Imagine a statue of a slave next to the monument of Confederate Gen. Alfred Mouton in downtown Lafayette, perhaps with a sign explaining how the general’s family owned scores of slaves at the outbreak of the Civil War.
It’s one idea among many that City-Parish Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux said might put the general’s statue — now the subject of an intense public debate — in a better context.
“If we are going to base this on history, then let’s finish the story,” Boudreaux said.
Neither Boudreaux nor any other council member has made a specific proposal to do anything with the Mouton statue.
But the issue is far from dead, despite a legal opinion from the city-parish attorney last week that council members could face contempt of court sanctions if they vote to remove the monument.
The local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which donated the statue to the city in the 1920s, filed a lawsuit in 1980 to stop plans to move it from downtown to what was then the new city hall on University Avenue. To resolve that dispute, the city consented to a permanent injunction, agreeing to keep the general in place, barring sale of the property or street improvements.
City-Parish Attorney Paul Escott told council members the injunction is a binding legal agreement and they could face contempt of court sanctions for violating it.
But Escott left the door open for a different tack: The council could vote instead to challenge the 36-year-old injunction in court.
Escott’s opinion states the injunction could be contested on the basis of a “change of conditions,” but the attorney declined to comment on what might meet that legal standard or on the likelihood of success should the council take the matter to court.
“I would expect him to come back and tell us whether we have legal grounds to challenge the injunction,” Councilman Bruce Conque said.
Boudreaux said he believes city-parish government would at least have a chance at winning in court.
“ ‘Changed conditions’ seems very general in my opinion,” he said. “I don’t have any doubt at all that conditions have changed.”
Barring a court fight, the council also would have the option of leaving the statue in place but installing additional statues or new signs to put the Mouton statue in historical context, as has been suggested by some on both sides of the removal argument.
But the main group fighting removal, which calls itself “WHY NOT Alfred? ” opposes new interpretive signs at the monument.
In a statement posted on Facebook this week, the group cites concerns about “political correctness verbiage.”
“WHY NOT Alfred? will fight that battle even harder than we fought to preserve the statue in place. Interpretive signage is absolutely unacceptable to us,” the statement reads.
The “WHY NOT” label is an answer to the group pushing for removal of the statue, who have organized loosely into a group calling itself “Why Alfred?”
It’s unclear whether there is support on the council for doing anything.
No council member has made a definitive statement one way or the other, even as the subject of the statue has been the focus of hours of public comment during the past two council meetings.
“I would just like to give it time,” Conque said.
The dispute over the statue, which sits at the intersection of Jefferson Street and Lee Avenue, has been simmering since last year on social media.
The debate here follows the basic pattern of debates over Confederate monuments everywhere, including New Orleans, where the City Council recently voted to remove three Confederate monuments and a fourth memorializing a white rebellion against the state’s post-Civil War Reconstruction government.
The “WHY NOT Alfred?” camp argues the statue represents heritage, honoring a man who died at the Battle of Mansfield in 1864 while fighting to protect his state.
Removing it, they say, would start the city down a slippery path of revisionist history that might not end until all traces of the area’s Confederate past are wiped away, including a host of street names honoring Confederate leaders.
Those who want to remove the Mouton statute argue it symbolizes a legacy of racism and hate and should be moved off city property, possibly to a museum.
The issue is particularly thorny in Lafayette because Mouton’s family plays prominently in local history.
Alfred Mouton’s grandfather, Jean Mouton, is considered the founder of Lafayette.
His father, Alexandre Mouton, was another key figure in the city’s history and held several political posts, including governor of Louisiana.
Alexandre Mouton also owned a sprawling plantation on land now filled in by downtown Lafayette and the surrounding neighborhoods.
At the time of the Civil War, he owned 120 slaves, more than anyone else in the parish except his brother Antoine, according to a recent history of the nearby Freetown neighborhood.