I drove around the courthouse square four times. The Confederate monument had been moved to the cemetery decades ago. I stopped and knocked on the door of the police station, a small corrugated yellow building also housing the fire department. A large white gentleman, wearing a collared knit shirt sat behind a desk. Two black deputies in crisply pressed uniforms were propped up against the wall on the back legs of straight chairs.
“Help me, I’m lost,” I said.
“Lady, nobody gets lost in Woodville, Mississippi. Where you from?” It was the chief of police, nicknamed Foozie.
I explained that although I had grown up in the Delta, I had never been in Woodville. I had come to the Jefferson Davis family reunion, and I was looking for my motel. Foozie and the deputies began to give directions all at the same time. “What street do I turn on?” I asked, pushing my hair back from my eyes.
“Lady,” Foozie said, “Would you like an escort?”
“Of course,” I said.
“Deputy,” Foozie said, “Take this lady to her motel.”
I “turned around on the concrete” as the policeman instructed and followed him through town and then down Highway 61. As we pulled into The Magnolia Inn, the deputy saluted me by flashing his blue light.
When the Davis Family Association has its biennial meeting, The Magnolia Inn turns out the oil riggers and makes room for the relations. In front were parked three Cadillacs, a Toyota Camry and a truck that looked as if it had run into a deer and been driven through the swamps with the 10-point buck stuck on its hood.
The man at the front desk was a retired Navy man with tattooed forearms and a military haircut. “You here with the reunion?” He asked with a slight Cajun accent as he handed me my key. “Rosemont is a beautiful place,” he said.
My room had a comfortable bed, a small walk-in closet and the air conditioning was blowing cold air. When I turned on my hairdryer, I had to hit the broken plug just right to make it work.
I changed into a blue linen dress, put on turquoise earrings and a silver bracelet and sat down on the bed. It was a little after six. I didn’t want to get to Rosemont too early.
Why had I even come to this reunion? I had never paid particular attention to the Davis relationship. If I mentioned it as an oddity, history professors rolled their eyes. Friends from New York called Jefferson Davis a “terrible man”—which I must admit shocked me. For a long time, I had wanted to attend a reunion out of curiosity.
But it was more than curiosity. What kind of people were these cousins of mine? How did I feel about the Davis connection? What was its meaning for me? And, as Tony Horwitz asks in Confederates in the Attic, “Was there such a thing as politically correct remembrance of the Confederacy? Or was any attempt to honor the Cause inevitably tainted by what Southerners once delicately referred to as their “peculiar institution?”“
And there was my sense of family. My mother, my great aunt, and my first cousin once removed had all attended the very first reunion back in 1974. All of them were now dead. My mother’s death had been a terrible tragedy. In August 1981, two men had kicked open her front door, shot “the old bird” in the back, killed her poodle Sugar, and stolen jewelry, Taaka vodka, and a six pack of no-name beer. I was now 56 years old. This was June in the year 2000, and I was still grieving.
A signed lithograph of Jefferson Davis hangs in my living room, part of his mouth whitened out by the east sun from where it hung in the hall of my mother’s house. I myself had had to get on the telephone with an uncle to figure out the exact Davis connection. Jefferson Davis’ sister, Anna Eliza had married a Smith. Their son Joseph Smith married my great-great-great grandmother. So, I was Jefferson Davis’ great-great-great-great-great niece.
Ten dollar, three dollar, and two dollar Confederate bills are pasted in the family scrapbook. There are lists of slaves sold (Cornelia, Sam, Harriet, and Adaline) and born (Liddy, Charlotte’s child, Orange, Lucinda’s child, Chaney, Harriett’s child, died). Sunday school promotions from the Methodist Church are included, along with certificates of appreciation from the Red Cross. The yellowed newspaper obituary of Jefferson Davis’ grandniece, Anna Davis Smith, called Aunt Nan by my great-grandmother, covers several pages.
I heard cars start up outside my motel room, keys jangle, doors shut. Good, let the evening begin, the crowd mingle, the cousins greet one another. I was a little girl again, five years old. “Come and say your little poem,” my aunt said. I walked into the room of grown-ups, my hair in blonde curls. “My candle burns at both ends, it will not last the night, but ah, my foes, and ah, my friends, it burns a lovely light.” I was nervous. I was representing our branch of the family, the Bolivar County branch, stepping into my mother’s shoes.
I opened my door and saw that the parking lot was emptied of the Cadillacs. Only the battered blue truck remained. As I started the engine, I was thinking about the stories that had come from Aunt Nan. I pulled out on the highway, passing a derelict factory. Aunt Nan had come to Rosedale, Mississippi, where I was born and raised, to visit when she was in her 90’s, my uncle said. She was petite, black-haired with a few strands of gray and slightly stooped over. My uncle was a ten-year-old boy in 1932 when she visited for a month. They played double solitaire on the verandah. Aunt Nan laughed, her black eyes sparkling, as he won the cards. She was stone deaf. He wrote down questions for her about Jefferson Davis. She crossed out Jefferson Davis and wrote “Uncle Jeff.”
