(HOST) A recent trip along the Gulf Coast gave Allen Gilbert the chance to tour the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library. It was an uncomfortable experience.
(GILBERT) I had the chance of a quick visit to the Gulf Coast the other week. I had been at a conference in New Orleans, and I thought it’d be interesting to drive along the part of Mississippi that touches the Gulf of Mexico.
While I was driving through Biloxi, I blinked twice when I saw a sign for the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library. I’m not used to associating Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, with a presidential library. John F. Kennedy or Dwight Eisenhower, yes; but not Jefferson Davis.
So I turned in and took the tour. The library is located at “Beau- voir”, the beachside estate where Jefferson Davis spent his last years. The library is a very new addition to the property. It was established in 1998 by the United Sons of Confederate Veterans. There are a few historical papers there, but it’s mostly a museum documenting Davis’s life. And, as you might expect, there are many exhibits about the Confederate States of America.
When I returned home, I described the library to my family. I said that, quite frankly, I had been astonished. Davis had justified the ownership of one human being by another as a states’ rights issue, and I didn’t think he should be afforded the honor of a presidential library. It seemed to cheapen the bona fide libraries.
My sons had a different perspective. They felt Davis was a his- torical figure who deserved a chance to have his life explained. They saw him less as a malevolent force in American history than as a product of his time and place. They thought I was too harsh on Davis.
It was an African-American friend who helped me find a missing piece to my reaction. She pointed out that our country has never gone through a period of reconciliation around race issues – the way, say, that South Africa has.
Indeed, I saw no black visitors at the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library. One exhibit asserted that Jefferson Davis had treated his slaves like family, but there was little I could see of interest to African-Americans. I looked for some reaching out, some apolo- gies, but there were none.
Instead, there was praise for Davis’s years of service in the U. S. House, Senate and War Department before the Civil War. And there was detailed explanation of the constitutional basis of secession.
The historian C. Vann Woodward titled one of his books, The Bur- den of Southern History. I felt that burden at the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library, borne not just by the state of Mississippi, but by all of us – and borne badly still.
Somehow we must come to grips with the fact that, in our Consti- tution, we agreed to slavery, that we agreed a black person as a slave was worth only three-fifths of a real person. It was a pact with the devil in order to win establishment of our republic in 1789.
What’s been the long-term cost of that pact? We’re blind if we don’t see that answering that question is a burden that we must all struggle with – not just the South.
This is Allen Gilbert.
Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher and consultant current- ly serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.