A name to protect
At a reunion in Mississippi 35 years ago, the descendants of Jefferson Davis formed a family association and elected a president: a bearded, longhaired geology graduate student born and raised in Colorado.
Bertram Hayes-Davis had at least one qualification others lacked: his hyphenated surname, created by an act of the Mississippi Legislature on Feb 21, 1890, to preserve the name of the president of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis had six children, but only his daughter Margaret married (to a man named Hayes) and had children.
In his ancestor, Hayes-Davis found his calling: to show that Davis' life was about more than slavery. Because Davis led the Confederacy, he says, "everything else about him was obliterated" — West Point graduate, successful planter, member of the U.S. Houseand Senate, wounded Mexican War veteran, early advocate of the transcontinental railroad and secretary of War (1853-1857).
Hayes-Davis says it's not just Davis who is misunderstood; Confederates in general are tarred by slavery. "What about everything else they did?" he asks. "We want to tell the world we still have that integrity and those values today."
Those values include states' rights. Hayes-Davis is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which calls the South's secession in 1860-61 "the Second American Revolution," motivated not by slavery but "the preservation of liberty and freedom."
Over the past three decades, Hayes-Davis has made more than 1,000 speeches and appearances, many at the kind of functions where Dixie is sung, the Confederate flag is flown and the Confederate "Lost Cause" is mourned.
He says that if Americans knew Davis better, they'd respect him more: "Ignorance is our barrier. It's what we get up for every day. This is something I believe in."
When he sought support for observations of Davis' 200th birthday in 2008, he was rebuffed by dozens of museums and organizations. Even Mississippi, where Davis lived, declined to establish a bicentennial commission.
Hayes-Davis, who lives in Dallas, has a son and a daughter. He hopes the family name will continue, because even though Davis has hundreds of great-great-great-grandchildren, "it means more when one of the descendants has the name."