Aunt Nan Smith said, “We don’t try to keep up with the Joneses, we just outnumber them.” She would be pleased to be here meeting cousins, but I could not picture her chatting with me, sitting on the side of my bed at The Magnolia Inn.
Aunt Nan’s obituary in our family scrapbook reads: “She was a moving spirit in many commemorative efforts, and it was a point of much pride to her that “more monuments stand to the Confederate soldiers today than to any other soldiers of any other nation who ever fought for any cause.” The work of Ben Butler in Louisiana and Meade in Georgia to stop the erection of monuments to the Southern dead did not halt women like Miss Nan. “Butler and Meade didn’t know Southern women,” she explained in after years.”” When I asked Jim Jones, a history professor who these men were, he said, “George Gordon Meade was merely the man who whipped Bobby Lee! They were both Union commanders during reconstruction. And, it was, of course, not a “nation,” but a rebellion.”
As I drove down the winding road lined with trees to Rosemont, my wheels crunched over the gravel, reminding me of driving on back roads in the Delta. I was on a pilgrimage to Rosemont, the boyhood home of Jefferson Davis, built by his parents Jane Cook and Samuel Davis in 1810. I was a pilgrim from Tallahassee, Florida, a state that saw little action in the Civil War.
“Slow down,” a sign read, “You are now entering the nineteenth century.” My family had never really left the 19th century. My mother had lived through the family myths, particularly this connection. Of all the stories—the Lobdells coming to Egypt Ridge and raising corn and feeding the population during the floods, Grandmother Lightfoot’s husband being shot by an escaped prisoner while he rode horseback on the levee—the most vivid tales were about the Smith and Davis connection. I was now looking to find out what this ancestor worship was all about.
I found the last parking space under a green canopy of trees and cut my engine. I glimpsed the white plantation house through the thicket. I was back in the past with my mother. My mother had lived with the sense of the way things should be even when she could no longer afford to pay her grocery bill. Her house was a grand red brick Delta house, paneled in walnut with marble fireplaces, built by my great aunt in the early 1950’s as a show place for the pre-Civil War tester beds and secretaries. The trim needed painting. Ivy crept over the steps. The house was filled with portraits in crumbling gold frames, Civil War letters, and even, we discovered after she died, a croker sack full of picked cotton in the attic.
When I mentioned the cotton sack to my mother’s youngest brother, he immediately claimed the cotton as his own. When he was a boy in 1942, The Daughters of the American Revolution organized a party for the Children of the American Revolution. Oddly, it was a Cotton Picking Party. The children were driven to a cotton field in the back of a pickup truck. Each child was given a croker sack and designated a row of cotton. The contest was timed and my uncle won a $25 war bond by picking the most cotton. Then the children were driven to Baby Dot Streater’s plantation, where a black man servant in a white jacket came out to the truck with a silver tray, silver pitcher, and glasses filled with ice. My uncle did not drink all of his water and because he was taught never to drink after anyone, he leaned over and poured the water out on the ground. He remembers clearly that the man looked at him with such disgust, that he realized what he had done was offensive and wrong. In 1942, cotton choppers, mostly women, were being paid a dollar a day, docked 25 cents if they damaged a cotton plant.
I got out of my car and walked through a covered gateway where tourists wait to take an official tour of the house. But I was my own guide down the old brick path. The style of Rosemont is a Mississippi Federal planters cottage. It is, of course, a very large cottage, built in 1810 before the grand style of Greek Revival. The house is white with long green shutters, simple columns across the front and a brown gabled roof with dormer windows on either side of an elegant Palladian window.
On the porch the many Davis cousins were sipping cocktails, some leaning against the gallery railing across the front of the house. Jefferson Davis was the youngest of 10 children so there are numerous descendants. I recognized Percival Beacroft from his picture in The Davis Family News Letter.“Welcome,” he said, shaking my hand. “I believe this is your first reunion.” Percival is in his 60’s although he looks much younger. He was wearing shorts and loafers without socks. Percival grew up in Texas and practiced law for awhile in New York. He is also an historian who became interested in Jefferson Davis, looked up Rosemont, and bought it in 1971 with its 270 acres, 10 short of the original plantation. According to an article from The Woodville Republican, the emphasis of Percival’s work at Rosemont is to highlight Jefferson’s accomplishments before he became president. Davis was a hero in the Mexican War as an army officer under Zachary Taylor, helped start the Smithsonian as a congressman, and instituted the medical corps and created a number of forts as secretary of war.
