June 3, 1948, marked the day the Old Court House Museum officially opened to the public for visitation. It was a day of celebration for the community, especially that of the museum’s founder, Mrs. Eva Whitaker Davis, who had spent the previous eight years battling with the county to prevent its destruction. Her dream of repurposing the building as a temple of historic preservation for the people of Warren County had finally begun, but she would soon find that preparing the building for display would be a much more monumental task than preventing its demise.
The new Warren County Courthouse had been completed in 1939. Soon after its completion, materials were moved into the new offices, and the doors of the Old Court House were sealed. The county had simply outgrown the old building. Factors such as gas lighting, the lack of indoor plumbing, inefficient means of heating and cooling, and the constant need for repairs pushed the agenda for a new structure. Plans for what to do with the old building were still undecided as the county struggled to determine its fate. Ideas had been thrown around, such as handing it over to the National Park Service or demolishing it and turning the property into a parking lot for the new structure. However, one local individual had much bigger and bolder plans for it. Eva W. Davis, recognizing the historical significance of the structure, believed that it was imperative for the community to come together and preserve it, and formulated a plan to see it turned into a shrine of history that best represented the people of Vicksburg.
Mrs. Davis’s foresight for the museum was almost prophetic in nature. When she began discussions with the Board of Supervisors, there was hardly any support within the community for her proposal. Davis, having only a 10th-grade education and no funds whatsoever to tackle such a task, was not taken seriously in those early talks. Her outreach to the public was tenacious, but only a handful of people responded to her calls. With the onset of World War II, public interest waned even more as people focused their attention on national and world events. Discussions with the county had come to a complete halt. It seemed as if all hope had been stifled, until 1946. The war had ended, the people had a newfound sense of pride, and the preservation of our culture and identity had shifted to the forefront of the public eye. Davis saw the opportunity to reignite her dream and sent out a public notice for all citizens interested in saving the Old Court House to meet at the Hotel Vicksburg. Over 200 people attended what would become the first meeting of the Vicksburg and Warren County Historical Society. Eva Whitaker Davis once again felt hope that her dream would come true.
The Board of Supervisors relented and handed over the keys to the building, but not before claiming that the Historical Society would fail within the first two months. Their words were not meant to be malicious; they simply understood the amount of time and effort it would require to restore the building. Eight years of abandonment had dealt an almost lethal blow to the old structure. Rooms were littered with unwanted records and dust from the transition years prior. The courtroom ceiling had collapsed, resulting in the entire room being covered in a mound of dirt that had been set in the ceiling as a fireproofing measure. None of these factors affected Davis’s resolve, and she immediately began working on getting everything in proper order—a task that would take decades to complete. When the museum finally opened in 1948, only a single room had been completed for displays, but people in the community were beginning to see the merit of her vision.
“The Warren County Courthouse is one of the chief charms of the City of Vicksburg and a place that its citizens wish to preserve as a historical landmark. Let us keep the courthouse as a hallowed shrine of historical interest, a museum as it were, where the history of the entire territory, rich in legend and fact, may be displayed to tourists. It is my belief that as such an institution, it can be largely self-supporting from the funds received for entrance fees. As such a building, it should be rich in displays.” These words, written by Eva Davis to the Board of Supervisors, encapsulate the idea that had spurred all the work she had put into this project. It would not be long after the museum opened that people in the community began bringing artifacts to be displayed. Everything displayed would have a connection to our community. Visitors to Vicksburg would see not only rare and unique pieces of history but also personal items that tell a much richer story than could be found in any text.
The most impressive artifact in the collection would be the building itself. Now a National Historic Landmark, the Old Court House is practically bursting at the seams with historical value. Serving as a Signal Corps headquarters during the Siege of Vicksburg, it was the primary target of the Union gunboats but survived the siege, becoming the office of the Provost Marshal throughout reconstruction. Presidents U. S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, William McKinley, and Dwight Eisenhower visited and spoke to the community of Vicksburg here. The federal trial of Captain Frederick Speed for the overloading of the steamboat Sultana, our nation’s worst maritime disaster, was held in the courtroom. Booker T. Washington drew one of the largest crowds in Vicksburg’s history when he came and spoke in the courtroom. The Old Court House has served our community well over the years.
This June marks 75 years since those doors opened to the public in 1948, and the museum has expanded immensely during that time. What began as a single room is now nine rooms, hallways, a restored courtroom, and a vast archive and research library, all packed floor to ceiling with materials given by the folks in our community. People from all over the world travel just to see the collection and are amazed by our dedication to continuing its preservation and expansion over the years. Mrs. Eva W. Davis’s vision had indeed become a reality, one for which we are most thankful today.See a typo? Report it here.