At the end of a ceremony celebrating the one-year anniversary of Welcome Table New Orleans, a forum on race and reconciliation supported by the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, Mayor Mitch Landrieu dragged a folding chair to the lip of the stage at the Mahalia Jackson Theater and followed a dozen anecdotes about the history of race in New Orleans with a hypothetical story.
"I began to envision myself as an African-American man driving down the street with my little girl behind me, approaching Lee Circle and her saying, 'Hey daddy, that's a really nice statue. What is that? It's so pretty,'" the mayor said at the event June 24. "I say, 'Well, honey, that's General Lee.'"
Landrieu improvised the exchange, leaning toward the audience, his voice soft and theatrical. "And she says, 'Well, who was General Lee?'" he continued. "'Well, he was a great general. He fought in great wars for great things.' 'Well what kind of great wars for great things?' 'Well, the one we know him for is the Civil War.' ... 'Wow. He fought for me?' 'No, no, no baby, I'm sorry. I wasn't clear with you. He didn't fight for you. He was for the other side.' 'Oh, well why is that there? Is there another circle in the city that's for me?'
"And you see, right now I can't answer that question, as a dad," he concluded.
The mayor paused, then said: "So, here's what I think: I think today's the day we start having the discussion about what we're going to put [at Lee Circle] to celebrate our 300th anniversary."
The audience erupted in applause.
The mayor proposed the replacement of three other statues in New Orleans — the Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard equestrian statue at one of the entrances to City Park, the Jefferson Davis Monument on Jefferson Davis Parkway, and the Liberty Monument (honoring the Crescent City White League), which was moved in 1993 from Canal Street to its current, obscure location near the riverfront.
Recent debates about America's relationship with symbols of racism (particularly the Confederate flag) were sparked by the violent shooting of nine African-Americans during a Bible study at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Landrieu said Grammy Award-winning New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis suggested replacing the statue of Robert E. Lee and renaming Lee Circle during earlier discussions about the city's tricentennial "because symbols really do matter," Landrieu said.
The mayor was quick to add that removing Robert E. Lee from Lee Circle should not be viewed as an attempt to erase history.
"We should never forget our history, just like we would never ignore the concentration camps in Auschwitz, just like you could never deny that the Confederacy existed," he said. "The question that's confronting the country today is whether or not those symbols should be on prominent places of adoration that reflect who we are today as a people."
Landrieu was vague when asked at a press conference about the timeline and specifics of removing the statue and renaming the street.
"My best guess is that the forum is going to be anywhere and everywhere as a result of this announcement today," he said. "People will be talking about it on street corners, at home."
As for whether Landrieu would go about changing other controversial street names and statues, such as Jefferson Davis Parkway, Landrieu said he was not trying to call for a wholesale change but that he wants to open the conversation about these places and what they represent.
New Orleans District E Councilman James Gray told Gambit the Lee Circle announcement was "welcome news."
"I think it was something that was going to become an issue," Gray said, "and I think the mayor did what any good leader would do and he got ahead of it."
As for a timeline, Landrieu said he hopes Lee Circle will be renamed sooner rather than later, but definitely before 2018's tricentennial.