Amid a burgeoning national and local discussion about the appropriateness of Confederate flags and other symbols of white supremacy, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Wednesday that he believes it’s time to replace divisive monuments and symbols with ones that reflect unity, peace and the city’s culture.
Monuments such as the imposing statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the St. Charles Avenue traffic circle also named for Lee belong in museums, not outdoor public spaces, Landrieu said.
“We would never want to deny history,” Landrieu said. “Robert E. Lee was a very important historical figure, not only in the city of New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, but nationally as well. But whether or not that’s the appropriate place to recognize him is open for discussion.”
Landrieu’s comments came one week after nine black people were murdered at a church in South Carolina. Dylan Roof, a 21-year-old self-identified white supremacist, 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 in Charleston.
The governors of South Carolina and Alabama have since called for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from state grounds, and several major retailers, including Wal-Mart, have said they will no longer carry products depicting the flag.
Landrieu called the recent national movement to remove the flag from public places fortuitous, as he and members of the committees he has assembled to plan for the city’s 300th anniversary celebration already had begun talking about the appropriateness of monuments like the one at Lee Circle.
Others include a monument to the Crescent City White League, a white supremacist group, located near the foot of Canal Street, and monuments honoring Jefferson Davis, the president of the short-lived Confederate States of America, and Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard.
Landrieu said he himself only came to understand how offensive the Lee statue was when celebrated jazz trumpeter and New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis pointed it out to him in October.
“He said, ‘I don’t like the fact that Lee Circle is named Lee Circle.’ And I said ‘Why?’ ” Landrieu recounted Wednesday.
Landrieu said Marsalis asked to him to contemplate Lee’s role in history, particularly in the Confederacy, and whether he reflected the city.
“And I’m ashamed to tell you that I had never thought about it before,” Landrieu said. “I have either walked by or run by or drove by that piece of real estate my entire life, and so he got in my head ... and he made me start thinking about it.”
It is not clear how the process of removing the markers — if officials decide to proceed — will be done. Landrieu said taking a monument down would likely require action by the City Council in the form of an ordinance, which would include a period of public comment.
Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said this week that she intends to introduce a motion at the next council meeting calling for a hearing on the removal of the Davis monument at Jefferson Davis Parkway and Canal Street.
Landrieu said streets named for white supremacists, among them Lee and Davis, are also “in play,” but he said he was calling less for “wholesale change” than “an open and honest conversation about what the symbols reflect.”
While some markers, such as the one commemorating the Crescent City White League’s uprising or the statue honoring Davis, might simply be removed, others, such as the Lee statue, might logically call for some sort of replacement.
Landrieu said little about what he thinks such new monuments might look like or whom they should honor, other than his view that they should reflect values such as “unity” and peace.
“It ought to reflect the wonderful things that bring us together as a people,” Landrieu said. He said a symbol recognizing the “cultural progress we’ve made as a city, especially centered on the arts,” would be appropriate at the Lee Circle site.
Landrieu’s call for the monuments’ removal came during an event aimed at racial reconciliation that was held at the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts on Wednesday morning. The event was the culmination of the first year of a three-year program aimed at improving race relations in New Orleans.
The “Welcome Table New Orleans” initiative is a partnership with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. It is funded by a three-year, $1.2 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The Urban League of Greater New Orleans is also a partner in the effort.
Residents of different racial groups and backgrounds were divided into three groups of no more than 25 people apiece last year. Over that time, they participated in relationship- and trust-building exercises and underwent education and training about how to deal with the more challenging aspects of race relations.
Participants on Wednesday unveiled the projects they will begin working to implement in the coming year to help ease racial strife. The efforts include a public art installation in Algiers, the creation of historical markers honoring local leaders who worked to bridge the racial divide and intimate conversations and “story circles” about race in the St. Roch neighborhood.