Percival told me that he bought Rosemont from a Mr. Johnston. Mr. Johnston rode his riding mower in a little circle to clear a path from Rosemont to his car. The rest of the lawn and surrounding fences were buried in brambles. Directly in front of the house was a pond, surrounded by a thicket. The house had no kitchen and no electricity. Mr. Johnston got dressed up everyday with a bowtie and drove into Natchez to eat his noon dinner. He spent the afternoon reading the newspaper at the Eola Hotel. Although he was an honor graduate of the University of Mississippi, he only worked one day in his life. He came home and told his mother that his chair was too hard.
I opened the screen door and went inside. The house was dark and cool. The smell of old furniture took me back to being a young girl at Rosalie in Natchez during the Pilgrimage. My mother and sister and I, along with other girls and their mothers, would dress up in antebellum costumes (mine pink complete with ruffled pantaloons) and “serve” at Rosalie, a house owned by the DAR. Our hoop skirts were made out of concentric rings of coat hangers, tied together with strips of old sheets. But no, my mother did not go with my little sister and me. The other mothers went. My mother inherited the family businesses, the Talisman movie theater and an insurance agency. And unlike Mr. Johnston, she, as a divorced woman, had to work to support two children.
Soon we gathered in the dining room for the blessing. We served ourselves crab casserole and salad from the sideboard. Cousins sat on velvet chairs around the parlor and on a particularly fine New York Federal American chair, left by Mr. Johnston. I watched a relation spill a glass of water on the dining room table and then use his napkin to blot it up through the holes of the crocheted centerpiece. Each descendant had the name of his ancestor on his nametag. Thus mine said, “Anna Eliza,” the most prolific line of the family. Once a cousin had prayed at a DAR meeting, “Lord, we thank thee that we are descendants and not ancestors.”
In the back bedroom, I found two descendants of Lucinda, looking at a photograph of May May Bradford, born in 1882, the last member of the Davis family to live at Rosemont. “That’s the picture we all have,” the cousin from Arkansas said, pointing to the mantel. The other cousin Nancy teaches literature at Hollins College and is a novelist. May May was her grandmother.
“Why did she leave when she was 13?” I asked. We were eating cheese cake on glass plates with silver forks. I admired the bed with its massive columns. It was Jane Davis’s bed, a Mississippi classical tester bed from the 1820’s.
“Luanda’s father was murdered in a property dispute,” the college professor said. “Her father wanted to keep Rosemont and an uncle wanted to sell it. There was an inquest and the death was ruled an accident, but we know it was murder. Lucinda moved out, her mother had died in childbirth. Rosemont was lost to the family.”
My mother’s murder had meant the end of our family line in Bolivar County, going back to the 1840’s. My sister and I moved out the rosewood Victorian settees and the 10-foot-high gilt mirrors from Mexico. We donated trunks of letters to the archives. The Methodist Church held an auction, selling liqueur glasses, antique stuffed dolls, and an old cash register. In January, after the first murder trial, I went home to retrieve photographs. The large pile slid out of the back seat of my blue Chevrolet. I burst into tears looking at the snowflake-spotted pictures of my mother in her hoop skirt costume for the May Day parade. She was standing in the iris garden in the dappled sunlight, a beauty with dark hair waved close to her head.
“We all came because my mother wanted to come,” the Arkansas cousin said, “and then Mother got sick. Every girl in our branch has to be named “Lucinda.”” On my own side, it was “Coralie,” I was Coralie number seven in direct descent, oldest daughter to oldest daughter. I was christened Mary Coralie Beauvais Staples, and called “Beauvais” for my French ancestors. As a child I desperately wanted to be a Marjorie or a Susan, a name without weight. My own daughter Coralie, now in her 30’s recently told me that she had worried all her life about living up to her name. “To whom much is given, much is expected,” my mother said.
I went through the bedroom looking for the kitchen to put up my plate and rinse my hands, but of course, there was no kitchen, so I left my plate in the dining room.
In the living room I saw Mary Joe, a woman whom I had met several years ago in Greenville, Mississippi. Coralie was her own mother’s name. “I don’t tell a whole lot of people about the Jefferson Davis connection,” she said. “You know how people make over that kind of thing in the Delta.”
I introduced myself to Joe, Mary Joe’s father, and Miss Ruth who lived in the plantation house at Solitude, the Smith land. I told them I wanted to come out and see Solitude, where my great grandmother had visited as a child.
” “Beauvais”,” Joe said, “That’s a place out in the swamps that we go to all the time. We say, “Let’s go out to Beauvais.”” He said the heirs numbered about 45 now. “I just go ahead and pay the taxes on it every year,” Joe said. I wanted to know how much they were. “Five dollars,” Joe smiled. “It’s about 15 acres. Now that the river’s so low, you can see some of the oldest cypress trees in Louisiana.”
