Those New Orleans CSA monuments

Mitch Landrieu has weighed in in favor of removing four prominent white supremacist Civil War monuments from New Orleans, saying they “belie our progress and do not reflect who we truly are.”

Good for Mitch! They certainly don’t reflect who we are; and they only ever reflected who we were one the condition that we is taken to mean white New Orleanians only.

The four are the Robert E. Lee statue in Lee circle (certainly the most prominent NOLA landmark in the bunch), the Beauregard statue near the Art Museum, the Jeff Davis statue, and the White League monument behind the Aquarium — the latter being quite frankly a white supremacist monument with nothing really to do with the Civil War at all (read about the White League and all that in Justin Nystrom’s book).

I’ve had a problem with these monuments ever since living here. It’s not that I would object to some sort of battle memorial to honor Civil War soldiers on both sides. But these are not that; historically they date to the Lost Cause/Jim Crow period when elite white Southerners were very consciously and frankly trying to reclaim the narrative, build a new repressive racial regime, and turn the loss in the war into a win on the battlefield of historical memory (and doing it very successfully, with results we still live with today).

It’s also striking how this city has so few monuments to anything else; how this 58% black city with a rich history of black civic activism and cultural achievement still wears, on its public face, the look of the Lost Cause. Of course Louis Armstrong is everywhere. But what about Homer Plessy? He has a small plaque near the site where he boarded a whites-only streetcar. What about Albion Tourgee or Rodolphe Desdunes? I’d be OK with keeping Lee and Beauregard around if we could honor some of those who fought to make the South more, not less equal.

I’m OK with the Jackson statue; to me it represents unionism, which is an important value, and the very opposite of what the CSA stood for, obviously. (In the eyes of most visitors to the city, admittedly, the Jackson statue is probably of a piece with the Confederate ones.) I’m also OK with the John McDonogh memorial; just the bare fact of having been a slaveholder, when slavery was legal, should not be an automatic disqualification. The fact is that McDonogh not only developed a plan of self-purchase, emancipation, and re-Africanization for his slaves, which for all its flaws was more enlightened than anything 99% of Louisiana slaveholders at the time were willing to countenance. He also donated his vast fortune to endowing the public school systems of both Baltimore and New Orleans (his birth and adoptive cities, respectively) — and what stronger statement in favor of democracy and equality could there be than supporting public education? Would that McDonogh’s successors in the New Orleans business elite shared the same values.


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