Why Jim Limber?

The production of this video has nothing directly to do with the SCV's proposed statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber, but the overall message beautifully captures their motivation.  This has nothing to do with trying to nail down a complicated piece of history; rather, it is an attempt to reshape how we think about the connection between slavery, race, and the history of the Confederacy.

10 thoughts on “Why Jim Limber?

  1. Jarret

    I would ask whomever created this video: put yourself in the position of one of the dozens of slaves at Davis Bend, Jeff Davis’ Mississippi plantation, and ask yourself, “I’m considered human chattel by Davis and the men who founded this new Southern Confederacy, but hey, Davis feeds me and gives me shelter, so its okay to be deprived of my human dignity and my natural rights to own my person, right?” Please. This video and the ideas it represents are ugly on SO MANY levels.

    - Jarret

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  2. Kevin Levin

    Jarret, — Good point. The idea that this statue represents Jefferson Davis’s position on race relations is simply ludicrous and anyone who suggests that we concentrate on this one example does not understand how statuary functions as symbol. This project is an absolute joke in the way that it ignores any sense of historical context and especially in the way it runs roughshod over the lack of evidence. We can say next to nothing about their relationship which is why the two most important recent biographies of the Davises fail to say much of anything about Limber.

    THIS IS PURE SCV PROPAGANDA.

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  3. Richard Williams

    Kevin:

    You write:

    “The idea that this statue represents Jefferson Davis’s position on race relations is simply ludicrous and anyone who suggests that we concentrate on this one example does not understand how statuary functions as symbol.”

    I reject your premise that the statue is supposed to “represent Davis’s position on race relations.” Has that been suggested by anyone (other than the critics)?

    “This project is an absolute joke in the way that it ignores any sense of historical context and especially in the way it runs roughshod over the lack of evidence.”

    If that is so, then the ACWC should have rejected it for that specific reason. I think Coski’s piece proves there is sufficient historical evidence to suggest this relationship, along with its nuances and contradictions, did exist.

    “We can say next to nothing about their relationship which is why the two most important recent biographies of the Davises fail to say much of anything about Limber.”

    Why would you cite two historians’ failure to include this aspect of the Davis family to support your argument? The fact they did not mention Limber could be for a host of reasons – ignorance, sloppy research, they did not think it was relevant, their perspective, etc. Just because they failed to mention does not mean they should have.

    We know that all 19th century Americans held views on race that are offensive to modern society. That’s a given. If it is necessary that Davis’s views on race be reflected in this statue, why would the same not hold true for the Lincoln statue?

    I honestly don’t understand the double standard here. According to the ACWC’s website:

    “The Center’s mission is to tell the whole story of the conflict that still shapes our nation.”

    Great. Then tell the whole story. Go into detail about Davis’s views on race and slavery. But do the same with Lincoln and the rest of the individuals studied and represented at the site.

    Davis and Limber are part of the story. I keep referring to Coski’s essay on Limber from which I take the following:

    “The evidence suggests that he was a member of the Davis family in the same way that slaves, servants, and other dependents were members of white families—with real mutual responsibility and affection.”

    Certainly, the statue reflects at least this aspect of the known evidence. Should we hide that in a closet? Shouldn’t that be part of the perspective and interpretation? Is it reasonable to expect a statue to reflect every view and belief of a historical figure? If so, the standard seems to be applied selectively.

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  4. Kevin Levin

    Richard, — The suggestion that a statue does not point to conclusions beyond the specifics is implict in the idea of commemorative object. Surely you don’t believe that the statue is meant simply as commentary on this relationship between Davis and Limber. If you do than we have very different views of how statues function in public spaces.

    I cited two recent studies because their authors are well respected in the field. Again I come back to the point that we simply have too little scholarship on this aspect of Davis’s family. Coski’s piece is a short commentary, but even he doesn’t draw any firm conclusions; in fact, it seems he raises additional questions about race relations. You say there is sufficient historical evidence. Well, what is that evidence? Be specific and be prepared to show how it demonstrates the preferred interpretation of the SCV. I have yet to see this evidence.