This was a family trait, leaving property that way. My grandmother had inherited half a house and my sister and I each inherited one fourth of a barber shop, my aunt owning the other half. And so it was that Solitude had been and would continue to be divided until there were only little parcels left, echoes of what had at one time been 1300 acres.
I wandered outside on the porch and sat next to a man whose name was Crampton. Later that night I met his cousin, also named Crampton, both doctors specializing in hand surgery. One of the Crampton boys (they were in their 70’s) told me he loved to compose music and songs. I told him that I wrote short stories. He said, “The greatest short story ever written is the Prodigal Son. I compose music, but it’s not me, it’s God writing. You can’t take credit for a thing.”
I was wishing for my mother. She would have known how to respond to Crampton in a vague but polite way. God would not want credit for some of my stories stacked up in my office. I told Crampton what was on my mind—that I was sorry my mother wasn’t here, that she had been murdered in 1981 by intruders in her own house. “I miss her,” I said, “not a day goes by that I don’t think about her.”
Crampton said that his mother had been kidnapped when she was 83. He had let her off at her house one night, looking as always like she had just stepped out of a bandbox, wearing her hat and gloves. The next day her body was found in a lake, her glasses still on her head.
“But isn’t it especially sad,” I asked, “when you don’t get to tell a person goodbye?”
“Listen,” Crampton said, his voice almost angry, “There are men all over God’s green earth buried without the least goodbye who died lonesome and terrible deaths.” Crampton’s mother, the slaves, my mother.
I pictured my mother sitting in a rocker on the porch and realized that she would now be 86. She had died when she was 68. Her dark wavy hair would be snow white, her back stooped like Aunt Nan’s, Jefferson Davis’ grandniece. My mother would have noticed the dogs in the front yard and how Percival had built a swinging gate across the verandah to keep the dogs out. “Look,” she would have said, “Those dogs are a cross between a Dalmatian and a Labrador, spots of brown and black and white. What happened to the poor little fellow, the dog in the wheel chair?” She could have told me the names of the white flowers on the dining room table. She would have commented on the fact that the Colorado cousins mostly wore shorts while the Mississippi cousins were dressed in linen. She would have reminded us of Aunt Nan’s story about how the banshee always appeared before the death of one of Uncle Jeff’s four sons, three of whom died in early childhood.
I spotted Percival. I wanted to know more about how he came to rescue Rosemont. He had read about Rosemont, come to Woodville and talked Mr. Johnston into selling him the place. “It’s consumed me ever since,” he said. He built a little house for Mr. Johnston and put in a gate across the road to the property when the renovations on Rosemont had begun. Mr. Johnston would drive up to the gate, get out of his car, unlock the gate, unlock his car, and repeat the motions after he went through the gate. Percival said, “Mr. Johnston, I don’t think you really need to worry about locking your car up while you unlock the gate.” Mr. Johnston said, “I don’t want to get out of the habit.” People were beginning to drift off and I thanked Percival for being our host and started toward my car. “I’ll walk with you,” he said, continuing the escort tradition that the deputy had started. The walkway was very dark. I liked the sound of our shoes on the gravel and the crickets in the azalea bushes.
In the morning, back at Rosemont, we had breakfast at one of several outbuildings, next to Mr. Johnston’s white shotgun house, surrounded by a picket fence. I sat visiting with the two Cramptons and several other cousins. We talked about how to spell “croker sack.” And about how money wasn’t important but only your heart. (Crampton’s niece said, “Oh, come on Uncle Crampton.”) And how a man in Sweetwater had disappeared and come back years later, just like a Peter Taylor story. At 11 o’clock, the bar next to the glade opened, serving mimosas and bloody marys, and my table disbanded.
I wandered back out on the porch and spotted Ernesto Caldeira, the director of Rosemont He was wearing a long sleeved blue-and-white checkered shirt and khakis. He has white hair, and like Percival, is fit and trim. Ernesto grew up in New England, speaking both Portuguese and English. He had written me after my mother died, telling me what a fine lady she was, and how shocked he was at her violent death. Ernesto spends most of his time in New Orleans now, where he is a successful realtor, specializing in French Quarter property.
“How was it you and Percival came to put together the reunion?” I asked.
“After Percival bought the house, it became a puzzle for me to solve. Who were the descendants of Samuel and Jane Cook Davis? And where were they? We started with the oldest daughter of each child and went from there. We thought it would help with the history of Rosemont and perhaps in securing historical documents and original furnishings.”
He walked me through the building where we had had breakfast that morning. We went into his office, filled with numerous black notebooks. “All genealogy,” he said. “It’s filling in the missing blanks. It’s complicated because there were three Samuel Davises living in Natchez at the same time that Samuel Davis was living here.”
