“So This Is America.”: My Visit to the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library

Last weekend I visited the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library and Museum in Biloxi, Mississippi. Why? Because I’m a budding historian and randomly impulsive.

The visit was unplanned. I didn’t even know the museum existed. My family and I were on the Gulf coast for a long weekend when my wife, who knows my interest in history and race, texted me a link to the library’s website.

So who’s up for an adventure?

I knew what to expect even before we got there because of the website and the brochure. The home is called Beauvoir which means “beautiful view” in French. And it’s an appropriate name. Overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, one can sit on the porch and view the waves creeping lazily toward shore.

View from Beauvoir overlooking the Mississippi Gulf coast
Beuvoir (“beautiful view), Last residence of Jefferson Davis

The website showed a white bride posing next to a Civil War canon. In addition to getting a tour of the Jefferson Davis house, you can also book weddings there.

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You can get married at the home of the president of the Confederacy

Little mention was made of slavery or black people. The most prominent reference was to little Jim Limber, a bi-racial child whom the Davis family “adopted.” The Sons of Confederate Veterans commissioned a bronze statue of Jefferson Davis with his two “sons” Jim and Joseph Davis. It seemed designed and placed to convey the Confederate president as a magnanimous white elite who treated little black children with love and respect. No mention was made of the reality that he led a rebellion to keep people like Jim Limber enslaved.

Jefferson Davis with his biological son and “adopted” black child, Jim Limber (left)

When we arrived the first thing I noticed is the library is huge. This isn’t some half-funded project by a few Civil War fanatics. The library must have serious money behind it.

I came with five other people, three other adults and two children. We were all black and we all knew what was up at a Jefferson Davis museum. I begged, but I couldn’t get any of the adults to go with me inside. It wasn’t until after I got out of the car and was walking toward the entrance that my wife mercifully and sacrificially hopped out to accompany me. A witness for whatever was about to happen.

Jefferson Davis Presidential Library (rear exterior)

I had deep anxiety walking up the steps to the door. As a black man walking into a library dedicated to the memory–no the celebration–of the man who led the Confederate States of America, I was acutely aware that this place wasn’t meant for me. It wasn’t meant for free black folks in the twenty-first century.

Should anyone feel so anxious and unwelcome walking into a museum? Something is wrong.

Needless to say, my wife and I were the only visible people of color. We noticed. The other patrons noticed. It was awkward.

The hardest part was the looks. The lady at the counter selling tickets hesitated just a moment before she served us. She acted perfectly friendly, she just seemed surprised to see us. Same with everyone else.

There were lots of long shaggy beards, leather biker jackets, camo clothing, and tropes typical of white people who love their “heritage.” That’s not what stuck out about the people, though.

What stood out were the families. Men dressed in khakis and polos shirts. Women in sun dresses and flats. And the children. Oh, the children. Little white boys and girls wandering through the museum with the blend of mischief and boredom typical of kids forced to endure something “historical.” The mundanity of it all was frightening.

These children would grow up with memories of their trip to the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library and it would be perfectly normal to them to celebrate the Confederacy.

Were their parents there to teach them about historiography and how white supremacist historians like William Archibald Dunning promulgated the notion that African Americans were socially and intellectually unfit to participate in a democracy? A man who thought the efforts of the Reconstruction era to help recently freed men and women succeed in America was an utter travesty?

Did the parents who brought their children to visit the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library point out that the museum’s designers rendered slavery all but invisible? Did they comment on the fact that the Confederacy represented chains and shackles and not freedom for people of African descent?

Since the library is in Mississippi, did they reference the state’s articles of secession which said,

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.”

The same articles that went on to assert the non-humanity of African slaves who were not considered people, but property.

“We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property.”

Did they explain the myth of the “Lost Cause” that crafted a fictionalized and idealized South and valorized the Confederacy at the expense of mentioning the heinousness of slavery and its consequences?

Did the parents of the children who visited the Jefferson Davis library teach their children about the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves in the Confederate states?

Did they read the line from the proclamation by Lincoln that said,

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free…”?

Did these white parents visiting the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library teach their children that for African Americans independence came with an asterisk? How the Thirteenth Amendment which freed all slaves made a provision for updated forms of slavery when it said,

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (italics added).

Did they speak of Juneteenth, the oldest celebration of black emancipation in the United States? Did these parents even know about Juneteenth?

Did these white parents teach their white children about the lasting effects of slavery and segregation including thousands of lynchings, the convict-lease system, the Jim Crow racial hierarchy, generational poverty, red-lining of property, inequitable distribution of G.I. Bill benefits, the purposeful formation of ghettoes, the law and order rhetoric that relegated millions of black people to prisons, disproportionately high infant mortality rates, and the collective racial trauma African Americans continue to endure?

