New Orleans, like many Southern cities, contains statues of leading figures of the Confederacy, including Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Robert E. Lee (set on a pedestal in Lee Circle, the monument to the Confederate general faces north, so he never turns his back to his enemies). But the city also has a more unique monument related to the Civil War and Reconstruction era, a granite obelisk which celebrates what’s known as the Battle of Liberty Place. In the fall of 1874, the Crescent City White League, a white paramilitary group, led an attempted uprising against the state’s integrated government, holding the statehouse for three days before federal troops arrived. The insurrection was celebrated by a statue erected in 1891 by the then Democratic government, which also rolled back the voting rights of blacks.
The monument has a tricky history, having been celebrated, decried, hidden from view, moved to a less prominent place in the city, and even footnoted (an inscription added in 1974 noted, in part, that "the sentiments in favor of white supremacy expressed thereon are contrary to the philosophy and beliefs of present-day New Orleans"). And, after repeated protest and petitions, and the tragic shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, last July, the city’s current Mayor, Mitch Landrieu, decided to pursue its removal, along with a trio of other statues representing Confederate leaders. While the City Council passed a resolution supporting the move in December, supporters of the monument, most notably the Monumental Task Committee, have fought in court to preserve its place in public.
"The idea that New Orleans would vote for removing this monument, it was a sea change," says Blain Roberts, an associate professor of history at California State University, Fresno, who wrote about confederate monuments for The Atlantic and is working on a book about the memory of slavery. "New Orleans voted to take down four monuments. But what’s going to happen to them? The public momentum is for taking them down, but where do they go? The confederate museum across the street, or in a park that offers a good amount of public interpretation?"
The fight over the Battle of Liberty Place and other monuments in New Orleans is just one of a growing number of recent public debates over the proper place for public monuments commemorating Confederate figures, or those with a racist or discriminatory past. Movements started in communities and on college campuses across the country, by groups such as Students Unite, are reassessing the full weight of statues and monuments. And it’s not just Confederate monuments in the United States. Princeton students have staged protests over Woodrow Wilson's legacy on campus, while overseas, students at Oxford have fought to remove statues of colonialist Cecil Rhodes (similar ones were successfully removed at the University of Cape Town in South Africa). In the midst of protests and calls for removal, many are asking about how to strike the correct balance between historical preservation and remembrance and racial sensitivity.
"It struck such a chord over the last year because it dovetailed with the Black Lives Matter protests of state sanctioned violence against black people," says Ethan J. Kytle, a professor and colleague of Roberts collaborating on the book. "Dylann Roof pledging allegiance to the Confederate flag after killing people in Charleston, South Carolina, connected people to the issue in a more immediate way."
"More people are seeing these monuments now," says Roberts. "They’re not fading into the background anymore."
Both Kytle and Roberts have been surprised at speed at which this issue has been pushed to the forefront over the last year. The idea that African Americans would be unhappy with, and want to move or take down, statues and symbols of the Confederacy isn’t new. The flag had been a source of controversy long before activist Bree Newsome removed the stars and bars from a flagpole in front of the Charleston Capitol last summer. Writer and intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that "To me, naturally, the stars and bars of the Confederacy are more than insult," in 1952, and the NAACP had been pushing an economic boycott of South Carolina over the issue for the last 15 years.
"Confederate monuments are monuments to what we consider bad history," says Kytle. "But what’s really wrong with them is they’re bad interpretations of history and a troubling event. For so long, supporters have said they're about state’s right and freedom, when we've known for so long that the war was about slavery. That’s bad history. Focusing on those monuments to the common soldier somehow suggests the idea that the soldier’s motives were separate from the bigger struggle."
Supporters of these monuments say their removal would both set a bad precedent and dishonor the service of veterans. Michael Landree, Executive Director of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, argues that destroying or moving these monuments would do a disrespect to those who raised the funds to build them, as well as dishonor those who may have been benefactors to universities and other public institutions. "In many instances, these colleges and communities would not exist without their philanthropic work to rebuild the destroyed communities and advance the education of the people," he wrote in an email.
He also feels this movement toward reconsideration and removal does a disservice to history and art preservation, and as a veteran himself, who served 28 years and four combat tours, he suggests this also sets up a slippery slope, where war memorials may be moved or destroyed when the political winds change. What about, say, the statue of General Sherman in front of the U.S. Capitol Building. "He burned, looted, and raped across Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina," writes Landree, and destroyed Native American cultures. Is he next?"
While both sides may disagree about the the statues, many on either side of the issue believe that their removal or destruction isn't necessarily the answer. Both Roberts and Kytle, and others, also feel that history perhaps isn’t best served by erasing these monuments from public view. As they suggest in their article for The Atlantic, Take Down the Confederate Flags, but Not the Monuments, while the flag can be seen as a symbol for state-sanctioned violence, and should be removed from government buildings, monuments and statues offer a fuller accounting of history and a way to contextualize what has happened.
"They were part of the daily lives of southerners for decades, especially black southerners," says Roberts. "A community taking down a monument needs to have a full discussion about what happens when you take it down."
Kytle and Roberts noted numerous strategies that could be used to contextualize these monuments. Placing accompanying monuments to slavery or African-American history adjacent to Confederate statues can provoke a dialogue. Another potential solution is on display in Budapest, Hungary. Memento Park was set up shortly after the fall of Communism, and contains a collection of statues of leaders such as Lenin and Stalin, providing context around that period of the country’s history without destroying the artwork.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation also believes in keeping and contextualizing historic statues and sites. According to a statement from President Stephanie Meeks from December, while she notes that individual communities should make their own decisions regarding the status of their monuments, it's important to keep in mind that these monuments reflect the eras in which they were created and allow us to confront our sometimes troubling past.
"At the Trust, we believe we actually need more historic sites properly interpreted, to help us contextualize and come to terms with this difficult past," she said. "That is why it is essential to save diverse places that tell our full story."
New Orleans is still figuring out final plans for the Confederate monuments in question. According to Hayne Rainey, the Press Secretary for the New Orleans’s Mayor’s Office, the city will seek public bids from contractors for moving the monuments going forward. Once removed, the monuments will be stored in a city-owned warehouse until further plans can be developed for a private park or museum site in New Orleans where the monuments can be put in a fuller context.
It's a debate that continues for many communities over similar statutes and monuments.
"These monuments are also products of a Jim Crow culture, put up be people who fought for white supremacy," says Kytle. "If you read the addresses given at the time, they were testaments to a Jim Crow culture. One of our fears is that when you take these down, we’ll lose the fact that as a nation, we put up hundreds if not thousands of these monuments to white supremacy. What does it mean that they celebrated white supremacy for so long?"