Activist state

Black Confederate site worker raises racial complaint

Alabama welcomes visitors to the “First White House of the Confederacy,” a historic home next to the state capitol where Confederate President Jefferson Davis lived with his family in the early months of the Civil War.

The museum run by the state finance ministry says it sees nearly 100,000 people a year, many of them schoolchildren on field trips to see things such as the ‘relics hall’ where the slippers and watch of Davis pocket are preserved. Near the gift shop, a framed article describes Davis as an American patriot who accomplished “one of the most astonishing feats in history” by keeping the “north at bay for four long years.”

Evelyn England, an African-American woman, worked for 12 years as a receptionist at the historic site, said some visitors, black and white, were surprised to see her there.

“I’m in a unique position because white people don’t really want me here, and black people don’t want to come here,” England told The Associated Press.

England, 62, retired this week from the $34,700 state labor, and it wasn’t the friendliest of departures: State records show she was suspended for three days last month for refusing to sign a performance review, and she said she filed a racial discrimination complaint with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A spokeswoman said the finance ministry declined to comment on the personnel issue.

After all these years working among the furnishings and belongings of the Davis family, England wants the museum to take a broader view of history. That slavery was a catalyst for the Civil War “is sort of stated,” she said.

“Tell it like it is. Just tell it like it is. It happened. It’s what is known to have happened. Give it the absolute truth you can… Until then , you paint a false narrative that it was a gala — no, there were ugly things that happened,” she said.

Explanatory exhibits at the museum, where the first Confederate flag still flies outside, deal mostly with the furnishings and use of the rooms, and make little to no mention of slavery, which Davis promoted as ” a moral, social and political blessing”.

The residence was reclaimed over a century ago by the White House Association, a state-chartered women’s organization that still owns its contents and remains involved, even as finance department employees deal with it. of the site. The Legislature mandated in a 1923 act that the state-owned building serve as an “ever reminder of the purity and greatness of Southern statesmen and the valor of the South”.

It would be better, England thinks, for the historic site to be managed by the Department of Archives and History.

Museum curator Bob Wieland said Friday he would ask the board to answer questions about the museum’s management, but he doesn’t think the museum paints too rosy a view of Davis.

“Jefferson Davis was never called a great in the house. He was the president of the Confederate States of America. We wouldn’t say anything more, anything less than that,” Wieland said.

England, which sometimes organized tours, said the guides only gave information such as the dates (February-May 1861) when Montgomery was the capital of the Confederacy.

The museum has made a few changes over the years. She said there was once an area called Davis’ “sanctuary.” The gift shop stopped selling Confederate flags, except for stickers of the design that was used when the Confederate capital was in Montgomery.

“They took action. It could be baby steps,” she said.

England, who lives in Marion, said she was a distant cousin of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights activist shot and killed by a state trooper in 1965. His death helped inspire marches for the right from Selma to Montgomery that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. England was a young child at the time, but still remembers the turmoil and pain.

In conversations with visitors, England said she sometimes uses questions and humor to try to get them to see a different point of view.

When one person argued that secession was only about preserving states’ rights – a view that had long been taught to Southerners as the root cause of civil war instead of slavery – she replied: “But did everyone have the same rights?”

“You love Confederation for what you think it stands for: your rights,” she thought. “Why were they fighting? Some would say state rights. I have a problem with your state rights solution because not all individuals in that state had the same rights.

One day an older white woman said, “Oh, the South is going to rise!” to no one in particular as she browsed the gift shop, where merchandise includes books, early Confederate flag stickers and children’s toys, including teddy bears in Confederate and Union uniforms. When the woman turned to put more items on the counter, England asked her, “What are you up from?”

She said the woman didn’t answer. “If looks could kill, I’d be a dead woman,” England said.

But many interactions have been positive, she said, recalling good conversations, even with people who — a supervisor warned — might be prejudiced against her.

She was “chewed out” by some African Americans for working there, she added. “It came to me from both sides,” she said.

Many visitors – black and white – found its course a point of curiosity.

“How do you work here? a white woman asked him.

“Ma’am, if you pay every last one of my bills, I’ll quit today,” she jokingly replied.

England hope his presence has helped open minds.

“Just open what you think. This is where the real change is going to happen, in your heart. You can knock down monuments. But if what they still harbor is there, at an inopportune moment it resurfaces.