not? What follows is Part 1.

As scholars we often develop a personal relationship with our work, feeling as if we know the people we study even though they have long since died. Early in my career, my research involved a study of the Lost Cause, more specifically, those women who helped to preserve it for generations—the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC).

UDCTN1900
UDC members in Jackson, Tennessee. 1900.

Through these women, and my fascination with the Confederate tradition in the New South, I became very familiar with Jefferson Davis, or “Jeff,” as I like to call him.

Lost Cause Jeff.
Lost Cause Jeff.

Jeff Davis of the Lost Cause was quite different from Jefferson Davis, one and only Confederate President. The postwar Davis is a man whose journey from despised loser to sacred martyr is the man I came to know through my research.

The UDC made sure of it, even if Davis had never participated in the resurrection of his own image, which he did. They built grand monuments to him in New Orleans and Richmond, and smaller places in between. His image is one of three Confederate leaders carved into Stone Mountain in Georgia. There’s even a highway named for him, compliments of these Daughters of the Confederacy.

And while Robert E. Lee may have been the South’s most beloved hero, Jefferson Davis was the Daughters’ “Man.” He symbolized the South in her loss, defending the cause of states’ rights and his, as well as the region’s, reputation. Moreover, for the devotees of the Lost Cause, especially women, he was THE martyr of a defeated southern nation.

In fact, he was often likened to Jesus Christ; just as Christianity’s martyr died for the sins of humanity, the South’s martyr—Jefferson Davis—was regarded as self-sacrificing, a man who went to prison and suffered in behalf of the entire region.

The Jefferson Davis Monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA, was a result of UDC fundraising efforts.
The Jefferson Davis Monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA, was a result of UDC fundraising efforts.

How did Davis’ reputation as a martyr play itself out in the South?

In fascinating, costly, and even bizarre ways. In fact, I often liken my own experience with Lost Cause Jeff as something like going to a sideshow at the annual fair—you don’t want to look, but you can’t help yourself. Indeed, from the first time I came to study the Lost Cause and the UDC, it was Jeff Davis who kept revealing himself to me, and not in the most conventional ways.

Return for Part 2 of Me and Jeff Davis: The Serial, entitled “Beauvoir, Catafalques, and Head Start.” Yes, you read that correctly.