    You keep quoting Coski:

    “The evidence suggests that he was a member of the Davis family in the same way that slaves, servants, and other dependents were members of white families—with real mutual responsibility and affection.”

    Are you suggesting that this justifies a statue? I would love to know what Coski would think of your use of this passage.

    I also don’t understand why you bring up the Lincoln statue. First, as I mentioned in a previous post Tredegar had nothing to do with its placement, but it also has nothing directly to do with slavery and race. It was placed to mark his visit to Richmond, which was welcomed by the city’s black population. Lincoln is depicted with his biological son so there is no comparison. By the way, assuming you’ve visited the exhibit at Tredegar, they do an excellent job with portraying the complexity of L’s views on race and slavery. There is little that would count as heroic. To be honest, I shrug at those monuments which portray Lincoln with slaves at his knee. It tends to simplify his views on race/slavery and it obscures the role that slaves played in their own emancipation.

    Finally, of course I agree that the Davis-Limber story should be told and for the reasons that Coski suggests, but to suggest that a statue of Davis holding his hand is the best way to go about it is simply unjustified. Once again, I don’t think this has much to do with history at all; rather it is part of the SCV’s broader project of distancing race and slavery from the history of the South and the Confederacy specifically.

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  5. Richard Williams

    Kevin:

    You ask:

    “Well, what is that evidence?”

    It’s cited in Coski’s piece. Coski’s remark speaks for itself. No need to repeat it. What John thinks of my use is irrelevant. He doesn’t own the facts. I have no idea whether or not he supports the statue and–no disrespect intended–I don’t really care.That’s not my point.

    (But now that I think about it, perhaps another possible place for the statue would be the grounds of the Confederate White House; since that is where they all lived. What would you think about that?)

    You write:

    “I also don’t understand why you bring up the Lincoln statue.”

    Because both men (as did most 19th century Americans) held similar views on race. The Davis critics seem to be selective in their concern that Davis’s views be fully aired while totally ignoring Lincoln’s. If Lincoln’s statue can be displayed respectfully, with a fuller examination of his views on race and slavery available in the museum, why couldn’t the same be done with the Davis statue?

    I visited Tredegar shortly after it first opened, but long before the Lincoln statue was placed. Regarding Davis, I think it would be appropriate to display an interpretative plaque with the Davis statue using a description and wording similar to what Coski states in his piece:

    “The Davises clearly assumed responsibility for him [Jim Limber] and there was obviously affection between him and his sponsors. It is less likely that he was ‘adopted’ in any meaningful sense. The evidence suggests that he was a member of the Davis family in the same way that slaves, servants, and other dependents were members of white families—with real mutual responsibility and affection. The story of Jim Limber’s association with the Davis family provides a window onto the nature of paternalism in the 19th-century race relations.”

    Some verbiage like that would acknowledge the nuanced relationship while at the same time pointing out that Limber’s relationship was not equal with the Davis children and that he was still a slave.

    What I’m trying to say is that there should be some interpretative explanation that would not make the statue into a “freak show”, would acknowledge the nuanced familial relationship, and also open this “window” to which Coski refers.

    Don’t you think that would be both a reasonable and honest approach?

    If not, then we’ve played out another discussion. Thanks, once again, for the opportunity to express my views in a civil manner.

    Best,
    RGW

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  6. Kevin Levin

    Thanks again Richard.

    I don’t see the connection with the Lincoln statue because, as I stated, it’s not about race and slavery.

    You still haven’t provided the evidence apart from continually quoting Coski. What is the evidence used to draw those conclusions and is there sufficient evidence to justify a statue. Was a careful analysis of the available evidence carried out by the sculptor or the SCV or was the statue fashioned based on some vague notion of “mutual responsibility and affection”? My problem is that before we are going to place a statue representing a particular relationship – not simply between the Davis family and Limber – but specifically between Davis and Limber. What evidence is available in terms of how Davis viewed Limber. Please don’t quote Coski again. What documentation do we have.

