On July 23, Louisiana Cultural Vistas hosted a public forum on the history and debated fate of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans that have been targeted for removal or relocation by Mayor Mitch Landrieu. These include the statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and P. G. T. Beauregard and Confederate president Jefferson Davis, along with the obelisk marking the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place. The following is an audio recording of the panel discussion among four scholars moderated by David Johnson, editor of the magazine.
David Johnson: In preparing for this panel, I was reminded of a familiar quote by William Faulkner which perhaps many of us have heard. He said, “The past is never dead … it’s not even past.” Here we are, in Lincolnesque terms, seven score and ten years after the Civil War and we’re discussing the fallout from that long-ago conflict.
I want to welcome and commend all our panelists tonight. For historians, this is a minefield. This is not easy for people to come up and address. One thing I would say is [let’s keep] a deep respect for their profession. When you have a toothache, you go to the dentist, when you have a clogged drain, you go to a plumber, and when you have issues with history, you should go to a historian. We have four of the best here tonight.
With that, I’m going to introduce each of our panelists. I’ll start with Laura Rosanne Adderley. She is an associate professor of history in the School of Liberal Arts at Tulane University were she teaches African-American and Caribbean history, specializing in the history of black enslavement, emancipation and the slave trade, especially in the 19th century. She also directs the program in African Studies and serves as a Tulane member on the board of the Amistad Research Center.
Next to her is Molly Mitchell. She is an associate professor at the University of New Orleans where she serves as the Ethel and Herman L. Midlo Endowed Chair, Joseph Tregle Professor of Early American History. She received her PhD from New York University in 2001 and she is the author of Raising Freedom’s Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future After Slavery, which was published in 2008. She’s also the co-director of freedomonthemove.org, a database of all fugitive slave ads in North America, which I knows she’s currently working on.
We also have Justin Nystrom. He has taught at Loyola University here in New Orleans since 2009. He received his PhD in American History from University of Georgia in 2004. At Loyola, Justin teaches courses on the Civil War and Reconstruction, the New South, New Orleans history and an interdisciplinary first-year seminar. He’s also the founding director of the Documentary and Oral History Studio at Loyola University and is the author of New Orleans After the Civil War: Race, Politics and a New Birth of Freedom. He was also recently asked to join the National Park Service’s board for which they will be observing the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction now that they’ve just finished the Civil War history.
Finally, Gregory Osborne. He is a library associate from New Orleans Public Library. He’s a graduate of Stanford University where he received a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and social sciences. He’s been conducting genealogy research in California and Louisiana for the past 19 years. He was a research assistant for Dr. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall and her groundbreaking study of African-descended people in Spanish and early American periods of Louisiana.
So thank you all, and we’ll get started where it all began with the Civil War. I want to start with Justin. Justin, I know you teach a course on Civil War history. Could you tell us what was the general mood in New Orleans leading up to the war and then what happened as the war progressed.
Justin Nystrom: Well, it’s complicated. I did promise today that I would also mention that Greg is in more acknowledgment pages of books of history on New Orleans and Creole culture than anybody I know.
If you’ve gone to Wednesday in the Square in Lafayette Square, you see the statue of Henry Clay, which maybe you didn’t know that was Henry Clay in the middle of Lafayette Square, not a very controversial monument. The statue used to sit in the middle of Canal Street at the intersection of Royal and Canal, Bourbon and Canal, right there smack in the middle. It was a real inconvenience actually, ultimately, and that’s why in 1900 it got moved to Lafayette Square where there wouldn’t be streetcars around it. The Henry Clay statue is the most ironic statue in New Orleans because it was put up by the Whiggish businessmen of New Orleans in 1859 because they saw Henry Clay as their hero, somebody who believed in globalism, national improvements, the very things that a port of New Orleans would want. I mean New Orleans is this great international marketplace and the vision of Henry Clay was widely shared.
The great irony of course is that Henry Clay, author of the Compromise of 1850, saves the union, or may be really more accurately forestalls the Civil War for another decade in that year, but New Orleans is also so very much tied to slavery as well. On the one hand, New Orleans has so much in common with the North. It was the only really important city in the South — almost 170,000 people on the eve of Civil War, the next largest city is Charleston at 40,000 and shrinking actually. Charleston shrinks a tiny bit between 1850 and 1860.
On the other hand, New Orleans is also the banking center of the region and of course, if you’ve made it to The Historic New Orleans Collection’s really wonderful exhibit Purchased Lives, it’s the major slave depot of the West. But beyond that, if you’re in banking, the single asset class in the South is slaves. I mean, more than 50 percent, so if you make a loan, if you buy a piece of property, you leverage all your purchases generally speaking with slave property because it can be repossessed so easily if things don’t go right. It’s very much a liquid asset.
