There is nothing more disturbing for an educator than to come across children’s books whose authors have little qualification as historians
or who have an implicit agenda to get across. Such is the case with Rickey Pittman’s book, Jim Limber Davis: A Black Orphan in the Confederate White House. Here is the jacket description:
The true story of the adopted black child of Jefferson Davis. Jim Limber Davis was rescued from an abusive guardian by Varina Davis when he was only five years old. Jefferson and Varina Davis welcomed him into their home, the Confederate White House, as one of the family, and Jim lived with them until the fall of the Confederacy. When Union soldiers invaded Richmond, Virginia, they captured Jefferson Davis. Later, they kidnapped Jim Limber in Georgia and spread cruel rumors that he was Jefferson Davis’s slave. This true story provides a glimpse of how Jim was accepted as one of the Davis’s children and reveals their family’s love and compassion for him.
As John Coski noted in his short essay there is a great deal that we do not know about this story. Pittman seems comfortable giving Limber the Davis name, though there are no records to demonstrate that Limber was officially adopted. With any other publisher I would be disappointed, but in this case we are dealing with Pelican, which is one of the most unreliable and agenda-driven publishers out there. The author’s personal website can be found here. He is an active member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Camp Thomas McGuire in West Monroe, Louisiana.
Pittman also provides an online study guide to accompany this book. Students can play games that Limber would have played or inquire into his whereabouts as did Jefferson Davis after the war. Students can draw a picture of the Confederate White House where Limber lived, though I wonder if the family’s slaves are expected to be included in such a drawing. Even better are the statistics on free blacks that Pittman compiled from James and Walter Kennedy’s books, The South Was Right and Myths of American Slavery.
This is a disturbing book that is based on an overly simplistic view of slavery, free blacks, and Jefferson Davis’s own personal history as a slaveowner and leader of a nation whose stated goal was the preservation of slavery. The current push to commemorate this story in marble is based on little more than the outline of this story and it should concern all of us who hope to continue to expand and deepen our understanding of this crucial moment in America’s past.