Lunch in the glade was fried chicken (Emily’s, everybody said), potato salad, carrot salad, sliced tomatoes, turnip greens, cornbread, coconut pie, iced tea, and lemonade. I took my plate to the kitchen. Emily was standing over a hot skillet, turning breasts and drumsticks with a fork. “Your chicken is delicious,” I said. The help in the kitchen was black, the company was white—this had not changed from the landscape of my childhood.
After dessert, Bertram Hayes-Davis was introduced as the first and only president of the Davis Family Association, just as his great-great-grandfather Jefferson Davis was the first and only president of the Confederacy. Bertram, or Bert, bears a strong resemblance to Davis. Jefferson’s daughter Margaret was his only offspring to have children. She and her husband moved to Colorado in the 1880’s on account of his health, so the most direct descendants are Westerners. The other great-great-grandson, Joel Webb, lives in Alaska.
The Association decided that permanent markers would be erected in the cemetery at Rosemont, since the marble grave stones have eroded to the point where the names cannot be read. It was also decided that a donation would be made to the publication of the papers of Jefferson Davis. The project has been going on since 1965, backed by Rice University, the National Historical Publications, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The two co-editors, Mary Dix and Lynda Crist, who have been to every reunion, have just finished Volume 10 and predict that the work will go on for perhaps another 10 years. They read aloud correspondence between Jefferson and his wife Varina from the time he was in prison at Fort Monroe in Virginia. Varina writes of her distress at her husband’s being held in shackles and fed rations. Daughter Margaret Davis writes to her mother that she has bought a little box to put coins in to save money to help take care of her father when he gets out of prison and so “her little sister won’t know that we are poor.” We had lived as if we were not poor either. I was a debutante on borrowed money. My great aunt would give me a hundred-dollar check for Christmas, saying “Don’t bother to cash it just yet.”
My mother had always insisted that Jefferson Davis did not really want the presidency of the Confederacy—that he had taken it on purely as a sense of duty to his state and the South. But the editors of the Davis papers told me that they have never been able to substantiate the claim that the office was thrust upon him.
“Today is Jefferson Davis’ birthday—there are ceremonies in Richmond and at Beauvoir—at last they are catching on—but all the family is here,” Bert said. Davis was born on June 3rd, 1808, 192 years ago.
The birthday cake is always cut by the oldest family member attending the reunion and the first piece given to the youngest member. But today, there was a special guest, Mrs. Frank Everett, not a descendant. She would soon be celebrating her 90th birthday and she had been driven down from Vicksburg for the occasion. Her deceased husband had written Brierfield, a book about Davis’ life at his plantation on what is now Davis Island in the Mississippi River.
Mrs. Everett, who was Miss Ole Miss in the 1920’s (Mr. Everett was Colonel Rebel), waved to me as she saw me snap her picture. “People laugh about my broom, she said, but I can balance so much better than with a cane.” She was dressed in white, complimenting her snow-white hair, wearing a corsage of white roses. She walked, leaning on her broom, over to the cake table. Mrs. Everett picked up Davis’s sword, a tradition, and cut through the white cake, decorated in blue and red. Then she brandished the sword above her head.
“Can you do that again?” a voice called out. “I missed the picture.” So, we witnessed a re-enactment of the cutting of the birthday cake.
Mary Joe invited me to follow her out to Solitude, which we reached by turning down the Angola Prison Road into Louisiana. We drove past Big Bayou Sara and Little Bayou Sara, past grinding poverty, a sad legacy of all the plantations. Solitude, built in 1788, by a man said to be a pirate, is much more primitive than Rosemont, built in 1801, A rambling house with a tin roof, it is painted pale pink with green shutters. On visits there, my great-grandmother reported that her covers were being pulled back by a figure in the room. She was told at breakfast that the ghost was Louise, a slave who had lived with the family in Saint-Domingo, later Haiti. Louise accompanied the family when they escaped during a slave rebellion to New Orleans.
It was late when I left Solitude. I followed the dirt road that turned into asphalt. I passed a man who stood turning barbecued ribs over a silver kettle-drum grill. There were folding chairs set up in the yard and silver birthday banners tacked up to the green trailer where someone else’s birthday was being celebrated. I went back to the Magnolia where my room was wonderfully cool. I stretched out on the bed. My mother always said that our family had owned and lost seven plantations. I wondered if Solitude was among the seven? But Solitude was still in the family. Once a visitor, pointing to a picture of Leesland, a house on one of the plantations, asked my mother if Leesland was still standing. “Of course,” my mother said, “only it’s now standing at the bottom of the Mississippi River.”
That evening at Rosemont, the cousins gathered in the glade—a lovely green enclosure. I got in line and helped myself to a plate from the long plank table. The great-great grandsons had been grilling steaks and halibut. The dessert table was filled with chess pies and birthday cake.
