With centuries-old trees, manicured lawns, a tidy cemetery and a babbling brook, the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library is a marvelously peaceful, green oasis amid the garish casinos, T-shirt shops and other tourist traps on Highway 90 in Biloxi, Mississippi.
One gray October morning, about 650 local schoolchildren on a field trip to Beauvoir, as the home is called, poured out of buses in the parking lot. A few ran to the yard in front of the main building to explore the sprawling live oak whose lower limbs reach across the lawn like massive arms. In the gift shop they perused Confederate memorabilia—mugs, shirts, caps and sundry items, many emblazoned with the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia.
It was a big annual event called Fall Muster, so the field behind the library was teeming with re-enactors cast as Confederate soldiers, sutlers and camp followers. A group of fourth graders from D’Iberville, a quarter of them black, crowded around a table heaped with 19th-century military gear. Binoculars. Satchels. Bayonets. Rifles. A portly white man, sweating profusely in his Confederate uniform, loaded a musket and fired, to oohs and aahs.
Funding Confederate Memorials
Explore a decade of taxpayer support for Confederate sites and organizations in border states and states of the former Confederacy
Source: Tax and budget documents, plus interviews with state and federal officials, obtained by The Investigative Fund. Amounts cover the most recent available 10 years.
A woman in a white floor-length dress decorated with purple flowers gathered a group of older tourists on the porch of the “library cottage,” where Davis, by then a living symbol of defiance, retreated in 1877 to write his memoir, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. After a discussion of the window treatments and oil paintings, the other visitors left, and we asked the guide what she could tell us about slavery.
Sometimes children ask about it, she said. “I want to tell them the honest truth, that slavery was good and bad.” While there were some “hateful slave owners,” she said, “it was good for the people that didn’t know how to take care of themselves, and they needed a job, and you had good slave owners like Jefferson Davis, who took care of his slaves and treated them like family. He loved them.”
The subject resurfaced the next day, before a mock battle, when Jefferson Davis—a re-enactor named J.W. Binion—addressed the crowd. “We were all Americans and we fought a war that could have been prevented,” Binion declared. “And it wasn’t fought over slavery, by the way!”
Then cannons boomed, muskets cracked, men fell. The Confederates beat back the Federals. An honor guard in gray fired a deafening volley. It may have been a scripted victory for the Rebels, but it was a genuine triumph for the racist ideology known as the Lost Cause—a triumph made possible by taxpayer money.
We went to Beauvoir, the nation’s grandest Confederate shrine, and to similar sites across the Old South, in the midst of the great debate raging in America over public monuments to the Confederate past. That controversy has erupted angrily, sometimes violently, in Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana and Texas. The acrimony is unlikely to end soon. While authorities in a number of cities—Baltimore, Memphis, New Orleans, among others—have responded by removing Confederate monuments, roughly 700 remain across the South.
To address this explosive issue in a new way, we spent months investigating the history and financing of Confederate monuments and sites. Our findings directly contradict the most common justifications for continuing to preserve and sustain these memorials.
First, far from simply being markers of historic events and people, as proponents argue, these memorials were created and funded by Jim Crow governments to pay homage to a slave-owning society and to serve as blunt assertions of dominance over African-Americans.
Second, contrary to the claim that today’s objections to the monuments are merely the product of contemporary political correctness, they were actively opposed at the time, often by African-Americans, as instruments of white power.
Finally, Confederate monuments aren’t just heirlooms, the artifacts of a bygone era. Instead, American taxpayers are still heavily investing in these tributes today. We have found that, over the past ten years, taxpayers have directed at least $40 million to Confederate monuments—statues, homes, parks, museums, libraries and cemeteries—and to Confederate heritage organizations.
For our investigation, the most extensive effort to capture the scope of public spending on Confederate memorials and organizations, we submitted 175 open records requests to the states of the former Confederacy, plus Missouri and Kentucky, and to federal, county and municipal authorities. We also combed through scores of nonprofit tax filings and public reports. Though we undoubtedly missed some expenditures, we have identified significant public funding for Confederate sites and groups in Mississippi, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee.
In addition, we visited dozens of sites, to document how they represent history and, in particular, slavery: After all, the Confederacy’s founding documents make clear that the Confederacy was established to defend and perpetuate that crime against humanity.
