I’d never given much thought to Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis, let alone P.G.T. Beauregard or the White League instigators of the Battle of Liberty Place, until recently. Maybe that comes with not being a native Southerner, or maybe it’s just that they didn’t seem at all relevant to modern life.
That changed when New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced his desire to declare the four Confederate-themed monuments nuisances, to remove them from the streets because they don’t reflect the city’s values.
Opponents have countered that we should consider the subjects as human beings, as men of their time and nuanced historical figures — even, some argue, as men of honor. Lee, the Confederate general, voiced moral doubts about slavery, they say, although the record shows he continued to treat human beings as property. The plaque on the Jefferson Davis statue highlights the Confederate president’s constitutional scholarship and patriotism (presumably to the United States, not the breakaway nation he actually led).
So here’s what I’ve decided, after listening to the critics: I don’t care, not for these purposes, anyway. As Landrieu has said, it’s not about them, it’s about us.
Those statues aren’t there because of who these men were, but because of the historic cause they represented to those who erected them. They’re products not of the Confederate era, but of a time after, when the nostalgia for the old social and economic order built on the horrible stain of slavery was ascendant. All four were erected not immediately after the war but between 1884 and 1913 — a period following Reconstruction, when stirring progress made by African-Americans was being dismantled and Jim Crow firmly established.
Yes, it’s complicated, and there were many reasons people of the time supported the statues’ construction. Some of the reasons are understandable in context, perhaps none more so than a need for people to believe their relatives hadn’t fought and died for an unworthy cause.
But the fact is that cities are inherently dynamic, and are constantly reshaped by popular sentiment — or more accurately, the desires of those who have the ears of the powers-that-be. And just like their predecessors, today’s New Orleanians get to decide what their civic landscape should celebrate, and what it should tell the world.
We’re not talking about rewriting history, as some argue. There’s a huge difference between acknowledging something and honoring it.
Landrieu may be particularly focused on image-creation, on selling New Orleans as a progressive, modern place to the outside world as the city’s tricentennial approaches, but that doesn’t make him an outlier.
Consider this paradox, described by University of New Orleans historian Molly Mitchell at a recent Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities symposium.
“These were tourist sites, and the city treated them as such and promoted them as such,” she said. “That’s another sort of irony that we’re now thinking about, worrying about what tourists are going to think.” (A full transcript is posted at http://bit.ly/1L0a4zQ and worth a read.) Mitchell also linked the prominence of the sites to the political support of the city leaders.
As for the public spaces themselves, two should be easy to alter, and two more challenging.
The Liberty Place monument, relegated from Canal Street to an obscure spot near one of the French Quarter’s sprawling surface parking lots during a previous bout of civic conscience, is laughable, its obelisk dwarfed by nearby power poles. The circa-1934 plaque that once overtly honored “white supremacy” and described the U.S.-backed government as “usurpers” was replaced in 1974 by one that reads like an apology for its very existence. It purports to honor “those Americans on both sides of the conflict,” and vaguely warns that this “conflict of the past … should teach us lessons for the future.”
Davis’ statue, meanwhile, oversees a prominent but busy corner, and is far less of a focal point than the businesses that stand on the intersection’s four corners. The statue was designed to look heroic, but he appears to be gesturing towards a nearby RTA bus stop.
If they disappeared tomorrow, I doubt anyone would bat an eye. Lee and Beauregard are more difficult cases, as they hold down prominent spots in two of the city’s major traffic circles. Both spaces call out for pieces that make a statement. Because that’s what major monuments do, whether or not those of us who see them every day pay attention.
Until now, the one time I really did take notice was when I moved to Louisiana in the mid-1990s and first saw the statues and streets named after Confederate heroes. My new home was charming and quirky, I thought, but it’s also a place that sees no problem celebrating something inherently ugly, particularly to the city’s African-American majority.
That’s what the presence of these monuments says to the world. And Landrieu’s right. It’s time to change the conversation.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter @stephgracenola.