I’m going to hazard a guess and say, no, most white parents aren’t teaching their children about the Confederacy’s true purpose and the effects of glamorizing the antebellum South.

The library is built on the grounds of the Jefferson Davis house. It’s a short walk from the library to the abode of the erstwhile president of the rebellion. The tour of the house cost extra and it would have taken at least half an hour. We had people waiting in the car, so my wife and I didn’t go on the tour. I don’t know if I could have endured it even if we’d had time.

We walked by the house, but I couldn’t bring myself to walk up the steps to the doors. I just stood at the bottom staring up.

I got a picture as proof I had visited, though.

Yes, I was actually here.

Nothing we experienced in the Jefferson Davis museum itself so conveyed the love of the Confederacy more than the gift shop.

Like most museums, the Jefferson Davis Library is arranged so you have to walk through the gift shop on your way out. The whole store was a celebration of a failed rebellion designed to preserve the institution of slavery and the ideology of white supremacy.

Confederate flags stood as the most concise and eloquent expression of the southern cause in the Civil War. They had flags of all sizes, from little ones attached to wooden sticks, to decals that go on pick up trucks, to extra large ones designed to fly atop flag poles. They had t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like, “The South was right in 1861 because America was right in 1776.”

Gift shop swag

They even had pajamas spotted with tiny Confederate flag decals.

Sleep in Confederate comfort

Walking out of the museum we saw an old poster from the Alabama chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans advertising events for the sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War. Except they didn’t call it the Civil War. They called it “The War for Southern Independence.”

Not the Civil War, but “The War for Southern Independence”

When we got in the car, we joked about “surviving” the museum. But it wasn’t really a joke. In a real sense it was an experience we did survive. We survived the visual and written assaults on our intrinsic dignity. We survived the sense of unwelcomeness that pervaded the entire edifice. We survived yet another elaborate and intentional reminder of black people’s subordinate place in American lore.

My wife articulated the realest lesson we learned at the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library. She said she doesn’t like visiting places like this because it reminds her of why white supremacy will never go away.

As long as monuments exalting the Confederacy without acknowledging the racism inherent within exist, this nation will never heal. As long as paeans to the president of the Confederate States of America remain, the nation will never vanquish ideas of black inferiority. As long as white parents bring their children to museums that venerate the Confederacy without explaining its foundations in white supremacy, this land will never have unity.

I love history and I think it’s important, so there is and must be a place to remember Jefferson Davis. But to design an entire presidential library without devoting a significant portion to explaining the controversies that started the Civil War and the South’s part in justifying and preserving slavery does nothing to advance history. It only advances the fiction of white superiority.

In view of the existence of the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library, I have to temper my expectations for racial progress in America.

I never had very high hopes, but seeing how so many people simply absorb the mythology of this museum sobers me. Visiting this place is not a passive act. There’s something about whiteness that wants the Lost Cause to be true. There’s an internal logic that says to some white people, “We must honor those who fought to preserve southern heritage, because they were the true patriots who promoted the America we should have but the northerners, liberals, academics, feminists, homosexuals, ethnic minorities, immigrants, Muslims, and blacks all want to take away.”

White supremacy creates an entire belief-system that resembles a religion. It creates martyrs and saints. It creates devils and demons. It demands absolute faith and punishes apostasy.

The Jefferson Davis Library is a glamour shot of the man who led a group of states that seceded from the union based on the state’s “right” to keep people in bondage. It is not so much history as folklore.

Visiting a place like the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library overpowers vain optimism. Seeing how deep racism goes in this country disabuses you of the notion that this land is in any way post-racial or that racial wounds will heal quickly. It leaves you saying, simply and matter-of-factly, “So this is America.”

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20 thoughts on ““So This Is America.”: My Visit to the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library

  1. This is actually an incredibly thought provoking article on parenting, but not one that you’ll find in the latest “10 Tips” book. The Bible is full of commands to teach your children your history, lest they forget and grow up oppressing others:

    “You shall not pervert justice due the stranger or the fatherless, nor take a widow’s garment as a pledge. But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this thing.” Deut 24:17–18

    “Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. And teach them to your children and your grandchildren” Deut 4:9

    Every parent needs to think carefully about the way you are shaping your children: the books you have them read, the movies you have them watch, the museums you take them to, or the conversations you have on the 4th of July.

    This is a great post. I’m grateful to Jemar for walking right into these spaces and then offering his reflections as a black man, a Christian, a historian, and a father.

