That the City of New Orleans has the legal authority to remove Confederate-era monuments from prominent public spaces was never really in doubt. Now that U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier has affirmed City Hall’s dominion over city property, the real fighting can begin: What do we do with them now?
Mayor Mitch Landrieu started the debate last summer in the wake of a horrific, racially motivated mass murder in a Charleston church. The young white shooter had posted images of himself with the Confederate battle flag, leading to renewed calls across the South for removing the stars and bars from public view.
Landrieu took it a step further by calling for the removal of local statues honoring Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis, along with an obelisk honoring a white mob that rioted against New Orleans’ biracial police force during Reconstruction. The statues have stood for decades in prominent places, as did the so-called Liberty Monument, until it was consigned to a fairly obscure corner of the French Quarter.
Landrieu called for a community-wide discussion about the four monuments — what they represent today and what message they send about New Orleans. Quite predictably, that discussion ignited passions on all sides of the question.
In the aftermath of Barbier’s ruling, the city promised (via a mayoral spokesman) to warehouse the statues “until further plans can be developed for a private park or museum site where the monuments can be put in a fuller context.”
I’m guessing that the spokesman innocently misspoke when he referred to a “private park” as the ultimate destination for the statues, which, however offensive they may be, nonetheless bear some historic significance. The idea of placing them in a “fuller context” has merit, but only if that fuller context is accessible to the public.
New Orleans has a rich history, some of it shameful and some of it remarkable. In the 1840s and ’50s, our city was a hub of the slave trade. A century later, in the 1950s and ’60s, New Orleans was a hub of the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference here, in Central City. The course of events in that intervening century holds a story — many stories — worth telling.
Even the Civil War holds noteworthy local stories from the “other” side. Robert E. Lee never fought a battle or even spent a day in Louisiana, but in 1860 Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was the head of a military school that ultimately became LSU, which is still affectionately called “the Ole War Skule.”
Louisiana’s 24th governor, publisher P.B.S. Pinchback of New Orleans, became America’s first black governor in late December 1872. Some 20 years later a New Orleans shoemaker named Homer Plessy challenged Louisiana’s racial segregation laws and took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
These are among the many stories that could provide a “fuller context” to the story of New Orleans’ role in the long march from slavery to freedom.