When people think of New Orleans, many imagine festive purple, green and gold beads, delicious gumbo, jazz music and spicy jambalaya. But in recent weeks, the Big Easy has become embroiled in an emotional debate over its Confederate past as city leaders, activists and residents scramble to make sense of how to honor New Orleans' history while also confronting the controversial Confederate symbolism apparent on almost every street.
New Orleans' tense discourse over whether to remove four high-profile Confederate monuments scattered across the city and rename the Jefferson Davis Parkway comes amid a national conversation on race and symbolism after a white man inspired by supremacist ideologies gunned down nine people at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina last month. In New Orleans, proponents for keeping Confederate symbols in public spaces said that honoring the country’s Civil War past is essential to remembering its history. Others, however, said that in order to heal and move forward from the nation’s dark relationship with racism, government leaders must distance themselves from the Confederate symbols that have wounded so many. The question is a heated one: What is the right way to acknowledge the nation’s Confederate past while still moving forward?
“We shouldn’t be honoring people who fought to enslave other human beings. That is something that shouldn’t be celebrated," said Robert Gilpin, author of the book "John Brown Still Lives! America's Long Reckoning With Violence, Equality, and Change" and a history professor at Tulane University in New Orleans. "However, thinking about tearing down monuments is scary because acting like they were never there might be even worse than leaving them there."
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu called on the City Council July 9 to remove the Confederate monuments and rename the city's Jefferson Davis Parkway. A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee sits on top of a large column in Lee Circle on St. Charles Avenue. A monument to the Crescent City White League, a white supremacist group during the Reconstruction era, is located near the city's famous Canal Street. The other two monuments include a statue that honors Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederate States of America, and a statue of the Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard situated near the New Orleans Museum of Art.
While there has been massive support for Landrieu’s proposal, there has also been a significant amount of backlash. "Save Our Circle," a group dedicated to preserving the Confederate monuments, has collected 17,500 signatures for a petition asking the mayor to cease all talks to relocate, rename or remove the monuments, and those signatures were growing at about 1,000 per day. The group is worried that if the monuments are removed, the fabric of the city will begin to unravel.
“If these monuments fall to his (the mayor's) political agenda, then no symbols are sacred,” said Tim Shea Carroll, leader of the “Save Our Circle” movement, in an e-mail. “All symbols, buildings, organizations, or streets that are perceived to have similar history to these monuments can and will be targeted. The community could be irrevocably damaged."
New Orleans has a dark and direct history with the Civil War. It was the largest city in the Confederacy and was occupied by the Union in April of 1862, which was viewed as a significant event in the war. The Capture of New Orleans resulted in 782 Confederate soldiers killed and wounded, and 6,000 captured. After New Orleans fell to the Union, Union troops were able to successfully take control of much of the lower Mississippi.
Centuries later, Gilpin said that New Orleans is the most clannish and ancestral place he has ever lived, with people who introduce themselves as "tenth generation" residents. It is also a majority African-American city. A 2015 census found that New Orleans is 60.2 percent African-American and 33 percent white. In 2007, 28.9 percent of businesses were black-owned.
“Louisiana has beautiful cultural things that everyone wants to celebrate, but it also has the darkest antebellum history of anyplace in America,” Gilpin said. “Slavery took over and never let go. You wonder ... while the terrorist violence of Reconstruction and beyond was taking place and groups of whites citizens gathered together and thought, 'Well, let’s put up a statue of Robert E. Lee,’ what were they trying to say?"
The City Council recently unanimously adopted Landrieu’s proposal to begin a 60-day process of discussions and meetings on the Confederate symbols. After the hearings, which are currently underway, the City Council may declare the Confederate monuments a nuisance and provide for their removal. A monument deemed a nuisance “honors, praises, or fosters ideologies which are in conflict with the requirements of equal protection for citizens as provided by the Constitution and the laws of the United States," according to a 1993 city ordinance.
“To maintain these symbols as we move toward our future seems to belie our progress and does not reflect who we truly are or who we want to be,” Landrieu said in a recent speech. “How can we expect to inspire a nation when our most prominent public spaces are dedicated to the reverence of the fight for bondage and supremacy of our fellow Americans? These ideals never really belonged in a city as great as New Orleans and whose life blood flows from our diversity.”
City Councilman Jared C. Brossett, who represents a district that includes the University of New Orleans and Dillard University, said the majority of his constituents want the monuments taken down, but he has heard opinions from both sides of the argument.
“We are a city with a bright future and by facing the issue of racial tension that continues to exist, I think we can move forward in a spirit of healing those tensions by removing the monuments,” Brossett said. “I think it’s time to look to symbols of unity and advancement and not division and stagnation. We have people of diverse backgrounds and we will continue to live together side by side.”
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For the Rev. Shawn Anglim, a pastor at the First Grace United Methodist Church, the issue hits close to home. The church was founded after Hurricane Katrina and merged a historically black church with a historically white church, creating a diverse congregation. The integrated church sits directly across the street from the Jefferson Davis monument, a daily reminder of the country’s segregated past. Anglim said the monument sitting across from the church belongs in a museum, and not in a public space.
“The mayor has asked this question: ‘Moving forward, do these monuments celebrate who we are as New Oreleaners, our culture and what we claim to be? Do they celebrate music, food, culture and joy?'” Anglim said. “I think a lot of people would say that these monuments do not. I felt it was my own call to say this monument does not celebrate our life together. The monuments were not put up to unite people, but to divide people.”