  2. Thank you for writing this; I really appreciate your perspective on this issue.

    I wonder if there is a place for celebrating that which was good about the Confederacy (which I believe there was some good) without “whitewashing” the bad. I suppose the principle applies to all societies, but as an African American man, I would be interested in your thoughts about how Southern people could celebrate certain things about the Confederacy while acknowledging the particular evils that ailed it.

    I think we have found ways to do this in other areas of history, but it may not be as personal. We glorify (to an extent) biblical leaders and kings who had serious personal flaws that were culturally acceptable in their time (polygamy, say).

    I also wonder how future generations will treat the American flag when the evil of abortion is societally recognized for what it is. What will we do to American monuments and museums that celebrate a culture that systematically destroyed the lives of millions of innocents? I think these things are related. I would be interested in what you think. Thank you again for writing.

    1. Polygamy still exists all over the world. Slavery is rampant in The Middle East and in parts of Africa to this day. To view these points only as through a keyhole to the past does not give the Truths that someone seeking nuances that you say you want expounded. It is a sad but Truthful story to tell how Africans sold those of other tribes to the Dutch and then others to be sent primarily to harbors of the North, even after the practice was outlawed. There are so many facets of this story, and almost every one of them dimmed by sadness of some sort. The BEST possible and most Truth Filled book will contain every possible facet and action of every single player of the slave trade; those who sold other tribes of Africa to the whites, and just when and why and how was The Civil War turned into a story of antislavery when in the North, the one publication of greatest readership was 3000 Abolitionists out 20,000,000 people. Even Lincoln, though as many felt, was not in favor of slavery, yet did not enter the war for this reason. Vital points, like the fact that the Northern (Union) Military had Robert E. Lee as their FIRST choice to lead, but Lee, a Virginian, saw his State attacked over all other things, and so the North’s Choice for the command instead fought for his State of Virginia and the South, for the idea of the Rights of States was a much greater concern and on the minds of 18th & 19th century people more than it may be today, and frankly, it IS very hard to view a world of yesterday with only the eyes and views of Today and present a complete and a “as less biased book” as is possible with events that were normal for one age and alien in another. I hope that every possible side of this incredibly complex story is presented, or it is less than it should be. Both black and white people are able to view the truths of a now ancient age, at least in our country, and we deserve that totality of truths and not a story that is skewed in any way. It IS hard to write a proper book that presents the data and lets the chips fall where they may without making the story come out in a “desired” way, but rather a totally truthful one that answers questions of everyone.
      I will be glad when such a book is written, and what we THINK we know is replaced with what happened in toto to bring us to where we are today.

      1. You have conveyed the thoughts of many but most of us don’t have the way with words as you do. Also in today’s world(2019) we are afraid to express our thoughts for fear of retribution. Today it seems if you don’t sercome to the left wing ideology way of thinking your considered a raceses or worse. Thanks again for your posting.

  3. I was really challenged & moved by your perspective. An excellent piece of writing, but moreso an valuable subject to discuss. Thank you for sharing your insight; I have benefitted from it.

  4. Thank you for reviewing the museum. I am white, and never heard of Juneteenth until THIS YEAR (thanks to the BTB fb group I’m in). Lots of good food for thought.

  5. Powerful post, Jemar. Wow, so painful. I noticed that the museum is owned and maintained by the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, so I looked up the organization and found their website. They run youth camps and actively cultivate the ideas you saw at Beauvoir in the next generation. http://www.scv.org/. Notable members of the SCV have included Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Gen. Omar Bradley, Patrick Buchanan, and Clint Eastwood, so yes, there are deep pockets. It’s quite evident why the Lord has a specific heart for the oppressed (Ecclesiastes 4:1). It’s impossible for those who suffer generational poverty to compete on earth with those with generational wealth. The deeper wisdom we see in Ecclesiastes is that all that wealth spent on personal justification while on earth is ultimately futile, a pursuit of the wind. The kingdom of God is turning all that upside-down. Corruption and death will be swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:50-58). In the meantime, there’s so much to lament. I return all the time to v. 58, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

  6. I am very grateful for you Jemar and for the unfiltered but not unkind commentary you have given here. Growing up in Mississippi, I saw the ugly effects of racism and learned to hate racism and its effects. As I grew up, I would constantly hear the excuses, not justifying the Civil War but rarely condemning it either, not condemning present racial bias but justifying it. Over the last 15 or so years, and especially over the past 5 years, I have grown to understand so much more about prevalence of racism in the South and really throughout our nation. You have helped me become aware and sensitive towards many of the more subtle things that I was previously blind to, largely through your writing. Thank you! God is using you and your prophetic voice to continue to change and motivate me to be an agent of change and of seeking to motivate others towards awareness and change.

