Los Angeles Times

Take down these statues

Confederat­e and white supremacis­t monuments are a hurtful insult to the people of New Orleans.

- By Anne Gisleson Anne Gisleson is the author of “The Futilitari­ans,” forthcomin­g from Little, Brown.

Last year my high school students and I took a Hidden History tour of New Orleans’ French Quarter with historian Leon A. Waters. He showed us overlooked, unmarked sites of African American and civil rights history among the neighborho­od’s T-shirt shops and famed cast-iron balconies. The second-to-last stop was the Liberty Monument, an obelisk stashed away between the garage of an upscale shopping mall and a floodwall of the Mississipp­i River.

As my students read the plaque, they were visibly shaken: It honored the Reconstruc­tion-era paramilita­ry White League’s attack on local government, killing more than 100 people, including several black police officers. They were even more shocked to learn that some residents were still fighting to preserve it.

Over the years, the white supremacis­t monument had been relocated and its wording modified, but it was still standing until last week, when it was finally removed — the first of four Confederat­e monuments that the New Orleans City Council voted to take down. Because of death threats received by contractor­s, and the volatile nature of the public debate, it was dismantled in the dead of night by masked workers in flack jackets, snipers at the ready. The other monuments depict Confederat­e President Jefferson Davis, Gen. Robert E. Lee, and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, and unlike the Liberty Monument, all are positioned on prominent thoroughfa­res.

One persistent argument for preserving such monuments is that they are part of the landscape we grew up in, our history, our memories — and thus part of who we are. As a white New Orleanian who spent an unquestion­ing childhood seeing movies at the Robert E. Lee Theater and riding the Jefferson Davis Parkway, I might once have agreed. But just one afternoon of walking the French Quarter with someone who has a radically different relationsh­ip to our built environmen­t helped me understand the depth of pain these memorials have inflicted on fellow New Orleanians.

New Orleans was already more than 150 years old when a minority of moneyed white men seeking to rehabilita­te the image of the defeated Confederat­es installed these monuments against the best interests of much of the citizenry. They are ideologica­l symbols meant to assert power over our public spaces, a fact that became palpable during a contentiou­s City Council debate on the removal plan. When a gray-haired preservati­onist in a bow tie stood up and gave the finger to removal advocates, I understood that those statues, just part of our landscape, high up on plinths and columns, have been giving the finger to the majority of New Orleanians for generation­s. Giving the finger to the people who create our vibrant culture and drive our economy, to our celebrator­y and joyful customs, to the true heart of a diverse, if sometimes fractious port city. To our past and our future.

The legacy of slavery is very much still a part of our city’s landscape: poverty, the persistent segregatio­n of our public schools, pay inequity, lack of affordable housing, our high incarcerat­ion rates. I was hoping to take my children to see the Lee monument removed, alongside other New Orleanians, so we could share a rare and badly needed moment of civic reckoning. Share one of the most important moments of a generation: a public, ceremonial dismantlin­g of these monuments to racism, in broad daylight.

Instead, because of security concerns, fear and politics, it looks as though the removals might continue to take place under cover of darkness by masked and armed men. Which feels altogether wrong. As the city’s tricentenn­ial approaches next year, we have the opportunit­y to choose which values to honor, create the landscape that will shape future generation­s, replace divisive symbols of revisionis­t history with more inclusive landmarks truer to the city’s spirit and its past. While the mayor has shown surprise at how the “community has torn itself apart” over the issue, there’s been little transparen­cy from city government, and so far we have only vague public plans for what replaces the monuments, no clear process for healing.

The final stop on Waters’ tour was another monument some are calling to remove: U.S. Justice Edward Douglass White in bronze, tent-like robes. A former Confederat­e and member of the White League, which was responsibl­e for black voter suppressio­n and countless black deaths, he voted with the majority on the U.S. Supreme Court against local civil rights pioneer Homer A. Plessy in the landmark “separate but equal” decision.

This fall, Homer A. Plessy Community School, an openaccess public school whose racial make-up reflects the city, is moving to the French Quarter. My son is a student there, and I’m eager for his class to take Waters’ tour, be inspired by the bravery, accomplish­ments and struggles they encounter on it. My hope is that their generation will grow up with a more honest and informed relationsh­ip to the city’s history than I had, will help move the city into a better future. I wonder what their thoughts will be when they arrive at White’s statue, just blocks from their school.

 ?? Gerald Herbert Associated Press ?? WORKERS wearing masks and f lak jackets dismantle the Liberty Monument in New Orleans overnight this month.
Gerald Herbert Associated Press WORKERS wearing masks and f lak jackets dismantle the Liberty Monument in New Orleans overnight this month.

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