When it comes to New Orleans’ four disputed Jim Crow-era monuments, put me in the good riddance camp.
I know, I’ve lost many of you already, but some of you on the opposing side lost me many times during this emotional debate, too. Criticize Mayor Mitch Landrieu all you want for basically declaring the removals a done deal before the public had a chance to weigh in. But he’s certainly right that old wounds were so easily reopened because “they didn’t heal right in the first place.”
So maybe we can call it even. And maybe we can talk about where we go from here now that the City Council has voted 6-1 to relocate likenesses of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, along with an already-marginalized obelisk memorializing an 1874 rebellion against Louisiana’s biracial Reconstruction-era government. Because as hard as this conversation was, and as imperfect the process the city followed, the rough shape of a path did start to emerge.
Many voices weighed in on both sides, but the most persuasive arguments in favor of removing the monuments focused on the context of their construction. All four were erected in a time when the power structure enforced a violent backlash against the progress African-Americans had made during the brief Reconstruction era following the abolition of slavery.
It was a time of mass lynchings, as council President Jason Williams recounted in chilling detail from the dais. It was the period in which New Orleanian Homer Plessy’s simple act of civil disobedience — Plessy boarded a rail car and sat in the whites-only section — launched a court case that resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s notorious “separate but equal” standard.
The statues served less as testaments to the men they depicted than to the cause they represented, as propaganda to a particular point of view that dominated a particular time. Looking at them that way, as a number of council members took great care to do, frees the city of the obligation to determine the subjects’ particular merits or judge them by the standards of our time, not theirs.
So it doesn’t matter, for example, that Lee and Beauregard held some views toward slavery that were progressive in their day, or that they had other accomplishments to their names. As Williams pointed out, Lee isn’t depicted atop that giant pillar freeing his own slaves or serving as president of Washington and Lee University, and Beauregard’s statue at the entrance to City Park does not show him pushing for racial reconciliation. Both are in battle garb, taking up arms against our country, in the name of preserving the slave-based economy in what was, thankfully, a losing cause. Think about what it means to continue to celebrate that across our landscape today.
At Thursday’s hearing, several council members engaged in such reflection. James Gray talked of being a descendant of slaves and contended that many New Orleanians have long found the statues offensive, even if they didn’t go around talking about it. Rather than following “the white mayor,” he said, he welcomed Landrieu to a cause he’s long supported.
Williams, too, got deeply personal. “I know what it means to look up at those monuments and feel less than,” he said. Likening the city to a loving parent, he argued that “no decent mother would ever memorialize one child harming the other.”
Even LaToya Cantrell, a harsh critic of the process Landrieu had set in motion, said she can “totally understand” where monument critics are coming from. Cantrell had originally proposed removing the Davis statue before coming out against the proposal, but she ultimately voted with her colleagues to take the monuments down.
Doing so does not erase history, the council members argued, it only recasts which elements of that history are singled out for special recognition, just as the monuments builders’ did more than a century ago.
And that’s where we get to what happens next. Among the many questions prompted by the discussion is whether New Orleans should remove the Andrew Jackson statue from Jackson Square due to his brutal treatment of Native Americans as president, not to mention likenesses of historical figures who owned slaves.
One answer is to apply the same standard that the council did this time, to judge the statues for what they are designed to honor rather than by the subject’s overall worth. Jackson’s prime French Quarter real estate specifically commemorates victory in the Battle of New Orleans. An informational plaque outlining his overall record would be appropriate, but under this approach, the statue could stay.
It’s not a perfect guideline, but it’s a manageable one. It recognizes that there’s no mythical moment when everyone suddenly sees things clearly, that standards evolve, just as urban landscapes do. That’s why the monuments were erected in the first place. Why shouldn’t it be why they come down?
Stephanie Grace’s email address is email@example.com.