    We agree that there should be interpretation provided for any display, but I want to know if there is sufficient evidence to warrant a statue showing any kind of emotion between Davis and Limber. Beyond that I am concerned about the broader message of this monument within the broader context of the myth of the loyal slave and paternalistic slaveowner that continues to find a home in all too many settings.

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  7. Anonymous

    The danger with the Davis/Limber statue is proportion, or as Kevin rightly identifies, the myth of the loyal slave. The text Richard Williams proposes to aid in interpreting the Limber and Davis statue reads in part “slaves, servants, and other dependents were members of white families—with real mutual responsibility and affection.” Perhaps this was true in the specific case of the Davis family and Jim Limber (although it appears they felt great responsibility to track him down after the war); perhaps not. But was it true across the entire South? Is this how we should best characterize the relationship between the Hampton family and their hundreds of slaves? Sugar plantations in Louisana? A statue of Davis and Limber commemorates the exception to the rule (assuming, of course, that we actually have evidence to substantiate the assertion that Limber was a member of the Davis family with mutual responsibility and affection). Those who view the statue receive the impression that the supposed relationship between Limber and Davis characterized all relationships between masters and enslaved persons.

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  8. Richard Williams

    Kevin:

    This will be my last post here on the subject. We’re just repeating ourselves. You’ll have the last word.

    You write:

    “I don’t see the connection with the Lincoln statue because, as I stated, it’s not about race and slavery.”

    Lincoln not about race and slavery?! That’s a new interpretation, for sure. You already admitted, “It [the Lincoln statue] was placed to mark his visit to Richmond, which was welcomed by the city’s black population.”

    If Abraham Lincoln being welcomed to Richmond by the city’s black population was not about race and slavery, (and the statue marked that visit) then I’ve been transported to a parallel universe.

    IMO, sufficient evidence exists to justify the statue. You already have my answer on that. Do I need to cite the same sources Coski already has? How much evidence do you require?

    You write:

    “You still haven’t provided the evidence apart from continually quoting Coski.”

    You have provided no evidence that the relationship did not exist other than your opinion (and two biographers’ failure to note it). You have quoted no sources. I’m ahead by one. (Coski’s piece refers to several sources by the way. I trust Coski’s references are legit.)

    You ask:

    “My problem is that before we are going to place a statue representing a particular relationship – not simply between the Davis family and Limber – but specifically between Davis and Limber. What evidence is available in terms of how Davis viewed Limber.”

    Lord, Kevin, you are really splitting hairs here. Do we need a book to justify the statue? The relationship existed – the evidence is more than clear. I don’t need to quote Coski. I was doing so to save time. Do I need to go back and fact check all his sources, is that what you’re wanting? Coski quotes from known sources. I simply assumed you’d accept his quotes and sources as legitimate. Are you suggesting they’re not reliable?

    You write:

    “I want to know if there is sufficient evidence to warrant a statue showing any kind of emotion between Davis and Limber.”

    I believe there is. All I can do here is refer you to what I’ve already written and Coski’s sources. I don’t understand why those various sources aren’t sufficient for you. There are several sources supporting the claim that the relationship did exist. Do you have any supporting your claim/doubt that it (specifically) did not?

    I don’t know who wrote this in the next post:

    “slaves, servants, and other dependents were members of white families—with real mutual responsibility and affection.” Perhaps this was true in the specific case of the Davis family and Jim Limber (although it appears they felt great responsibility to track him down after the war); perhaps not. But was it true across the entire South?”

    (BTW, those are not my words, they come from the Museum of the Confederacy piece written by Coski.) I’m sorry, but that question is totally irrelevant. The statue is not intended to represent “the entire South.” What in the world does that have to do with the topic at hand? We’re discussing a specific relationship.

    (Red herring.)

    And then there’s this:

    “Those who view the statue receive the impression that the supposed relationship between Limber and Davis characterized all relationships between masters and enslaved persons.”

    (Red herring.)

    Really? How do you know that? Do you assume most folks are really that naive? I don’t. That is quite a generalization and a huge leap (from reality).I think you’re insulting folks’ intelligence.

    And back to this:

    “Perhaps this was true in the specific case of the Davis family and Jim Limber…”

    Uh, yeah, that’s the subject of the statue – Davis and Limber(??!!) Sorry for the sarcasm, but I have no idea where this person is coming from.

