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 VII: His Crown of Thorns

JD's crown and the Confederate Museum's story that the Pope made it.
JD’s crown of thorns

Nothing says “Christian martyr” like a crown of thorns, but did you know that Jefferson Davis had one, too?  He did.

Preparing my manuscript on the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) often took me to the Museum of the Confederacy (MOC) in Richmond. In one final trip to search for images with which to illustrate my book, I traveled there in the spring of 2002. At the time, the MOC was hosting a special exhibit of items on loan from the Confederate Memorial Hall Museum in New Orleans, which opened in 1891 and is one of the oldest history museums in the South.

I walked through the exhibit, observing objects from several of the South’s heroes (General P.G.T. Beauregard‘s uniform, for example) and then was stopped in my tracks by the relic of all Lost Cause relics. There before me under plexiglas was a crown of thorns. Without reading the exhibit copy, I instinctively knew it was for Jeff. And, yes, I was right. Here before me rested the ultimate symbol of his martyrdom—a crown of thorns. I could hardly believe my eyes. I saw (but would not touch) the locks of his hair, and now I found myself gazing on his crown of thorns.

The martyrdom of Jeff Davis began to take shape during his imprisonment at Fort Monroe in Va.
The martyrdom of Jeff Davis began to take shape during his imprisonment at Fort Monroe in Va.

The thorny wreath, according to the Confederate Museum that owns it, was “sent to Davis by Pope Pius IX in sympathy for Davis’ post war treatment by the U.S. government while a prisoner at Fortress Monroe.” That seemed like a sacrilegious thing for a pope to do, but the representatives of the museum have yet to waiver from their story. However, the researchers at the Museum of the Confederacy documented their version, which is that his wife Varina Davis made the crown. An inventory of items donated by Varina to the Confederate Museum in New Orleans confirms that she made the crown, but I’ve yet to find out why. (Kevin Levin offers the documentation on his Civil War Memory site.)

This object, this relic of the Lost Cause, makes quite a statement about Davis as a martyr, because not every martyr gets a crown of thorns. Did the white South believe so whole-heartedly that his sacrifices were Christ-like?

I have no doubt that the early members of the UDC were on board with the “Davis as martyr” image, because it was in keeping with the stories written about women of the Confederate generation in the years following the Civil War.

Those “women of the sixties” were frequently compared to Mary and Martha of the Bible, “last at the cross and first at the grave.” Perhaps the UDC saw its role in preserving the image of Jeff Davis as similar in intent.

The crown of thorns, while made by Varina, served its purpose as the pièce de résistance in a much larger campaign by women to resurrect Davis’s image.

Check back for the final installment of Me and Jeff Davis: The Serial when I discuss the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library as well as the financial and political costs of the Lost Cause.

 

Me and Jeff Davis, Part III: The Baptism over the Coffin

The Davis Family, ca. 1885.  Margaret sits to the far left. Varina holds little Jefferson Hayes.
The Davis Family and unidentified servant, ca. 1885. Margaret sits to the far left. Varina holds little Jefferson Hayes. Courtesy: Library of Congress

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.

Margaret Howell Davis Hayes. Date unknown.
Margaret Howell Davis Hayes. Date unknown.

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.”

Jefferson Davis Hayes
Jefferson Davis Hayes

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.

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.'”

 

Stories of the South with Stephen Prince

prince_stories1-197x300Pop South interviews Stephen Prince, Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Florida, about his new book Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865-1915, published by UNC Press in April.

PS: The main title of your book is “Stories of the South.” Since this is a history book and not a book of literature, please tell readers of Pop South about the kind of stories your book examines.

I use the term “stories” fairly loosely. Though I do analyze literary texts, I find stories about the South in a variety of other places: congressional debates, newspaper editorials, travel narratives, speeches, sermons, visual art, popular theater, songs, promotional material, writings on the “race problem,” political cartoons, and scholarly treatises. I cast my net pretty wide in order to capture the range of sites at which people grappled with the nature of the South in the fifty years after the Civil War.

PS: The subtitle of your book is “Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity.” When you write about “southern identity” between the Civil War and World War I, specifically whose identity are you concerned with? Whites? Blacks? Men? Women?