  7. Thank you Mr Tisby for having the courage and determination to do things like like this. You help move people to the truth and toward love of our neighbors. Please be encouraged that the Lord knows all that you go through and loves your faithfulness.

  8. I am VERY glad that this Place is there for you and others to see. There is a need, multiple needs in fact, to Keep History Alive. The injustices that occurred in all of Time are best dealt with by Keeping Their Memory; it is a greater good to have what is akin to a Complete Library of History rather than burn any books, or blow up an ancient Buddah statue, or exclude those writings we are personally uncomfortable with, or the Dedications and Monuments that are – GOOD and BAD, a part of History in toto, and certainly of the totality of The United States of America. A “feel-good” moment of wanton destruction like I have seen of late is detrimental to the Truth of History; for when such monuments are destroyed, lies and misconceptions replace a real, true Visual piece of that history. I’d much rather keep the best and worst than allow a mob to destroy it, or weak politicians to gather any favor with destruction of any piece of American History. It is wrong. Again, I am glad you had the interest and THE PLACE to visit and see what is of greater value than mere words, be they Truth or Hyperbole. A very enjoyable article. I note only that the spelling of “cannon” requires 2 letter n’s. Thank you again for a pleasant and informing piece of History.

  9. I too enjoyed this article. I too have been to Beauvoir, in July 2012. My husband and I were in town and I stumbled upon the property while exploring. The Presidential Library wasn’t open yet, as it had just been rebuilt (the original was wiped out by Katrina) so the house and temporary-mobilehome-gift shop were all there was to tour. I too got strange looks, due to my Yankee accent (as a Minnesotan living in the Ozarks, this is nothing new) but I love history and wouldn’t miss this opportunity. You certainly didn’t miss anything special by skipping the house tour. The best part was the half-hour video presented in a side room of the gift shop. It explained that Jefferson tasked his wife and daughter with turning the property into a Confederate “Old Soldiers” Home upon his death, and they did so. Barracks-type buildings (several of them, long ago demolished) housed these old men, some with their wives, until their deaths. They were fed, doctored, socialized and churched all on the property. There is a cemetery out back which is off limits to tourists. In the video, they described a woman who came there with her Confederate soldier husband, and when he died, she remarried to another resident. Repeat 6 more times for a total of 8 husbands. When interviewed, she said, “As long as the good Lord keeps takin’ ’em, so will I !” This is what I took away from this experience: Jefferson Davis personified the Southern dogma of the era, but he ultimately took care of the “little guy” and hopefully found redemption for his soul.

    1. You should write a blog with the same approach relative to the northern states which more people owned slaves than did the number of people in the southern states, particularly Grant who married into a slave owner family, to Julia Dent, and owned slaves for two years after its abolition in the south. Slavery was kept legal in the north for two years after the south had banned slavery. Also enslavement of blacks was expended into the untapped midwestern states, and not by the southern states.

  10. How do you presume to know the thoughts of scores of museum goers who happen to be white? Maybe they were interested in learning a piece of American history. Doesnt mean they subscribe to the notion of white supremacy. I was in Richmond two weeks ago and I dearly would have loved to go to the White House of the Confederacy. Doesnt make me a white supremacist. I just love history. I went to the monuments. Doesnt mean I uphold the beliefs of those who are memorialized there. I feel there is a Black metoo movement designed to make white people uncomfortable simply because they’re white.

    1. Aviva, well said. Yes the metoo movement is precisely as you analyze. If it was about slavery, they would also be addressing the slavery in the northern and midwestern states since more people in northern states owned black slaves than did people in the southern states. Also, during the compromise rather than free slaves when the southern states abolished slavery during Lincoln’s tenure land was granted to squatters in the expansion of slavery to the untapped midwestern states, as well as becoming owners of black slaves. Many northerners after cashing in on making wealth in the north, moved south to buy into or marry into families from the north who owned vast plantations and slaves and could more readily purchase or already owned slaves. One of the first and largest black slave trade markets was in NYC. One of the first plantation and black slave owners in America was a black man. Also, very few southerners could afford to pay the price for black slaves and were issued IOUs.

  11. Ron Chernow’s Grant has been one of many books I have read this summer, and it is the one that I find most relevant to your wonderful description of your visit to this museum. Chernow’s work has been especially enlightening as it details many too often unmentioned pieces of history from the start of the Civil War through the end of Grant’s life. Thanks for your commentary here.

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