Last weekend I visited the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library and Museum in Biloxi, Mississippi. Why? Because I’m a budding historian and I’m crazy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
They even had pajamas spotted with tiny Confederate flag decals.
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.”
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.”