Thomas Nast
Thomas Nast’s illustration of the New South. Image courtesy of Library of Congress

The book starts from a fairly simple premise. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the meaning of the South – defined as a region, a people, a civilization – was an open question. “The South,” as it had been, had ceased to be. The question was what the region would become. Over the next fifty years, Americans – northern and southern, male and female, black and white – debated the nature of the South. I use these conversations to chart a course from the racial egalitarianism of Reconstruction to the nightmare of Jim Crow.

That said, I’m not particularly attuned to the ways that individual southerners understood their “southern-ness” on a private, personal level. I’m much more interested in popular, public discussions of the South. References to “the Southern Question” were extraordinarily common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Northerners played an important role in these discussions, before and after the oft-cited “end” of Reconstruction in 1877. I argue that the South was re-defined in conversation between the sections. The ability to define the South carried with it enormous political power. To tell the story of the South was to control the South.

PS: Your book relies on sources of popular culture as a way to better understand the region. What types of sources did you use and was there a consistent message among those sources regarding the American South?

Fisk University Jubilee Singers performed
Fisk University Jubilee Singers, ca. 1871. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

The message is definitely not consistent! Contestation and debate were the only constants. One of my goals was to bring cultural history to the study of the postwar U.S. South. Political and social history still dominate the literature on Reconstruction and its aftermath. Debates over the future of the South certainly occurred in the halls of Congress and on individual southern farms and plantations, but there was a much wider cultural universe in which the nature of the region was discussed. In order to understand the retreat from Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, we need to pay attention to the larger cultural context in which political change occurred. Viewed from this perspective, a fantastic and phantasmagoric* pamphlet on the Ku Klux Klan is not just ephemera, it’s an important part of the cultural landscape in which power was won and contested. The same is true of the New South’s city boosting literature, Thomas Nelson Page’s plantation fiction, and the songs of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Culture matters. Without understanding the stories that Americans told themselves about the South, we can’t understand the history of the South.

PS: One of your main arguments is that cultural production—particularly popular culture—is as important to understanding what shaped the South in the post-Civil War era as are political and economic changes. What role did popular culture play in shaping contemporary ideas about the South in the 19thc.?

Though I try to avoid simplistic cause-and-effect analysis, a large-scale change-over-time argument structures much of the book. In the first years of Reconstruction, northerners seized the power to re-imagine the South. By the 1880s, however, conservative white southerners had realized the significance of what we might call the cultural front in the war on Reconstruction. By the early twentieth century, northerners were largely content to defer to white southerners on matters relating to the South, particularly where race was involved. Throughout, African-Americans told their own tales of the South. In the process, they offered eloquent testimony to the power of culture and public opinion. Go read Frederick Douglass’s last speech on lynching or the cakewalk scene in Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition. As Douglass put it, “words are things.” The way that people described affairs in the South – the words they used, the stories they told – mattered deeply.

PS:  Last, but not least, what about your newest research project might interest readers of Pop South?

prince picture
Historian Stephen Prince

I’m now writing a book about the 1900 New Orleans riot, tentatively titled The Ballad of Robert Charles: Race, Violence, and Memory in the Jim Crow South. The riot has a place in all the big books on the rise of Jim Crow, but no one has attempted a full scholarly study since William Ivy Hair’s 1976 Carnival of Fury. The violence in New Orleans started when a black man named Robert Charles shot and killed several white police officers. Over the new few days, white New Orleanians took their revenge on the city’s African American residents, killing at least five and wounding dozens more. When the authorities finally located Charles, an enormous gunfight broke out. Trapped in a second story loft, Charles shot several more white people before he was killed. The riot quickly became a national story, spawning extensive newspaper coverage and becoming the subject of Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s pamphlet Mob Rule in New Orleans. Though white and black elites did their best to eradicate the memory of Robert Charles, evidence suggests that he lived on as something of a folk hero among working-class African Americans in New Orleans and beyond.

The book’s title – The Ballad of Robert Charles – comes from a 1938 interview that folklorist Alan Lomax recorded with jazz legend and New Orleans native Jelly Roll Morton. “They had a song out on Robert Charles,” Morton recalled. “I used to know the song, but I found it was best for me to forget it. And that I did, in order to go along with the world on the peaceful side.” The ballad of Robert Charles was too explosive to remember, too dangerous to sing. Following Morton’s lead, I hope my book will be much more than a story about Jim Crow New Orleans. It will also be an exploration of memory, forgetting, historical silences, and the power of the past.

*This is your word for the day, children.