The First White House Of The Confederacy Is A Museum That Won't Talk About Slavery

As a recent Southern transplant, the glut of patriotic Confederate memorabilia was off-putting.
09/17/2017 11:08 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2017
A sample of what adorns this public museum’s walls.
A sample of what adorns this public museum’s walls.

The current location of the First White House of the Confederacy is not accidental. The two-story antebellum house, in which Confederate President Jefferson Davis lived and worked for the first four months of the Civil War, sits pointedly just across the street from the Alabama State Capitol and Statehouse in Montgomery. It wasn’t always there — the house originally sat 10 blocks away, but a long push from the Daughters of the Confederacy saw it moved to its new central location in the 1920s.

When my husband and I arrived to visit the First White House yesterday, a jovial white man greeted us on the porch. “There’s a bunch of Koreans in there,” he told us. “They’re a visiting choir. Don’t be alarmed.”

The First White House is a Confederate marker, masquerading as an educational museum; dangerous in its white-washing and distortion of history and reality.

The First White House is, technically, a publicly-owned museum (last year, its upkeep cost Alabama taxpayers in excess of $100,000.) A more appropriate term might be “shrine.” The museum is self-guided, though the guidebooks offer only descriptions of the various items of furniture and Davis family trinkets in the roped-off rooms. Laudatory posters of Davis adorn the walls (Jefferson Davis: An American Patriot; Jefferson Davis, Mississippian, Author, and American Patriot; Jefferson Davis, Leader of Heroic Resistance) devoid entirely of context. You will see Davis’s bed, his bathrobe, his pens, and his desk — affixed to which is a sign stating that it was at this very desk that Davis wrote “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.” Ascend the old staircase and you’re in the Relic Room, where a prominent painting of General Robert E. Lee hangs, accented by the four flags of the Confederacy.

As a recent Southern transplant, the glut of patriotic Confederate memorabilia was off-putting, but the First White House is remarkable mostly for what it doesn’t say than for what it does. The self-guided tour — and every piece of literature I perused while there — makes absolutely no mention of slavery. None. I checked their website’s FAQ section in hopes of seeing this addressed; instead, there were questions about the gift shop, and questions about how to donate. (And yes, the gift shop is well stocked with cuddly confederate teddy bears, confederate battle flag lapel pins, confederate cross-stitches, and more.)

Though Alabama declined to write its own Declaration of Causes for secession (Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, South Carolina, and Virginia’s can be read here), Davis’s own words are more than clear. When asked in 1861 to illuminate why his state had seceded, Davis wrote “...she had heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races.” The Vice President of the Confederate States, Alexander Stephens, made similar remarks: “slavery ... was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution,” and protecting it was the “cornerstone” of the newly formed Confederate government.

I spoke with two friendly gentlemen at the First White House who were both self-professed civil war historians. In this conversation I heard the first and only mention of slavery (both at all, and as a cause for secession) but its significance was grossly shrunken and couched in a longer list: “It was slavery, tariffs, the price of cotton, and 1,000 other things,” one told me. It wasn’t.

The First White House is a Confederate marker, masquerading as an educational museum; dangerous in its white-washing and distortion of history and reality.

We watched as the South Korean choir members milled around the gift shop, buying giant novelty pencils decorated with the confederate battle flag. Families with young children strolled through the rooms. In a rather surreal moment at the end of our visit, the choir assembled in the foyer and sang a song. Smattered applause came at the end, and a voice with a Southern twang rang out: “Jeff Davis would’ve loved that!”

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