When secession arrives, when the secession fever comes to the South, New Orleans is kind of cool to the idea. New Orleans stands a lot to lose from secession as a port. I mean you’ve got all these traders over here on Carondelet [Street] dealing with manufacturers in the North, manufacturers in England. The port is an extremely busy place and war, especially for a Confederacy with no Navy, is not a very great thing to do, but tied as it is to the region, there’s really not a lot of choice but to secede. Once Lincoln calls for volunteers, there’s definitely no turning back. For the rest of the South, once Virginia goes, everybody’s in.
The Civil War goes badly for New Orleans. That Henry Clay statue — Dr. Cornelius Beard [was] out there singing the Marseillaise, rallying men to the fight for the Confederacy, this sort of dramatic moment in April of 1861. A lot of men sign up to fight for the Confederacy from New Orleans, about 20,000. They’re among some of the first men in combat during the war. The first officer to die in the Confederacy — a very dubious distinction if you’re that officer — Colonel Charles Dreux, is a Louisianan, dies early in the war in Virginia. A lot of Louisiana soldiers are fighting in Virginia or fighting in Tennessee and in Kentucky in the early part of the war. They are not here in New Orleans.
New Orleans is very thinly defended. You have Fort St. Philip and Jackson — if you’ve ever been down to the Citrus Fest down at Fort Jackson, you know where I’m talking about — but that’s pretty much it. There are some land fortifications at Chalmette as though the Union was going to replicate the British attack of 1815, which it did not. The amount of fortifications, of course the forts of the Rigolets and Chef Menteur Pass as well, but the bottom line is that once breached, there’s really nothing between the Union’s Gulf Blockading Squadron and the city of New Orleans.
Beauregard, who we’re going to talk about, I mean his correspondence, he visited … Beauregard was an engineer and he saw that New Orleans was not adequately protected. A lot of people knew this, including the Union. In April 1862, the forts eventually fall. The squadron makes a pass, not without some casualty, but once the squadron passes, they moor on the shores here right on the riverfront. It’s late April, the river’s very high, so the guns of the ships point-blank into the city. Resistance, as they say, is futile and the Confederate commander here, General Mansfield Lovell, realizes that everything is lost and starts pulling every asset he can out of the city heading towards the defense of Vicksburg which will fall a year later. [It’s] tactically the smart thing to do, but if you’re living in New Orleans and you’re seeing all the Confederates leave, you’re mad and a lot of the women are mad and saying “that worthless Confederacy.” The Julia LeGrand diary is really, “The men were terrible. The women would’ve fought on.“ And they might’ve if given guns, because they stood a lot to lose.
It’s a really traumatic experience. Overnight you have the city, the most prosperous place in the South, the biggest most cosmopolitan city in the South, Benjamin Butler marches up Canal Street on May 1, 1862, and there’s a lot of outrage. Soldiers when they hear this, Louisiana soldiers when they hear this, are not real happy with the government in Richmond. I mean they stay in the ranks, they fight the war. They’re in for a penny, in for a pound, this is a national, a bid for southern nationalism, so maybe we can we retake New Orleans but they’re not happy. Strategically, it was probably very foolish to lose New Orleans and its manufacturing potential so early in the war.
Johnson: I’m going to interrupt you there.
Nystrom: Please do.
Johnson: I want to go on to discuss P. G. T. Beauregard which, as we know, is one of the statues that has been called for relocation or removal here in New Orleans. Greg has a very interesting connection to this Confederate general, who, if you’re not aware, figuratively lit the fuse at Fort Sumter. He was the first to get this rolling. Greg, tell us what you know about P. G. T. Beauregard.
Gregory Osborn: Beauregard, he’s a Creole. His family goes back to the beginning of colonization with the French. He is Catholic. He was born 1818 in St. Bernard Parish in a sugar-owning family. His life is typical of Creoles, elite Creoles of the plantation class. I didn’t know that much about him before I started. I knew he was distantly related to me through his Toutant [surname], I have a Toutant ancestor of color and Emily Clark has written about other Toutants, as has Kimberly Hanger. There were lot of Toutants of color and his mother was a Reggio, and there’s a lot of free-people-of-color Reggios down in Plaquemines Parish and Ducros.
In Louisiana, we’re all related. If we can go back before the [Louisiana] Purchase, we are related. If it’s not blood relation, it’s slave-owning relationship. You might find out your ancestor was owned by someone in the German Coast or Pointe Coupée, and there’s that relationship. In Louisiana, we’re connected. It’s not six degrees, it’s two degrees.
Beauregard was sent away to school in New York, a French school, two brothers, and he became fascinated with Napoleon. He comes home and says I want to be a soldier. West Point was just up the river. He was young, he was 10 or 12 years old, and then he goes back at 16 and he goes up to West Point. He meets the major players of the war there, Lee, he sees action in Mexico after he graduates and then, as David said, he is the guy, the one who starts the war, fires the first shot.
Johnson: Rosanne, I know you wanted to speak about the view of the enslaved, particularly about the Civil War, and if you could give us your background that.
