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Getting reacquainted with Jefferson Davis

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Portrait of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, photographed by Mathew B. Brady before the American Civil War. (National Archives/MCT)

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Saturday, June 29, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

Bert Hayes-Davis is executive director of the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library in Biloxi, Miss., and great-great-grandson of the only chief executive of the Confederate States of America. With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's Battle of Gettysburg now being observed, Hayes-Davis spoke to the Trib about the library's recent dedication.

Q: What's the history of the Davis Library?

A: The Davis Library was originally funded by the state of Mississippi and completed in 1998. That presidential library was destroyed by (Hurricane) Katrina (in 2005), along with a Confederate museum and damage to the main house, Beauvoir. Every other building on the property was eliminated by Katrina. As a National Historic Site, we applied for funding to rebuild and were granted the funds to rebuild the mansion, Beauvoir House, and re-create the library.

Q: How much did that cost, and how much of that cost was public money?

A: (The Federal Emergency Management Agency) pays 90 percent of the required restoration cost. For the library, the total cost was a little over $11 million, and we had over $2 million in private support.

Q: How many visitors was the library attracting before Katrina, and what are your hopes now that it's been reconstructed?

A: In the period before Katrina (1998-2005) we had (about) 150,000 visitors. We hope to have at least that many, if not more, as we move forward with exhibitions. We're working hard along with all of the tourist organizations on the Gulf Coast to enhance the opportunities for tourists.

Q: In addition to learning a lot about Davis, are there any Confederate exhibits or displays?

A: We will reconstruct a Confederate museum that will have artifacts such as uniforms, weapons, field gear. We want to encompass the entire story of the conflict, the personal experiences, the before, the after.

Q: How would you address critics who might contend that the facility is an affront to any former United States president because, while Davis was president of the Confederacy, he never actually was president of the United States?

A: I would confront that by saying that Jefferson Davis is one of the most misunderstood people in American history and his story needs to be told. The story of (his) American patriotism up until 1860 is lost and forgotten — secretary of War, West Point, senator, representative and hero of the war of 1847 (the Mexican-American War), among other things. We are working diligently to provide an understanding of not only Jefferson Davis during the War between the States, but also the Davis prior to that and his life thereafter. We offer a complete educational experience about that American patriot.

Q: So you paint a more detailed portrait of him than what you would find in history books?

A: Jefferson Davis is portrayed in the history books (only) as the president of the Confederate States of America. We are educating America about the first 52 years of his life, the four years as president and the last years of his life. He lived to be 81 years old, so there is a large story to be told. People are fascinated when they hear the whole story.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com).

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