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.
Richard Williams recently posted a short article by historian John Coski on the relationship between Jim Limber and the Davis family, which appeared in the winter issue of the Museum of the Confederacy’s newsletter. While Coski does point to mutual bonds of affection between Jim Limber and the Davis family, he also suggests that there are many questions that cannot be answered. This, of course, could change in the future. While Coski does not address the debate surrounding the proposed statue of Limber and Davis, his analysis does bring the question of whether such a statue is justified based on the available evidence into sharp relief. Is the Sons of Confederate Veterans justified in proposing a statue based on such limited evidence? If so, why? What precedent would this set in terms of the way we go about commemorating and remembering other moments in American history in our public spaces? Finally, I hope Mr. Williams is not operating under the assumption that Coski’s essay ought to be interpreted as tacit support for this proposed statue. If anything the essay highlights the wide gulf between what serious historians can legitimately conclude about this relationship and the message that a marble statue will no doubt communicate. You will find Coski’s essay below.
The most recent news suggests that the American Civil War Center at Tredegar will make a decision about the proposed monument to Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber by the Sons of Confederate Veterans in August. I will keep you up-to-date as best I can, but my guess is that this statue doesn't have a chance. See previous posts, here and here. The SCV's problem is that they are dealing with serious historians who also understand historical memory.
This talk was presented today in Philadelphia at the 2008 Meeting of the Society of Civil War Historians. The panel was titled, “Gearing Up For the Civil War Sesquicentennial in the High School Classroom” and included, James Percoco, Ronald Maggiano, and Andy Slap.
When it aired in 1989 Ken Burns’s epic documentary about America’s Civil War garnered the largest audience in PBS history. Viewers who had little interest or knowledge of the Civil War were attracted to the powerful images and sounds as well as the narration by David McCullough and commentary by Shelby Foote – the combination of which served to introduce a heroic and tragic story to a national audience. While historians have spent considerable time analyzing Burns’s documentary as historical interpretation, little attention has been given to the ways in which the film can be utilized in history courses on the high school level.1 All too often the film is used as a launching pad to other classroom activities or simply shown with little student preparation; such an approach renders students as passive observers rather than engaging them in trying to better understand the choices that went into the film’s script along with how the various elements come together to tell a coherent story.2 More importantly, students fail to see the film itself as a product of long-standing assumptions about the war that are embedded in our popular imagination and often guarded as sacred. The beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial in 2011 will provide a unique opportunity to introduce questions of memory and interpretation in our high school history classes. In the time that I have today I would like to talk briefly about how I engage my students with questions of memory and interpretation through a careful viewing of Burns’s The Civil War.
Check out the Vast Public Indifference blog for an excellent post on the question of whether colonial slaves were Christians. While the post is worth reading, I was struck by her referencing of a recent syndicated column by Pat Buchanan in which he espouses what I assumed to be an extinct justification for slavery within intellectual circles (Yes, even though I rarely agree with Buchanan I consider him to be an intellectual.):
First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It
was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships,
grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian
salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity
blacks have ever known.
As Caitlin points out in the post, it is not at all clear that the first few generations of slaves subscribed to Christianity in large numbers. For now, however, let's assume that all "600,000" were indeed introduced and accepted Christianity and ignore serious history as Buchanan does. Does anyone really believe that their being introduced to a new religion outweighs the moral calculus surrounding the trauma of being separated from loved ones, community, and one's very identity? Would Pat Buchanan accept this as a price for salvation for his own family and friends? How could anyone justify the suffering and death that accompanied slavery with salvation? If this bizarre picture of how our moral universe operates is true than God does indeed work in mysterious ways.