Beauvoir’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina was never a certainty. Yet until just a few weeks ago, it seemed Beauvoir had not only regained lost ground, but was advancing as never before. Now Beauvoir, a landmark on the beachfront since 1852, appears to be in full retreat.
Katrina’s storm surge destroyed five of the seven buildings on the grounds of the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library. It left the two still standing — Beauvoir itself and the new presidential library-museum — heavily damaged. While it was determined that Beauvoir, Davis’ last home, could be restored, it was decided the library-museum building would have to be demolished and rebuilt a little higher above, and a little further from the shoreline. Money could and would accomplish those feats.
But Beauvoir needed more to move beyond being a static memorial to Davis and the ill-fated Confederate States of America, over which Davis presided. Remarkably, the ingredients came together to transform Beauvoir into a tourist destination of increasing appeal. Bertram Hayes-Davis, Davis’ own great-great-grandson, was hired as executive director. He brought an expansive and inclusive approach to activities at Beauvoir. Andi Oustalet agreed to create from scratch Christmas at Beauvoir, a stunning seasonal attraction that was successful from the start. Varina’s Garden, as envisioned by Davis’ wife, flowered back to life after years of planning and delay. Associations were being forged with other state and national institutions to bring exhibits and attractions and speakers to the site.
All the while Beauvoir seemed to be serving its historic function as a shrine to both Davis and the Confederacy, hundreds of whose soldiers are buried on the grounds. Memorial services and re-enactments were still regularly conducted to honor and recapture the past even as new and more broadly appealing activities were taking place and shape. It appeared to be a harmonious blend of old and new, the success of which would carry both well into the future. When a convention of travel writers recently visited attractions across South Mississippi, Beauvoir was one of the primary focal points. The closing ceremonies for the convention were held there. Like other Coast attractions, Beauvoir has since received invaluable free — and positive — publicity as a result.
That publicity may now acquire a sharply negative tone. Hayes-Davis’ resignation has been accepted and Oustalet’s volunteerism — which was recognized statewide — has been deemed unwelcome by the Mississippi Division of the Columbia, Tenn.-based Sons of Confederate Veterans. It was their call to make. Varnia Davis gave Beauvoir to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, with the understanding that the organization maintain it or it becomes state property.
Still, it is a confusing and bewildering turn of events. The Sun Herald was among those in the community who championed developments at Beauvoir over the last few years as the best approach yet to the institution’s transformation into a site worthy of promotion and visitation. Like many others, we now no longer know what to think about — or expect from — those in control of Beauvoir.