In advance of public meetings to discuss the future of four New Orleans Confederate and post-Civil War monuments, Mayor Mitch Landrieu invited a select group of citizens to two days of private meetings on the topic this week.
At Landrieu’s request, about 115 people — out of about 650 invited — spent one day each in small groups discussing how they would feel if the monuments were to stay put and if they were to be removed, what might replace them and where the statues should go if they are removed.
The meetings were sponsored by Landrieu’s “Welcome Table New Orleans” initiative on race and racial reconciliation.
The mayor did not attend the meetings, a spokesman said.
The event, like the Welcome Table initiative itself, was overseen by Deputy Mayor Judy Reese Morse, though she did not participate in the discussions.
The Welcome Table initiative is a partnership between the city and 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.
About 75 residents of different racial groups and backgrounds participated in the program’s inaugural class. Last month, after a year of relationship- and trust-building exercises and training on how to deal with the more challenging aspects of race relations, they unveiled the projects they will try to implement in the coming year to ease racial strife.
This week’s sessions, one on Wednesday and another on Thursday, were organized so that residents could listen to one another’s thoughts on the future of the monuments and share their own in a “safe and civil and respectful way,” Morse said.
“While some people may feel the same way that they did when they came this morning, some said, ‘You know, I’m not sure now,’ and a few people even said, ‘My opinion has changed,’ ” Morse said.
The four monuments are the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee atop an imposing column in Lee Circle on St. Charles Avenue; a monument to the Crescent City White League, a white supremacist group during the Reconstruction era, near the foot of Canal Street; a statue honoring Jefferson Davis, the president of the short-lived Confederate States of America, on the parkway also named for him; and a statue of Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard in a traffic circle at the entrance to City Park.
Earlier this month, the City Council voted to begin the legal process that officially would label the monuments as “nuisances.” That measure was proposed by Landrieu, who appeared before the council to urge it to pass an ordinance that would declare the monuments to be nuisances and allow for their removal after holding hearings and soliciting comments and recommendations from various city agencies.
Landrieu also has called for Jefferson Davis Parkway to be renamed for Norman Francis, who retired this summer after 47 years as president of Xavier University.
More than 650 people, including the entire Tricentennial Commission, the presidents of various neighborhood groups and members of the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission and Police Department community advisory boards, were invited to participate in the sessions. The meetings did not result in any formal policy recommendations.
The official process to consider the future of the statues will involve comments and recommendations from the Historic District Landmarks Commission, the Vieux Carre Commission, the City Attorney’s Office, the police superintendent, the director of the Property Management Department and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin.
The city’s Human Relations Commission will hold a public hearing to receive comments from the public.
Initial public sentiment appeared to be mostly in support of Landrieu’s call. But other voices have grown louder recently. Some residents have said removing the statues would be akin to whitewashing history. Others have argued that the city should focus its attention on more pressing issues such as crime and blight.
A group called Save Our Circle said removing the Lee statue “would be irrevocably detrimental to bridging any gap between our fellow New Orleanians.” A change.org petition created by the group has attracted more than 22,000 signatures. A separate group plans to hold a demonstration Saturday to protest Landrieu’s proposal.
Connie Uddo, one of the participants in Thursday’s discussion, said she appreciated the opportunity to learn more about how other people felt about the statues. She said she left the meetings just as undecided about her own feelings as when she arrived, however.
Uddo said she would have preferred if the discussions had centered around concrete issues such as how much it would cost to remove the statues, who would foot the bill and where the monuments would go.
“My question is really, ‘What’s next?’ ” Uddo said. “I just feel like you can talk and talk and talk until the day ends.”
Although Landrieu has called for the monuments’ removal, he has not offered any specific suggestions on what would replace them or who would make that decision.