All the seats at the tables, covered with red and white checkered cloths, were taken. “Okay,” Peter, a friend of Percival’s and Ernesto’s said, “Follow me.” I was glad to have found an escort for he soon led me to the wide front porch of Rosemont where we sat in rockers under the soft lights of torches. Peter is an antique dealer in the French Quarter, and earlier he told me about buying a silver christening cup engraved with the name “Palmira Beauvais.” We wondered if she was a relative.
“Wasn’t that a wonderful lady who cut the cake today?” I asked.
“One year, the oldest relative got sick and had to leave, and the next oldest relative in line was designated. Only she really didn’t want to be the oldest lady there, so she had her son fly in his private plane from Texas to take her away.”
“It’s magical here,” I said, admiring the lack of light pollution, the quiet of no traffic, the appeal of sitting on a verandah of a house built in 1810. I sometimes dreamed that I was back at my mother’s house with its polished wood floors on the wide dogtrot. She was there, looking for her furniture. I felt guilty because now her tester bed was at my sister’s and the old secretary stood in my living room. It was easy to slip into a romantic view of the South, forgetting that cotton pickers picked even when it was so cold that their fingers burst open.
As Confederates in the Attic emphasized, the landscape of the South’s past was a lot more inviting than the present K-Marts, yellow Waffle Houses, golden Arches, and pink Dunkin’ Donuts. The South was losing its distinctiveness; clinging to the past was a way of regaining its dignity. Jim Jones, the history professor, says this is a tough call. “They may be an eye-sore, but at least everyone can go in the front door.”
“I couldn’t live here everyday,” I told Peter. “Too isolated, too quiet, and too many ghosts from the past.”
“Oh, Percival and Ernesto don’t live here except on the weekends,” Peter said. “What do you think of your first reunion?”
“I haven’t met a dull person yet,” I said. “I met relatives today who have a piece of property called, “Beauvais.” It’s owned by 45 people and has now dwindled down to 15 acres.”
“When my father died, I read his will that said I was to inherit Blue Island Plantation. A plantation, why had no one ever mentioned that we owned a plantation? Came to find out it was neither an island nor a plantation nor blue. It was a few acres of land shared by a million cousins.”
Soon we heard what sounded like a band coming from through the woods, and we took our plates and made our way back through the glade where a few people were gathered around the bar.
I introduced myself to a man Alex (a guest, not a cousin) who was getting a drink. He told me he lives in Woodville and is farming land that his family has owned since the 1780’s. I said I was originally from the Delta.
“The Delta,” he said. “I had a date with Baby Dot Streater to the Rosedale Cotillion on Christmas night. What a great dance.”
Baby Dot was famous because she had a midget car when she was in the seventh or eighth grade, an Austin.(My uncle who had taken part in the cotton picking contest on Baby Dot’s plantation, told me that people would stop and say, “Isn’t that the cutest little car you’ve ever seen?”) And then, two years before she got her driver’s license, her daddy bought her a baby blue convertible.
“Oh, course,” the man said, “Baby Dot always had more than one date. But come meet my wife and her sister who used to visit cousins every summer in Gunnison in the Delta.”
His wife and her sister looked to me like Delta women, dressed in good clothes with their hair swept up, gold bracelets, big diamonds.
“Oh, do you know my cousin Dale from Gunnison?” I asked.
“You tell him the Catchings girls said hello. We loved Dale—there weren’t too many boys in Gunnison. We were both Kappa Deltas at Ole Miss,” one of the women said, looking at me with her piercing blue eyes.
Peter and I walked over to the barn, which really isn’t a barn at all. It’s open on one side, with a tin roof and a floor good for dancing. What had sounded like a band was a one-man guitar, Jimmy O.
Peter wandered off and I stood talking to Bruce who is writing an article about Jefferson Davis’ meeting with Oscar Wilde. “Jefferson was not too taken with the meeting but the women of the house loved him.”
Joe from Solitude wanted Jimmy O to play “The Tennessee Waltz,” but Jimmy O had his own agenda—”Your Cheating Heart” and a Mississippi backwoods, Louisiana swamp rendition of “Walking After Midnight.”
“Well, folks,” Jimmy O, looked at his watch. He had beautiful yellow and red tattoos of dragons and snakes. “It’s time for a tee tee break.”
“Did you just hear what he said, ?” Peter asked.
“I think he meant to say it was time for an intermission,” I said, as we moved over to get a glass of wine. What would Uncle Jeff have thought?
The Catchings sisters were getting into a big white car with the husband Alex. “Let’s get those Delta dances going again,” I said, caught up in the sheer fun of dancing out in the woods.
One of the Catchings girls stopped and held the door a minute. She reached up and patted her hair. “I HATE Delta dances. I only like South Mississippi dances.”