A century and a half after the Civil War, American taxpayers are still helping to sustain the defeated Rebels’ racist doctrine, the Lost Cause. First advanced in 1866 by a Confederate partisan named Edward Pollard, it maintains that the Confederacy was based on a noble ideal, the Civil War was not about slavery, and slavery was benign. “The state is giving the stamp of approval to these Lost Cause ideas, and the money is a symbol of that approval,” Karen Cox, a historian of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said of our findings. “What does that say to black citizens of the state, or other citizens, or to younger generations?”
The public funding of Confederate iconography is also troubling because of its deployment by white nationalists, who have rallied to support monuments in New Orleans, Richmond and Memphis. The deadly protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, where a neo-Nazi rammed his car into counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer, was staged to oppose the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. In 2015, before Dylann Roof opened fire on a Bible study group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine African-Americans, he spent a day touring places associated with the subjugation of black people, including former plantations and a Confederate museum.
“Confederate sites play to the white supremacist imagination,” said Heidi Beirich, who leads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s work tracking hate groups. “They are treated as sacred by white supremacists and represent what this country should be and what it would have been” if the Civil War had not been lost.
Virginia State Police protect the Robert E. Lee Statue in Richmond, Virginia, during protests in September 2018. In the past decade, Virginia has spent over $174,000 to maintain the Lee statue.
Like many of the sites we toured across the South, Beauvoir is privately owned and operated. Its board of directors is made up of members of the Mississippi division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a national organization founded in 1896 and limited to male descendants of “any veteran who served honorably in the Confederate armed forces.” The board handles the money that flows into the institution from visitors, private supporters and taxpayers.
The Mississippi legislature earmarks $100,000 a year for preservation of Beauvoir. In 2014, the organization received a $48,475 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for “protective measures.” As of May 2010, Beauvoir had received $17.2 million in federal and state aid related to damages caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. While nearly half of that money went to renovating historic structures and replacing content, more than $8.3 million funded construction of a new building that contains a museum and library.
When we visited, three times since the fall of 2017, the lavishly appointed library displayed the only acknowledgment of slavery that we could find at the entire 52-acre site, though Davis had owned dozens of black men, women and children before the war: four posters, which portrayed the former slaves Robert Brown, who continued to work for the Davis family after the war, and Benjamin and Isaiah Montgomery, a father and son who were owned by Jefferson’s elder brother, Joseph. Benjamin eventually purchased two of Joseph’s plantations.
The state Department of Archives and History says the money the legislature provides to Beauvoir is allocated for preservation of the building, a National Historic Landmark, not for interpretation. Beauvoir staff members told us that the facility doesn’t deal with slavery because the site’s state-mandated focus is the period Davis lived there, 1877 to 1889, after slavery was abolished.
But this focus is honored only in the breach. The museum celebrates the Confederate soldier in a cavernous hall filled with battle flags, uniforms and weapons. Tour guides and re-enactors routinely denied the realities of slavery in their presentations to visitors. Fall Muster, a highlight of the Beauvoir calendar, is nothing if not a raucous salute to Confederate might.
Thomas Payne, the site’s executive director until this past April, said in an interview that his goal was to make Beauvoir a “neutral educational institution.” For him, that involved countering what he referred to as “political correctness from the national media,” which holds that Southern whites are “an evil repugnant group of ignorant people who fought only to enslave other human beings.” Slavery, he said, “should be condemned. But what people need to know is that most of the people in the South were not slave owners,” and that Northerners also kept slaves. What’s more, Payne went on, “there’s actually evidence where the individual who was enslaved was better off physically and mentally and otherwise.”
Local public school students listen to a presentation of Civil War-era weapons and equipment during a field trip to Beauvoir in October 2017.
The notion that slavery was beneficial to slaves was notably expressed by Jefferson Davis himself, in the posthumously published memoir he wrote at Beauvoir. Enslaved Africans sent to America were “enlightened by the rays of Christianity,” he wrote, and “increased from a few unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers. Their servile instincts rendered them contented with their lot….Never was there a happier dependence of labor and capital upon each other.”
That myth, a pillar of the Lost Cause, remains a core belief of neo-Confederates, despite undeniable historic proof of slavery’s brutality. In 1850, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who had escaped slavery, said, “To talk of kindness entering into a relation in which one party is robbed of wife, of children, of his hard earnings, of home, of friends, of society, of knowledge, and of all that makes this life desirable is most absurd, wicked, and preposterous.”