A monument to Robert E. Lee in a prominent downtown intersection.
A marker commemorating the Crescent City White League.
A statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, placed on a broad, landscaped avenue that also bears his name.
New Orleans is dotted with plaques, monuments and streets that either pay direct homage to Louisiana’s history of white supremacy or to the figures who fought to preserve the slave economy and championed the forced segregation that followed.
In the wake of a mass shooting that took nine black lives inside a historic South Carolina church, almost instantly setting off a national movement to scrub public spaces of the Confederate flag, New Orleans may be in for its own hard discussion about the merits of so many official tributes to a past scarred by racism.
“The Confederate flag is a symbol of hatred. It’s a symbol that is very divisive to our United States,” City Council President Jason Williams said. “But there are other, stronger and much more offensive symbols in our own city that we have ignored and tolerated that are a whole lot more in-your-face and prominent than a flag.”
To some, the most prominent of these is Lee Circle on St. Charles Avenue, with its 60-foot-high column and sculpture dedicated to Confederate hero Robert E. Lee. It’s described on the state’s official tourism website as a memorial to a “cherished general of the Confederate armies.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office, in a statement released to nola.com columnist Jarvis DeBerry this week, said there should be a “close examination” of that memorial and other polarizing statues, monuments, street names and symbols of a bygone era to determine if they “still have relevance” to the city’s future.
The symbols “still influence who we are and how we are perceived by the world,” Landrieu’s office said.
The Lee memorial, dedicated in 1884, is one of a number of similar monuments across Louisiana — there are also statues of Davis and Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard in New Orleans — erected as part of the “Lost Cause” movement, a post-Civil War effort to portray the Confederacy as a noble idea.
“What I think people have realized is that these symbols provoke hate,” Xavier University history professor Sharlene Sinegal DeCuir said. “They provoke a message of hate and enslavement. And it’s really just a negative part of U.S. history, altogether.”
The prevalence of such memorials stands out in a city that today is majority-black and generally liberal in its political leanings.
Yet New Orleans is awash with them. The monuments to Confederate generals stand in the same company as streets named after prominent Southern slave owners, like Henry Clay, and schools named for staunch segregationists, like Robert Mills Lusher.
This dichotomy has not gone unnoticed in the past. Black residents waged a campaign in the 1990s to change the names of several schools named for slave owners, including William C.C. Claiborne, Louisiana’s first governor. There were 51 such schools in Louisiana when the effort began, said activist Carl Galmon, who led the push. Twenty-six were eventually renamed, he said.
“Those school names were a symbol of racism,” Galmon said. “They represented hate and racism.”
The most recent discussion was sparked by the shooting last week at a South Carolina church that shocked the nation. Dylann Roof, 21, is accused of shooting six black women and three black men to death at a Bible-study meeting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Roof, a self-identified white supremacist, reportedly told a friend he wanted to start a race war.
The shooting has prompted calls for the banishment of the Confederate battle flag from public spaces in South Carolina. The flag was flown for several decades on top of the State Capitol dome in Columbia, but lawmakers agreed as part of a compromise in 2000 to place it across the street and also to add a monument to African-Americans.
The state’s governor, Nikki Haley, said Monday that she supports removing the flag from the grounds of the Capitol.
On Tuesday, Wal-Mart, Amazon, Sears and eBay all said they would stop selling Confederate flag merchandise.
Unlike South Carolina, Louisiana has not flown the Confederate flag over state buildings, and the local discussion has centered on monuments honoring the Confederacy and its leaders.
A stream of Twitter posts on Monday and Tuesday, using the #LeeCircleReplacement, proposed everything from He-Circle, in honor of the Saturday morning cartoon character He-Man; to Brees Circle, after the Saints quarterback; to the site’s original name, Tivoli Circle, as new monikers for the site.
Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said she has been inundated with emails from constituents calling for the removal of the monument to Davis, which is located at Jefferson Davis Parkway and Canal Street.
Not everyone is in support of a change.
Thomas Taylor, commander of the Louisiana Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, characterized the outcry as a “knee-jerk reaction” led by “people with agendas.”
“Because some evil person does an evil deed does not erase history,” Taylor said. “They’re doing their best to change history.”
Taylor said monuments and other tributes to the Confederacy exist to inform residents about the state’s history. He rejects the idea that the symbols are offensive.
“We, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, also deplore what happened in South Carolina,” he said. “But an awful act by an awful person on either side of this agenda doesn’t call for knee-jerk reactions and the attempted rewrite of history.”
When similar controversies have flared up in the past, some academics have argued that removing statues and other markers amounts to an airbrushing of history.
In a 2011 essay, Civil War historian Kevin Levin wrote that such monuments “track the history of the community’s values — and they demonstrate that community’s willingness not to brush aside controversial or embarrassing aspects of its past.”
The early local consensus, however, seems to favor change.
Williams said the monuments to Lee, Davis, Beauregard and the Crescent City White League simply don’t reflect the culture and history of New Orleans.
The latter organization, made up mostly of Confederate veterans, attempted a revolt against the Reconstruction-era state government in New Orleans in 1874 that, among other things, left the superintendent of the Metropolitan Police injured.
“It hearkens to a bygone era in which the power structure of this city was directly related to the White League and the white supremacy movement,” Williams said. “To keep these monuments in place suggests that our power structure is still based upon those things.”
Williams said there are more deserving and less divisive figures in New Orleans history who should be on display. He suggested that a statue of a young Louis Armstrong, perhaps, would be a more fitting display at Lee Circle, “representing the fact that a young delinquent kid could become an ambassador for this country and this city.”
Cantrell said she plans to introduce a motion at the next council meeting requesting a hearing on whether the Jefferson Davis statue should be taken down from its post on the street of the same name. She said she has received a number of letters from constituents supporting its removal.
“The Jeff Davis is the one that really has some momentum around it, particularly after what was experienced after Charleston,” Cantrell said. “I’m going to support the groundswell.”
Williams said he would support public hearings on the broader topic, with the hope that it would bring about more discussions about race and race relations in New Orleans.
“I don’t think there has to be a fight about this. I think there’s value in the conversation about why they were able to last so long in the city,” Williams said. “I don’t think we talk about race enough in this town. I would like to have some conversations that will spur other conversations.”
Tulane University history professor R. Blakeslee Gilpin agreed and said such a conversation should go beyond symbolism and try to address the broader issues of racism and racial inequality in America.
“It is much more than saying, ‘Take down a flag, take down a monument,’ ” Gilpin said. “All those are excellent things to be having a conversation about. But white supremacy and institutional racism should be an ongoing part of the national conversation. Those are things we need to be wrestling with on a more elemental level than a superficial one.”