It was a long way from the time that people came from all over the state to the famous dance in the Bolivar County courthouse where the Red Tops played in front of the judge’s bench and trustees sold Coca-Colas in the courthouse hall and boys kept half-pints up under their car seats. Delta folks had always thought themselves somewhat above the rest of the state, so I knew where her comment was coming from.
“Watch out,” Peter said, and he and Bruce snatched me behind the white gate to the glade and shut it quickly. “Here comes the big white Lincoln and we’ve learned to get out of its way.”
Soon after, Jimmy O packed up his guitar, and the rest of the dancers wandered back to their cars and I stood next to Bruce and Peter, talking about how Jimmy O was the land of man who would say he didn’t know how to play something when all the time it was just because he didn’t want to.
Peter and Bruce walked me back to my car. “I’ve had wonderful escorts this weekend.” I got in my car and drove down the long drive lined with trees and back out to the highway into the 21st century and to my room at The Magnolia Inn.
Late Sunday morning, I drove down Church Street. I parked in front of the small white frame church, the smallest on the street, built in the early 1830’s, where the Davis family worshipped and continue to do so on the reunion weekends. Jane Davis was Baptist until moving from Kentucky to Mississippi. The rector gave a short talk about the current fund-raising efforts for the very early patterned windows. He referred to them as the holy windows in more ways than one. We could see daylight and greenery where the old glass had fallen out. As we left church, the organist played “Dixie.”
Back at Rosemont we were served a farewell lunch of barbecued pork while we listened to a talk by a member of the Church of the Redeemer in Biloxi, where the Davises worshipped when they lived at Beauvoir after the War.(A friend’s grandmother used to always call me Beauvoir and my great-grandmother had visited the Davises there on her honeymoon, writing that Uncle Jeff, contrary to her expectations, was a very warm person.) Varina Howell Davis, on her deathbed, took off her diamond ring and told her daughter Margaret that she wanted her diamonds to go to the church. But the church returned the ring to Margaret and it went with her to Colorado. “This is the very ring,” an elegant lady Bobby said, one of the few remaining descendants from the fifth generation. And we all rushed over to have a look at Margaret’s ring with its large cluster of diamonds.
The sky clouded over, the wind blew, and I thought if I wanted to go to Locust Grove I should start now before a much-needed rain set in. Locust Grove was Anna Eliza Smith’s home (Uncle Jeff’s sister). I drove down Highway 61, headed to the Angola prison road, and turned off when I came to the brown and white state sign that marked the road to Locust Grove. The road ran through fields on either side and thick woods. Here and there were developments with large tracts of land and houses built in the Louisiana low-country style. I turned off through gates that led to the cemetery. Two plantation houses at Locust Grove have burned, but the state maintains the burial ground as a commemorative site. The graves are surrounded by a white picket fence and dense woods on the back side. I found Jefferson Davis’ first wife, Sarah Taylor Davis’ grave. Jefferson Davis had resigned his commission in the Army in order to marry her. Zachary Taylor, Davis’ commanding officer in the Mexican War, and later United States President, had not wanted his daughter to be an army wife. Sarah died of malaria only three months after her wedding.
I found Anna Davis Smith’s grave, Aunt Nan, the one who insisted that Jefferson Davis be called Uncle Jeff. Her father, Dr. Joseph Smith was arrested after the war for being a relative of Jefferson Davis’s and carted off in the middle of delivering his wife of twins in a difficult birth—a story not documented. Aunt Nan was left to cope with the delivery, and her mother died. She never forgave the Union soldiers and is said to have refused to go for a walk if the wind was blowing from the north.
The wind rustled through the trees. I was astonished to be standing next to my great-great-great-grandmother’s and my great-great-grandmother’s graves. After 25 years of living in Florida, I still wanted to be buried back in Mississippi, next to my mother. Our family plot in the Beulah cemetery in Bolivar County was marked by an obelisk, moved from Leesland before the plantation went into the river. The monument with its Masonic emblem had marked my great-great-grandfather’s grave, and saved Leesland from being burned during the Civil War by a Yankee Mason. The Beulah cemetery used to be surrounded by cotton fields but was now bordered by a trailer park.
Back at the motel, family members were checking out. Brother and his wife from South Carolina were driving to Baton Rouge to catch their plane. “You know what the manager said?” Brother asked me as he put suitcases in the trunk. “That we had been real good guests. Hadn’t torn anything up, hadn’t left a mess for the maids, and hadn’t knocked any holes in the walls. Did he really think Jefferson Davis’ descendants would throw beer cans around the room?”
On Sunday night at Rosemont, we heated up spinach Madeleine and steaks. I sat at a long table with the Colorado relatives including Bobby, the inheritor of Margaret’s ring, a stately woman with her gray hair swept up. I sat with the great-great grandsons of Uncle Jeff. In the hierarchy of the reunion, these relatives were the kings and queens, princes and princesses. But they were unassuming and by no means wild champions of the Lost Cause.