    That’s all gentlemen/ladies. Thank you Kevin for the spirited discussion. Thank you for the forum. Though we usually disagree, I profit from the back and forth as I hope your readers do as well.

    Best,
    RGW

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  9. Kevin Levin

    What I said was that the Lincoln statue was meant as a symbol of national unity and not intended to address race/slavery though it could be inferred given that he was welcomed by the city’s black population. The Davis statue is a direct commentary on race and slavery even if it depicts one individual black boy.

    I think we have different standards of evidence and will leave it at that. Again, I don’t necessarily doubt that there were chains of affection between Limber and the Davis family, what I have problem with is the limited amount of sources, including Limber’s perspective which has been lost altogether. Sorry, but I am not comfortable with using a book published in 1893 as a source for what apparently took place in the 1860s. From my perspective this statue is more commentary about the SCV than it is about the history of the Davis family and that is why I cited the two scholars who were heavily focused on that topic in their respective studies.

    Finally, the point that the Davis-Limber statue and how it reflects the broader public memory of slavery is not a red-herring, especially for people who study how history was often used to reinforce a white racial hierarchy. The statue does indeed fit into the broader cultural representations from Gone With the Wind to the friezes on the Confederate monument in Arlington. They follow a pattern.

    The Davis-Limber statue may or may not accurately represent their relationship and it surely does not accurately reflect the history of race relations in the 19th or 20th centuries. By the way where is the black community in all of this? Why are they not flocking to see this statue approved?

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  10. David Rhoads

    Richard Williams wrote: “The relationship existed – the evidence is more than clear.”
    and “We’re discussing a specific relationship”.

    That may be, but none of the evidence that John Coski presents in his article sheds any light on the actual nature of the relationship between Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber. Indeed the only action Varina recounts that was taken by her husband on Jim Limber’s behalf–registering his free papers–seems to have been undertaken at Varina’s urging. Instead, what evidence there is demonstrates that Varina Davis was fond of the boy as a “pet” and that the Davis children felt affection toward him as a playmate. Even so, Jim Limber is mentioned in Varina’s memoir only as, literally, a footnote. And as far as the so-called “adoption” goes (almost certainly not a legal adoption as we would understand the term today, as Coski notes), the only actual reference–written in Varina’s hand on the back of a photograph–says that the boy was adopted by “Mrs. Jefferson Davis”, not by Jefferson Davis.

    So, yes, Jim Limber was present in the Davis household and can therefore be presumed to have had a relationship of some sort with Jefferson Davis. Beyond that, though, there is no way to characterize the relationship between the boy and the President. It does seem that Varina felt real affection for Jim Limber, but the statue, unfortunately, is not of Varina.

    Beyond that, what I find troubling about the statue (based on the photographs I’ve seen of it) is that the composition implies an equivalence in status between the two boys, Joseph Davis and Jim Limber, an equivalence that absolutely could not have been the case in reality. It is difficult at first even to discern which boy is which. Given this, as well as the statement by Brag Bowling that the statue will serve as a “counter” to the Lincoln statue, and the SCV-proposed inscription for the statue (reproduced below) that includes several overstatements and inaccuracies (again, judging by the evidence Coski has accumulated and presented), I have to conclude with Kevin that the statue represents an deliberate attempt by the SCV to obfuscate rather than to enlighten.

    SCV-proposed inscription (as reported at http://www.inrich.com/cva/ric/news.apx.-content-articles-RTD-2008-06-10-0139.html ): “President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson F. Davis, his son Joseph Evan Davis, and Jim Limber who was a black youth that the Davises rescued from maltreatment and raised as their own. Joseph, called ‘Joe,’ died during the War Between the States as the result of an accidental fall from a window of the Confederate Executive Mansion known today as the White House of the Confederacy. Jim Limber was captured with the Davis family after the collapse of the Confederacy and was cruelly separated from the Davises by Union soldiers. Mr. Davis tried the rest of his life to find out the fate of the boy, but he was never to be heard of again.”

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