Sunday, February 20, 2011

JIM LIMBER (1858? - ?) Black Orphan in the Confederate White House

Jim Limber - James Henry Brooks
On February 15, 1864, Varina Davis, the First Lady of the Confederacy, while conducting errands in Richmond, witnessed a small black boy being severely beaten by a black woman. Mrs. Davis, known for her kindness and concern for the welfare of others, drove away the woman and rescued the child, whose age was estimated about seven. She took him home to the Confederate White House, had his injuries tended to, clothed and fed him, and integrated him into her household.

The boy, known as Jim Limber on weekdays, called himself James Henry Brooks when he was dressed up for Sundays. It is likely that Varina’s two sons, William and Jefferson, knew Jim Limber before the rescue. The Davis boys were members of the Hill Cats, a Richmond boy gang. Jim Limber was a staunch ally of the Hill Cats. Some accounts of the rescue have it that Billy and Jeff saw the abuse and fetched their mother to stop it. In any case, the two boys became fast friends with their new housemate.

First Lady Varina Davis
Records or statements of Jim’s status within the Davis family are rare and obscure. Various histories have called him “pet,” “adopted,” “ward,” “foster child,” and “protégé.” He was not a slave when Varina found him. His mother, a free woman of color, had died when he was an infant, leaving him in the care of her friend, a cruel woman who neglected him when she wasn’t abusing him.

Jim readily assimilated into the Davis family, and Mrs. Davis is reported to have treated him as she did her own sons. She notes in her memoir that Jefferson Davis himself went to the Richmond City Hall to register the boy, to secure his status as a free black. Some speculate that the Davises adopted him, but Virginia had no formal or legal adoption law in place during the 19th Century, and so with only very sketchy records which remain, whether they did or did not adopt him will probably never be confirmed. Most documents - federal, state, and municipal - were destroyed when the Confederate administration and its supporters evacuated Richmond in the first week of April 1985, so records of President Davis' actions no longer exist.

Jim remained with the Davis family through the fall of the Confederacy, traveling with Mrs. Davis and her household as it fled to Georgia, but Federal military officials took him away in May of 1865. The boy fought like a tiger, and both he and the Davises cried out loudly to each other as he was bodily carried away.  He was eventually sent north to a family which saw to his education and acquisition of a trade.

Sadly, the Davises never heard from him or of him again. With their own status in severe straits for many years following the war, they made no overtures to find him. By the time they were allowed to settle into quiet retirement, neither Jefferson nor Varina had the physical health to follow through on what had become a closed chapter of their lives.

Jim Limber, with an education and a trade, may have ended up with a better life than the Davises did. Varina’s rescue started him on a better path, and her efforts at the time of his removal to see him sponsored by a family who would treat him well undoubtedly provided him with opportunities better than if he had been left an urchin on the streets of Richmond.

No more information about Jim Limber seems to exist, including his trade, whether he married and had a family, or when he died.

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities: Encyclopedia Virginia

Ross, Ishbel. First Lady of the South: The Life of Varina Davis. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1958.

Davis, Varina. Jefferson Davis, A Memoir by his Wife, 2 vols. New York: Belford Company, 1890.

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