Bert, the president of the family association and Ernesto discussed how everyday they get inquiries from people who think they are related to Jefferson Davis but aren’t. I felt charmed somehow, a legitimate link to the inside circle. I was as Southern as I would ever want to be. The Colorado relatives were all staying at Rosemont. I felt a twinge of jealously that I was not close enough to be staying at “the big house.” I offered to help clean up the kitchen, but the cousins said no, they would take care of it. So, I left Rosemont for the last time, making my way once more to The Magnolia Inn. Tomorrow I would head back to Florida.
When I got in bed that night, I realized that I had not asked one cousin what he or she really thought of Jefferson Davis, nor had anyone asked me.
From my family I had inherited certain feelings about Davis. I knew little of the historical Davis. We had inherited a romantic view of a doomed president. My uncle says that he was so sick of hearing about the Civil War growing up that he never studied it. My mother would get tears in her eyes, mentioning a letter in which my great-grandmother wrote of trying to find shoes for the slaves. It was understood that we were “exemplary” slave owners, kind and attentive with a sense of noblesse obligee. I marveled that family letters from 1856 contained intricate theological arguments, completely ignoring slavery.
The air conditioner hummed along, almost drowning out the highway traffic. Occasionally I heard a truck driver grind down on his gears. Gratefully, there had been no rebel flag raising zealots at the reunion. The only political comment I heard was by the man farming land owned by his family since 1780 who said, “The blacks are killing us. They are in charge of Woodville now.” No one had responded. No one wanted to discuss politics, a complication. It was easier having a cocktail party with pleasant relatives than to think of our common bond as heirs of slave owners and its legacy.
In the morning, I packed the car in a light rain. I am always glad to get to Mississippi and always glad to be leaving. When I am there, I feel split down the middle. It is my home. Going to Rosemont was a homecoming. I felt welcomed by the Southern hospitality, the good food, the interesting people. I am fortunate to have this connection with my family and my past.
And yet, I feel in social bondage in Mississippi. My mother would cry over the fact that she had never learned to play bridge and was therefore left out of the bridge groups. I knew a woman who went to bed for two weeks because her daughter didn’t make Chi Omega at Ole Miss.
As I drove by wrecks on I-10 through blinding rain, I thought again about Jefferson Davis and my mother. A “great sadness” from the South’s loss had been passed down to my mother.
It had been raining the day Baby James, age 20, and Clifford Graham, age 21, kicked in my mother’s front door and shot her, committing armed robbery. Many of the trials that followed had racial overtones, the defendants’ lawyers claiming how difficult it was growing up as black men in Bolivar County. And although it is simplistic to say that my mother died for her ancestors’ sins, there is a connection. My mother was the guardian of her heritage— furniture, documents, old silver. As the keeper of the family things, she died defending what belonged to us, a legacy built on slavery. Baby James, as a small boy, used to work in my mother’s yard.
I was on my way back to Florida. Because of the transient population, who you are and where you are from seem less important. I like being an outsider, an observer. My mother’s death, although still painful, seems somehow less immediate there.
When I got home to my split-level suburban house, crammed with Victorian chairs, a walnut piesafe, and sets of old china, I was wishing that I lived at Rosemont with its spacious rooms and country vistas. I looked through all the family photographs and could not find a picture of Palmira Beauvais, the name on the cup Peter had bought.
I was still sorting through letters and photographs from the time of my mother’s death 24 years ago. Relatives called me to check dates in the family Bible. I was in charge of 20 scrapbooks. Almost unaware, I had become the new guardian.
In August 2000, I came across an article in The Tallahassee Democrat about the Millennium Walkway, a project designed to draw interest in the downtown area. Dennis Raitt, a dentist, paid $70 for bricks to honor Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. Raitt “considers Lee and Davis heroes who fought against an intrusive federal government that remains overbearing today. “This country’s too big, and Washington has its fingers in every aspect of our life, ” said Raitt, who takes part in Civil War battle reenactments and is a member of a Southern nationalist group called League of the South. “The only way you can fix things is through secession.”“
The article goes on to include a response from Commissioner Charles Billings, who is black: “If somebody wants to commemorate those men with bricks, then citizens will be free to either honor them or step on them,” Billings said.
Since attending the reunion, I have taken a Civil War class, where I flinched every time the professor said that Davis was an ardent proponent of slavery. And yet, I take pride in the fact that Uncle Jeff refused to sign an oath of allegiance to the United States. It is an irony kin to my mother’s life—a woman who espoused the importance of social connections and, yet, because she was divorced and worked, was on the outside.
I’ll continue to honor my past by enjoying the Davis reunions. I also acknowledge that the past has a way of exacting payment. I will take care to never step on Davis’ or Lee’s commemorative bricks. I know there are others who have every reason to stomp on them.