The debate over New Orleans Confederate monuments could become a teaching moment about slavery and the fight for freedom.
  • The debate over New Orleans' Confederate monuments could become a 'teaching moment' about slavery and the fight for freedom.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu did not attend a forum on the fate of local Confederate monuments last Thursday at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. That’s too bad. He might have learned something.

Of course, that’s no guarantee that Hizzoner would have changed his mind on the question of what to do with statues of Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis, along with the monument to the White League riot of 1874. He asked the City Council on July 9 to begin a process that would declare the monuments “nuisances,” ostensibly precipitating their removal.

At the same council meeting, Landrieu gave the appearance of offering the monuments their day in court, even if it was a Judge Roy Bean sort of court. He asked council members to hold public hearings and to get comments from various city agencies (all of which answer to Hizzoner) — before drafting an ordinance declaring them nuisances. The council unanimously adopted a resolution putting that process in motion.

In the wake of the Charleston massacre, there’s little sympathy for the Lost Cause, but at last Thursday’s LEH forum there was quite a bit of interest in history. A panel of distinguished local historians discussed the origins of the White League, efforts to enforce “white supremacy” post-Reconstruction, and the lasting impact of these and other events on African-Americans. The historians were not exactly Confederate sympathizers, but none said take the statues down. Instead, they added much-needed context to the debate over the statues’ future.

Among other things, it was noted that two of the statues — Lee and Beauregard — are on the National Register. Now there’s irony for you: statues honoring a pair of rebels who led armies against the United States are now protected by the feds. That’s sure to spark a lawsuit when Landrieu’s “nuisance” court renders its verdict.

I admit to having mixed, if any, emotions about the statues. Until last Thursday’s forum, I was perfectly okay with taking them down, though I never thought they should be mothballed. I thought perhaps they could be moved to a suitable location and made part of an expanded historical examination of the men and women who played significant roles in the fight for (and against) freedom for all in America.

Now, I’m wondering if it might not be appropriate to expand the narrative (and the number of statues) at each of the current locations instead. Lee Circle, for example, could become “Generals Circle” with the addition of a statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman, who, unlike Lee, actually lived in Louisiana. Sherman resigned as head of what became LSU to fight for the Union.

Similarly, Jefferson Davis Parkway could become “Presidents Avenue” with the addition of a statue of Abe Lincoln. At each site, there could be Internet-based narratives or markers describing the roles that Lee, Sherman, Davis and Lincoln — and possibly others — played in the fight for freedom.

As one of the panelists noted last week, this whole debate could become a “teaching moment” about slavery and its legacy.

That’s a far cry from “nuisance,” but, then again, I’m a history major. Landrieu majored in political science and theater.

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