Civil Rights

Was the first lady of the Confederacy black?

By Frederick H. Lowe

Jefferson Davis, president of Confederate States of America, was married during the Civil War to Varina Howell Davis, a mulatto or black woman. Several historians who have studied her and her life have speculated that she was indeed a woman of color but there is no conclusive answer.

Jefferson Daviis, president of the Confederate States of America, with his wife and First Lady Varina Howell, who many believe was African American. This photo was taken on the couple’s wedding day in 1845.

Varina Howell was Davis’s second wife and the couple met at a Christmas Party in 1843. They quickly fell in love and married. Davis was 35 and a wealthy plantation owner. Howell was 17. They would have six children, but only one would survive.

Eleven Southern states seceded from the Union beginning on December 20, 1860, sparking the Civil War. Jefferson Davis, who resigned as a U.S. Senator from Mississippi, was appointed Confederate president in 1861. Howell was called the “First Lady of Confederacy.”

The Confederate government was at one time headquartered in Montgomery, Alabama. The government later moved to Richmond, Virginia.

Howell did not have a smooth time as the Confederacy’s first lady because some wealthy white Richmond residents considered her olive complexion unattractive. Some referred to her as mulatto or an Indian “squaw,” according to the Encyclopedia of Virginia.  People who have seen her photograph, however, said she was black.

Howell was born in 1826 on the Briers, a family plantation near Natchez, Mississippi. She met Davis when she was 17 while visiting the Hurricane, a plantation owned by Joseph Emory Davis, Jefferson Davis’s older brother.

Jefferson Davis and Varina Howell married on February 26, 1845. Her father, Colonel Joseph Kemp, was a Scots-Irish immigrant from Northern Ireland and her mother, Margaret Graham, was born in the Prince William County. The family claims they are 100 percent European, although Varina’s photograph tells a different story.

On April 2nd and 3d, Jefferson Davis fled Richmond to escape from the advancing Union Army. He was captured on May 22, 1865, and sentenced to prison. He remained in prison until May 13, 1867, when Horace Greeley, an abolitionist, contributed to posting his bail.

Varina Davis and her daughter Varina Anne Davis moved to New York City from Mississippi. Varina Davis supported herself writing for Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, New York World. She also wrote the book “Jefferson Davis, A Memoir.”

She died on October 16, 1906, of pneumonia, in her apartment, which overlooked Central Park.



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