Uncle Jeff Davis

Article excerpt

I drove around the courthouse square four times. The Confederate monument had been moved to the cemetery decades ago. I stopped and knocked on the door of the police station, a small corrugated yellow building also housing the fire department. A large white gentleman, wearing a collared knit shirt sat behind a desk. Two black deputies in crisply pressed uniforms were propped up against the wall on the back legs of straight chairs.

"Help me, I'm lost," I said.

"Lady, nobody gets lost in Woodville, Mississippi. Where you from?" It was the chief of police, nicknamed Foozie.

I explained that although I had grown up in the Delta, I had never been in Woodville. I had come to the Jefferson Davis family reunion, and I was looking for my motel. Foozie and the deputies began to give directions all at the same time. "What street do I turn on?" I asked, pushing my hair back from my eyes.

"Lady," Foozie said, "Would you like an escort?"

"Of course," I said.

"Deputy," Foozie said, "Take this lady to her motel."

I "turned around on the concrete" as the policeman instructed and followed him through town and then down Highway 61. As we pulled into The Magnolia Inn, the deputy saluted me by flashing his blue light.

When the Davis Family Association has its biennial meeting, The Magnolia Inn turns out the oil riggers and makes room for the relations. In front were parked three Cadillacs, a Toyota Camry and a truck that looked as if it had run into a deer and been driven through the swamps with the 10-point buck stuck on its hood.

The man at the front desk was a retired Navy man with tattooed forearms and a military haircut. "You here with the reunion?" He asked with a slight Cajun accent as he handed me my key. "Rosemont is a beautiful place," he said.

My room had a comfortable bed, a small walk-in closet and the air conditioning was blowing cold air. When I turned on my hairdryer, I had to hit the broken plug just right to make it work.

I changed into a blue linen dress, put on turquoise earrings and a silver bracelet and sat down on the bed. It was a little after six. I didn't want to get to Rosemont too early.

Why had I even come to this reunion? I had never paid particular attention to the Davis relationship. If I mentioned it as an oddity, history professors rolled their eyes. Friends from New York called Jefferson Davis a "terrible man"-which I must admit shocked me. For a long time, I had wanted to attend a reunion out of curiosity.

But it was more than curiosity. What kind of people were these cousins of mine? How did I feel about the Davis connection? What was its meaning for me? And, as Tony Horwitz asks in Confederates in the Attic, "Was there such a thing as politically correct remembrance of the Confederacy? Or was any attempt to honor the Cause inevitably tainted by what Southerners once delicately referred to as their `peculiar institution?' "

And there was my sense of family. My mother, my great aunt, and my first cousin once removed had all attended the very first reunion back in 1974. All of them were now dead. My mother's death had been a terrible tragedy. In August 1981, two men had kicked open her front door, shot "the old bird" in the back, killed her poodle Sugar, and stolen jewelry, Taaka vodka, and a six pack of no-name beer. I was now 56 years old. This was June in the year 2000, and I was still grieving.

A signed lithograph of Jefferson Davis hangs in my living room, part of his mouth whitened out by the east sun from where it hung in the hall of my mother's house. I myself had had to get on the telephone with an uncle to figure out the exact Davis connection. Jefferson Davis' sister, Anna Eliza had married a Smith. Their son Joseph Smith married my great-great-great grandmother. So, I was Jefferson Davis' great-great-great-great-great niece.

Ten dollar, three dollar, and two dollar Confederate bills are pasted in the family scrapbook. …