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Artifact of Confederate figure rests mostly unnoticed at Kern County Museum

jefferson davis

This marker commemorating the so-called Jefferson Davis Highway in Kern is believed to have been one of four in the state of California, including two in Kern County. No one, however, seems to know where the other three have gone. But this one is located at the Kern County Museum, where it is no longer on public display.

It's not exactly a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, resplendent on horseback, dominating the town square.

Or the Garces Circle.

But it turns out Bakersfield does have a minor, and mostly unnoticed, tribute to a Confederate hero in its midst.

Even as cities and public and private institutions across the country consider removing or relocating monuments and markers dedicated to historic figures of the Confederacy, four remaining markers of the so-called Jefferson Davis Highway are said to remain in California, including one at the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield.

"We're kind of a repository of a variety of different markers," said Lori Wear, curator of collections at the museum.

Indeed, when local historic markers like the one in question have to be relocated and they have no place else to go, they sometimes end up at the museum.

Davis, the first and only president of the Confederate States of America, whose greatest claim to fame was leading a rebellion in defense of the institution of slavery — and against the nation he had once sworn to defend — is not honored on the marker for his service to that lost cause.

Strangely enough, the marker, dedicated Oct. 14, 1942, by the Mildred Lee Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, honors Davis as the decidedly uncontroversial "father of national highways."

"As secretary of war in 1853, he had surveyed for military use three routes across the United States, the marker reads. "These routes are today our national highways."

According to some research Wear found, soon after plans for the transcontinental Lincoln Highway were announced in 1912, the southern ladies of the Daughters of the Confederacy countered with a plan of their own for a southern "coast to coast rock highway" to honor Davis.

The route meandered through Virginia, Texas and even California, where the proposed route followed Highway 99.

Wear believes the marker was placed somewhere near Lebec and old 99 and probably had to be moved when the highway was modernized in the 1960s.

It was moved to the museum in 1968.

The state of California never officially recognized the Jefferson Davis designation, but that didn't stop the "Daughters" from lauding the Confederate leader for his apparent foresight in the routing of highways.

The marker, an embossed metal plate attached to a large wheel of limestone, rests in a landscaped section behind the museum's main building.

A second marker is said to be at Fort Tejon, also near Lebec. However, that was not confirmed Wednesday.

As controversy continues in other areas over the placement of Confederate monuments in public areas, many have argued that museums and cemeteries are more appropriate locations for these monuments.

Supporters of leaving monuments to Davis and other Confederates in place argue that the Civil War was not really about slavery.

But Davis' support for the institution seems clear. He stated in 1861 that the cause of his state's secession was that "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."

Davis' vice president, Alexander Stephens, was even more unambiguous, declaring that "slavery ... was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution" and that protecting it was the "cornerstone" of the Confederacy.

Apparently, even many in the South are listening. The Alexandria, Va., City Council voted last year to rename Jefferson Davis Highway.

Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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