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Monumentally clueless

Tearing down statues of slavers brings out the worst of Louisiana politics

Jim Gabour
10 May 2017
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The real monuments of modern New Orleans: oaks damaged in Katrina, covered in "Resurrection ferns" after rain

 

Maybe you heard about it on the evening news or national print:  the New Orleans city government is trying to remove statues in New Orleans.  The Louisiana state government is trying to stop them.  

 A group called “Take ‘Em Down NOLA” is helping push the city into action.  A group called the “Monumental Task Commission” is pushing the state to inaction.

There are four structures involved.  The only one not depicting a person is, however, the most overtly objectionable of the three. The Battle of Liberty Place obelisk was erected in 1891 to honor members of the Crescent City White League who fought in the 1874 Reconstruction era against the racially integrated New Orleans police and state militia.   

The obelisk had long been a source of racial contention:

 An inscription added in 1932 said the Yankees withdrew federal troops and “recognized white supremacy in the South” after the group challenged Louisiana’s biracial government after the civil war.

 In 1993, these words were covered by a granite slab with a new inscription, saying the obelisk honors “Americans on both sides” who died and that the conflict “should teach us lessons for the future”.

It was taken down from its original spot at the foot of Canal Street during roadwork in the late 1980s and put up again only on orders from a federal court. In the 1993 compromise, the revised monument was placed in a less conspicuous spot between a garage and the Mississippi River floodwall.

The monument was finally taken down on April 24 in the middle of the night by workers wearing flak jackets and scarves to conceal their identities.  This past weekend white people with guns and Confederate flags confronted larger crowds of mixed races holding “Confederates Go Home” placards, on each of the other three sites.  It was not pretty.

The whole idea is not pretty.  But in spite of the seeming historic relevance, it is petty.

Supposedly, the argument for the removal of the three depictions of Confederate “heroes” is that they stood for slavery.  And slavery was, and is, wrong, no doubting that.  Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, and two of his generals, Robert E. Lee and the local boy P.G.T. Beauregard, upheld the Southern states’ rights to own slaves.  Bronze replicas of each man now stand atop pedestals.  

But Beauregard came home with the idea that he would make amends:

 After the war, though, he returned to New Orleans and seems to have devoted himself to repairing that damage; he led a group called the Reform Party, pushing for broad civil rights, integrated schools, equal access to public transportation, and – extraordinarily, at the time – voting rights for black men.

Still, the liberal city government wants P.G.T. down.  At the more conservative state level many “public servants,” including the porcine publicity hound of a Lieutenant Governor, want him to stay up and have even asked for help from the new President in enforcing the monuments’ permanence.

Oddly, he and his cohorts do not wish the statue of the slave-holding ex-president Andrew Jackson removed from its prominent position at the center of Jackson Square, where tourists snap hundreds of shots per hour as ‘Drew tips his hat to St. Louis Cathedral, 24 hours a day.  Known as “The People’s President,” when he died Jackson still held 150 slaves at his plantation, The Hermitage.

Thomas Jefferson fought for the abolition of slavery while he himself held 600 in chains.  He was the worst sort of racist (“as incapable as children”), but sired six children by one of his mixed-race servants.  His final solution was to remove all slaves from the U.S., and ship them elsewhere.  But upon his death he released only five men, and willed the rest of his slaves to family as inherited property.  

No one has asked that the Jefferson monument be deconstructed.  

In all, fourteen of the “Founding Fathers” held slaves at one point:

Charles Carroll, Maryland
Samuel Chase, Maryland
Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania
Button Gwinnett, Georgia
John Hancock, Massachusetts
Patrick Henry, Virginia
John Jay, New York
Thomas Jefferson, Virginia
Richard Henry Lee, Virginia
James Madison, Virginia
Charles C Pinckney, South Carolina
Benjamin Rush, Pennsylvania
Edward Rutledge, South Carolina
George Washington, Virginia


Yes, kindly Ben Franklin, Patrick (“Give me liberty or give me death!”) Henry, and the very first chief executive George Washington all owned slaves.  There are statues of each of these revered people all over America.  No word at all about the removal of those monuments.  Of course they did not live to be tainted by the Civil War, but still, had they lived with their valuable human property intact, they might have objected to being forced to set them free.

I understand the sensibilities of a majority African-American community that is faced with these daily reminders that their ancestors were brought to this country chained in the holds of ships like logs, as chattel rather than human beings.  They want these vestiges of that mind-set erased from this, their city, and are determined to do so.  They have a righteous cause, but as always, local, state and now national politicians are using the calls to action for their own advancement. The result is rather like the instant national appearance of Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson at the site of any and all racial tragedies.  They are really not there to help the locals.  These men arrive solely for personal  face time on the media. The “concerned” politicos showing up in New Orleans these days giving soundbites taint a worthy cause by stirring up the anxiety and fear, but are wrapping themselves in the stars and stripes as protection.

 Too bad the people who are in favor of keeping the New Orleans statues are an even more unlikable lot.  And too bad so many people from elsewhere have invaded our beautiful Spring with carloads of hatred, confederate flags and long guns.  People like the Lieutenant Governor are using their opposition to the statues’ removal to court racist right wing conservatives in their constituencies, counting on the approval of Trump “populists” as a foot up on the next election.  Democratic New Orleans voted for Hillary Clinton, while the rural areas of Louisiana were heavily Trump.  Rather like London and the rural countryside in Brexit.  So to get the votes of the rest of the state, Republicans are trying to force New Orleans to accept their conservative agenda.  Wrapped in the stars and bars as instigation, they are self-inflated characters in a badly bloated stageplay.

Like many, I personally do not like being coerced to do anything.  I habitually resist being railroaded in any direction, so I had hoped that somehow this conflict would get settled amicably, and not be put under the political magnifying glass to result in another scorched mark on the city I love.  I have no investment in whether the statues come or go.  They have always merely been innocuous background to my life in this town, an easily-located meeting place or just part of the decor of live oaks and neighborly love that normally fills this place.  

A lot of those massive oak trees died after Katrina.  Seventy percent of our green cover had to be cut down and removed.  These living monuments were much more beloved by the people who live here than anything made of bronze.  We mourned the loss of centuries worth of oaks, but we replanted and continued to live and thrive.

We keep on growing.

This will be over soon.  The instigators will return to their own turf and we will be left on our own once again, to find our blundering way through the city’s 300th year.  

Memorial statues are unimportant to the progress of our actual lives.

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The real monuments of modern New Orleans: oaks damaged in Katrina, covered in "Resurrection ferns" after rain

 

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