Michelle Obama is not the first African American First Lady.

Mrs. Jefferson Davis, First Lady of the Confederate States of America

The Ethnic Origins of Confederate First Lady Varina Howell Davis, Wife of Jefferson Davis

By Ioann Williams

Whenever one is addressing a controversial topic - in this case, the Confederacy - I believe it is important to immediately explain why. When I was a college student (at a liberal institution in NY), a Southern professor came one year to deliver a lecture about why the Confederate flag should be embraced and she was booed off stage (and off campus) immediately after she started speaking. I think that was wrong, mostly because we are pretty lucky that we don't live in, say the Soviet Union or Saudi Arabia, places where an individual does not even have a basic right to express their opinion or to live and practice religion (or other cultural traditions) as they choose. Did you know that Jews aren't even allowed to enter Saudi Arabia? I digress, but my basic point is that we deserve to listen to the arguments of our fellow citizens even when we do not necessarily agree with them. So why am I tackling this subject matter? Whilst doing research for a manuscript I am working on involving an "elite plantation aristocrat", I began studying William Kaufman Scarborough's Masters of the Big House, the most thorough study of the largest slaveholders in the South in the decades leading up to the Civil War. It was important for me to understand what life was like for individuals that owned 250 slaves or more so that I could most accurately depict the details of their lives without falling into some post-War biased recreation (like Gone With The Wind, for example). And whilst learning more about Confederate president Jefferson Davis, I began reading about his wife, the former Varina Howell of Natchez, Mississippi, and the following picture of the bridal pair together surfaced.

A pretty benign picture, No?  But something about it was very curious to me.  I noticed that Mrs. Davis was much younger than her husband and rather beautiful.  Certainly, this is a black and white photograph (an early one from the 1840s), but I found Mrs. Davis's appearance to be rather singular.  As a person of mixed origin myself, my first thought was: "That woman is a quadroon!"  The nose.  The eyes.  The lips.  Frankly, it seemed rather obvious to me.  I am not posting this in order to be scandalous or because I am attempting to show the eccentricities of the slave system in America (or the hypocrisy; both valid endeavors), I only try to shed light on something that I believe is interesting.  Obviously, this woman died one hundred years before I was born, but no picture that I have been able to find has convinced me that Mrs. Davis was 100% White (European).  In fact, as I dug up more and more pictures of the Confederate First Lady, especially those showing her in a later age, I was even more convinced that the lady has Black African (if not American Indian) origin.  So who was Varina Howell Davis?

Varina Howell was born in Natchez, MS to planter William Burr Howell and wife Margaret L. Kempe in 1826.  Natchez was a bastion of the Southern elite prior to the Civil War, and it belonged to the big three centers of wealth in the South, which also included the important cities of Charleston, South Carolina and New Orleans, Louisiana.  Natchez was a center for cotton export and trade.  One peculiar fact about Natchez, however, was that (unlike New Orleans and Charleston), many of the Natchez-area planters and residents had origins in the Northern states; Varina's father, for example, was a native of New Jersey, and her grandfather served as Governor of New Jersey after the American Revolution.  Miss Howell grew up in luxury at her father's plantation, called the Briers, in Natchez, and attended an aristocratic boarding school in Philadelphia.  Her life was not without its troubles, however.  When Varina was a girl, her father lost big in the crash in the Southern economy of 1837-1842 and their family home and slaves were all repossessed by debt collectors; things were not put to rights until Varina's maternal family came to the rescue and used their wealth to repurchase what had been taken.  Jefferson Davis met miss Howell in 1835 and they were married in an allegedly humble affair at the Briers in 1845, with only immediate family and close friends in attendance.  A larger affair planned for 1844 had been canceled for an unknown reason and replaced with the hushed affair of 1845.

Digging into Varina's genealogy, there are no attested references to any individuals of non-European origin, and based on names and what we know about the individuals in her family tree, there is no reason to believe that she was not 100% white, other than the evidence of our eyes.  William Burr Howell was certainly of European origin and that leaves Varina's mother as the possible source of non-white origin.  We know that Varina's maternal grandfather was an Irish immigrant named Colonel Joseph Kempe, but little is known about the maternal grandmother.  The difficulty here is that there are multiple reasons to explain Varina Howell's dark and rather yellow complexion: she could be of African or Indian origin, she could simply have a tan, or she could have Southern European origin (Black Irish, Spanish, or Italian, for example).  There is little worse than engaging in idle speculation without the evidence to back it up and without detailed genealogical data about the Kempe family, I do not have much in the way of evidence, besides photographs.  So you, dear reader, are left to make a decision for yourself.  Take a look at the wife of President Jefferson Davis in the pictures below and ask yourself: Is this a white woman?  What are the implications of a First Lady of the Confederacy with African origins?  What is the likelihood in a part of the country where some districts were 60-80% Black that everyone that was "white" was actually white?

Mrs. Davis is on the far right, holding the infant.

Jefferson Davis, Jr.  He looks more like Mrs. Davis than his father.

By Ioann Williams

NOTE: The Civil War was instigated because of the invention of the cotton gin by a cotton slave. Slavery was becoming illegal because of the Haitian revolution and the 1807 slave act of the British Monarchy. Slavery is wrong and many people at the time organized a movement to get rid of it...mostly white people, but rich plantation owners did not want it to end. This is why Nat Turner was a blessing for the wealthy plantation owner, it legalized slavery until 1865. The average broke and extremely poor white American did not have plantations. Who do you think benefited from both sides of the war?

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