The murders of June 17 in Charleston have launched a spirited debate about how we should remember and celebrate our past and its heroes. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has called for the removal of the monuments to Gen. Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders. Whether the statues of these men stay or go, the public debate about them raises an equally important question: What would we like to see take their place? We might well consider a man most New Orleanians have never heard of: Noel Carriere, the commander of the free black militia in colonial New Orleans, a homegrown hero who was decorated for his service in the American Revolution.
The Civil War still divides New Orleanians, but the American Revolution offers us a way to come together about how to memorialize our shared past. Louisiana was not among the 13 British Colonies that rebelled against the British, but Spain fought on the side of the colonies and so did its troops. Among them were two regiments of free black New Orleans militiamen commanded by officers of African descent. Nearly all of these men were Louisiana-born, and they fought for the ideals of freedom and liberty that all 21st-century Americans still cherish. Carriere was one of them.
Carriere was born into slavery in New Orleans in the 1740s to parents who came to the city from Africa in chains. Even as a teenager, others looked up to him and asked him to serve as godparent to their children. He mastered the valuable skills of tanning and barrel-making before he was 20 and was allowed to join the free black militia in New Orleans in 1770 even though he was still technically enslaved.
By the time the American Revolution broke out, Carriere had attained his freedom and was an officer in the militia. He was a stalwart of the Catholic Church who encouraged the men under his command to observe its sacraments. He and members of his regiment regularly stood in the sanctuary of St. Louis Cathedral as official marriage witnesses. Imagine an impressive military wedding in colonial New Orleans with men decked out in full dress uniform: Carriere was there.
When Spain entered the Revolutionary War on the side of the American colonies, Carriere began a truly distinguished military career. As a second lieutenant, he saw action in multiple battles along the Gulf Coast and received commendations and silver medals of honor twice. After the Revolution, Carriere was commissioned as a captain. Until his death in 1804, his name was never mentioned without his title as commander of the free black militia. He was one of the most respected New Orleanians of his era.
When we think about how to honor our past in an inclusive way, the brave men and women who challenged the 20th-century legacies of slavery and racism during the civil rights movement are the first to come to mind. But in Charleston barely a week before the massacre of June 17, history professor Renée Romano told a gathering of several hundred historians that honoring them is not enough. Memorials to the civil rights movement, she warned, have left many with the impression that the struggle for equality has been won, even though the events in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore; and especially Charleston suggest otherwise.
It is hard to find common ground between those who venerate the Confederate cause and those who celebrate the leaders of the civil rights movement. Paradoxically, looking further back to the American Revolution offers a way forward.
The commander of the Confederate army was a Virginian with no close connection to New Orleans. Kentucky-born Jefferson Davis is memorialized for his role in a conflict that tore the nation apart. P. G.T. Beauregard, whose statue presides over the entrance to City Park, may have been a native son, but not all New Orleanians celebrate his command of the Confederate troops that fired on Fort Sumter to begin the Civil War.
Carriere was born in New Orleans and fought for the ideals of the American Revolution. Isn’t it time to raise a memorial to him?
Emily Clark is the Clement Chambers Benenson professor in Colonial history at Tulane University.