June 1, 2014
Alabamians Divided on Jefferson Davis Holiday
By Ianthe Jeanne Dugan
Alabama state offices will be closed Monday for an annual holiday that some residents celebrate, others would like to eliminate and some just don’t understand: Jefferson Davis’s birthday.
The Confederacy’s first and only president was captured in Georgia in 1865 and accused of treason and helping to plot to kill President Abraham Lincoln. He was imprisoned for two years but never tried, and shortly before his death in 1889, he advised Southerners: "The past is dead; let it bury its dead, its hopes and its aspirations."
Many never put the man behind them. Celebrations of his birthday–June 3, 1808–are held throughout the South, and he is memorialized in statues, parks and highways in places including Georgia, Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
But Alabama is the last to have a legal state holiday devoted exclusively to Davis’s birthday, setting aside the first Monday in June. The distinction is divisive, as it serves as a particularly powerful relic of the Confederacy and its associations with slavery and disunion.
Larisa Thomason, 50 years old, a writer and web consultant near Huntsville, Ala., in a recent blog suggested revamping the holiday. "There are so many more worthy people to honor–like Waldo Semon, the inventor of vinyl," she said, or other Alabama natives: Helen Keller, author Harper Lee and blues man W.C. Handy. "It’s worshiping the cult of the Confederacy," said Ms. Thomason, a seventh-generation Alabama native whose ancestors were Confederate soldiers. "The battle is fought every year, but it’s a losing battle."
Jennifer Ardis, a spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, said more than 30,000 state employees get the day off, except for essential personnel such as state law enforcement. Ms. Ardis didn’t comment on the government’s reasons for keeping the holiday.
Honors abound in other states, too. His native Kentucky holds a Miss Confederacy pageant at the Jefferson Davis monument in Fairview. Mississippi, which he represented as a U.S. senator, elaborately renovated his Biloxi home, Beauvoir, and built a presidential library. Even his pre-Civil War stint as U.S. secretary of war is still honored with an eponymous peak in Nevada and markers in a park in Washington state.
Many Alabamians see merit in keeping the holiday. When Mike Cason, a reporter at Alabama Media Group, asked readers of AL.com last summer whether the holiday should exist, he said he got 2,500 responses and about two-thirds, 1,700, said the holiday should be preserved.
Among advocates is D.A. Bass-Frazier, 59, a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group with Confederate lineage that helped plan the Jefferson Davis Highway in the early decades of the 20th century. "People are afraid of Southern history because it is a flash point, a symbol of racism and hate. But it’s not," said Ms. Bass-Frazier, a Mobile-based lawyer. "There’s just a lack of historical understanding, knee-jerk reaction and fear by people screaming political correctness. This is who I am and who my family was."
She is a walking encyclopedia of trivia about Davis. ("His dog’s name was Traveler.") In December, on one of her many trips to Davis’s Mississippi home, she stumped an actor dressed as Davis with an arcane fact about his time at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. She says she was "tickled" in late May when she was watching Jeopardy on TV. The clue: "Pierce’s war secretary, he soon ended up in a war, all right…with the United States."
David Baker, president of the Calhoun County, Ala., chapter of the NAACP, said he resents the holiday. "They lost the Civil War and we became united," he said. "We’re supposed to be one nation under God. When people keep honoring the Confederacy, we are no longer one nation under God."