Lafayette residents spread a message of unity and anti-racist action Friday as they celebrated a holiday of Black liberation at the feet of Lafayette’s most controversial Confederate statute.
Around 250 people of all ages and races stood in clusters, lounged on the grass and perched in lawn chairs as they celebrated Juneteenth.
One woman positioned a sign reading “Take this trash down!” on her baby’s stroller while others hoisted posters calling for justice for Black Americans killed by law enforcement.
Juneteenth celebrates the anniversary of Union soldiers arriving in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865. Upon arrival, they informed enslaved Black Americans the Civil War had ended in April and they had been freed under President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier. They were the last enslaved population to learn the news because of Confederate control of Texas.
While slavery was formally outlawed with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, Juneteenth is recognized as a day of liberation and an opportunity to celebrate African Americans’ freedom and achievements, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Grace Leyrer, 25, and Tranquella Roberson, 23, friends and history master’s students at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said they keenly felt the power and symbolism of protesting and supporting Black lives in front of a symbol reflecting White power ideals on Juneteenth -- the Gen. Alfred Mouton statute at the intersection of Lee Avenue and Jefferson Street.
Roberson, a Black Opelousas native, said the statue has always made her uncomfortable and its presence in front of city property sends a clear and unsettling message.
“Its sole purpose is to intimidate people and to put fear into people,” Roberson said. “It was put up to tell a certain type of history and that’s not what we want to be told anymore.”
“We know these monuments serve a very specific agenda that doesn’t have much to do with real historical research,” Leyrer said.
Leyrer, a White woman, has attended two previous protests and said sustained physical presence and activity is important to empower other likeminded people to speak out, especially in a conservative city like Lafayette.
The two women said they want to see the statue come down. Roberson said its removal would not be an erasure of history; people can still celebrate Mouton’s accomplishments or local relevance in private, but history is nuanced and a former slaveholder and Confederate leader does not need to be celebrated in a public space, she said.
The push to remove the Gen. Alfred Mouton statue has grown as calls swell nationwide for the removal of Confederate monuments as part of a larger racial justice movement catalyzed by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by Minneapolis police officers May 25.
Statues have been removed by municipalities or toppled by protestors across the country. In New Orleans, protestors toppled the statue of John McDonogh, a slaveholder and real-estate and shipping magnate, during a protest Saturday and rolled the bust into the Mississippi River. It was later recovered and returned to the City of New Orleans.
The Mouton statue was unveiled in 1922 during the Jim Crow era as a gift from the Mouton chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to the city. Mouton, a Confederate leader, was born in Opelousas and later settled in Lafayette, where he was a landowner and slaveholder.
Move the Mindset President Fred Prejean and 14 others are challenging a permanent injunction in a 1980 lawsuit in the 15th Judicial District Court that prevents city officials from moving the statue. Prejean and others argue the statue is a symbol of Black oppression and White supremacy and does not deserve prominent placement on public property.
A hearing on their court filing is set for Aug. 17. Prejean cautioned protestors Friday not to take illegal action and attempt to remove the statute personally, rather championing an official removal by the local government. Feet away, a Lafayette Police Department mobile surveillance unit was stationed on Jefferson Street overlooking the statue.
Prejean explained the history of the legal battle to remove the statue and detailed the Black community’s struggle for equality over hundreds of years. From slavery, to Jim Crow policies of segregation and oppression, to the unequal application of the criminal justice system today, the United States of America has never delivered on its motto, E Pluribus Unum — “Out of many, one” — for Black people and people of color, Prejean said.
“Our nation has always been many, but we have never been one,” Prejean said.
A White man in a minivan drove down Jefferson Street during Prejean’s speech, shouting profanities and heckling the crowd, as attendees shouted back.
The activist praised the 250 or so residents gathered. He said the current nationwide protest movement has revealed the damaging undercurrents of American society. The multitude of people of all races and backgrounds rallying for equality is strong enough to produce substantial change, he said.
“This is a turning point and you are part of it,” Prejean said.