Rosanne Adderley: I want to be attentive to our time because the clocks are sort of sitting here on this end of the table. I think the one thing I wanted to say, and I think it’s really important, is how we look at the Civil War. One of my mentors, David Blight, who’s a big historian of the whole problem of how we got to this point in trying to reunify the nation after the war. Anytime the media comes to him, he says the most important thing to remind them is that at the point that the war started, of all the wealth that Justin’s talking about in the banks, it’s not just here that actual enslaved human beings were liquid assets, that they were worth more than anything in the United States.
So everything — and this is one of the things that was so powerful about the exhibit we just had at The Historic New Orleans Collection, and about the importance of the domestic slave trade, the national slave trade in making New Orleans, that antebellum time that made New Orleans wealthy, it’s the time arguably that it was the most the city could claim its greatest importance in the national economy. Much of what we look at, in particularly Garden District-Uptown areas of New Orleans that we consider beautiful — it’s not merely that it was most often built by enslaved people’s hands but that the wealth that we talk about is actually talking about wealth in human beings. It is one of the things that is distressing to most African American historians is that’s often forgotten when we talk about how for example the war went for New Orleanians.
Adam Rothman has a new book that may be out about the collapse of slavery here after 1862. The war went terrible for the Confederate Army for New Orleans, went reasonably well if you were enslaved in the city because while the legal status of slavery was complicated because of the way the Emancipation Proclamation worked, it’s pretty good thing if you’re an enslaved human being to see that thing crumble. I think if we do nothing as we sort of proceed to particularly thinking about what the meaning of the war was, and I know that there’s been a lot of calls that we need to think about the motives of every person who fought, but what that wealth and what this city and what the Confederacy was defending was an enormous system of wealth that was literally in the bodies of enslaved men, women and children, and that’s dark and unpleasant and disturbing, and if we get nothing out of our present conversation, to put that back and sort of try to think about what does it mean.
Unlike, as Justin pointed out, New Orleans was enormously wealthy and was very a prominent city, unlike a lot of sort of southern cities and towns, that’s one of the things that … And this makes this city special, [it] was the scale of the wealth in the city itself and in the city that we now inhabit that was literally invested in not just with the labor but all that money that came out of those people. What was crumbling with the war was, and the state and I forget what the city numbers are, it’s just a little bit under half the population. When we talk about how the war went for just under half the population, when things start to fall apart in 1862, this is an enormous opening that generations of people like them Africans and their children, for the first time could see even the slimmest prospect of a different life.
That changes the cast of how every conversation we have about how the war went and what it meant particularly in this city where so much was invested in that. That’s a very hard reality to put in the monumental, to put in the statue or keep in our conversation, but I think that’s part of the reason, at least certainly I think, that we are here is to try to figure out how to get that in the conversation that we are having because that is the thing that I think fundamentally matters more than a lot of things we’re talking about.
Johnson: Thank you. Did you want to add to that?
Molly Mitchell: I guess I would second what Rosanne is saying. I have a lot of concerns about figuring out how the meaning of the Civil War can be expanded from what we … I’m sorry, I’m seconding what Rosanne says in terms of figuring out how we can expand sort of the public interpretation and meaning and memory of the Civil War in the city beyond the Confederate monuments that we are here to discuss. I think that’s an incredibly important thing to do. I think part of what we’re doing here also and maybe moving to Reconstruction at this point but Reconstruction in New Orleans is also a bit different from other places in that you have a very large population of free people of color before the Civil War, who are not only highly educated but also politically very savvy.
It’s that group of people that get very involved in the politics immediately post-Civil War. They’re responsible for The New Orleans Tribune, for instance, which is really a very loud mouthpiece for social equality, equal accommodation and public accommodations, and they’re supporting the new constitutional convention by 1868. It’s one of the most radical constitutions that comes out of the South after the Civil War.
I believe it let women get divorced. It eliminated property requirements for voting. It demanded equal accommodations and it also prohibited segregated schools. So New Orleans had for almost 10 years integrated schools during Reconstruction. If you place that alongside the losers, meaning the who people lost so much that Justin’s talking about and think about it that way, the sort of anger and sort of effort that backlash among those who supported white supremacy is not quite as surprising. It is related to Civil War. It’s also related to what happens during Reconstruction.
For instance, I was going back and doing my research while preparing for this and found in my own book a quote from Robert Lusher that I had forgotten about from 1866. Basically, he’s the superintendent of schools in the state of Louisiana at that point. He makes a comment about making sure that the Caucasian race remains supreme by making sure that all white children become educated because free children are now getting educated. That’s 1866. What we’re about to talk about, it takes us all away through Reconstruction and out the other side to understand that those feelings about white supremacy are very alive and well and running up against African Americans and their allies who are striving for equality starting with the end of the war.
Johnson: We know that that really reached a head at the Battle of Liberty Place, which is again another of the memorials that is under question right now. I think it’s very important for us to get a brief overview history of that battle. Justin, I wanted to … Since you’ve written a book very specifically. Your microphone is right there.
Nystrom: No, no. This for you.
Johnson: Yes. Justin, I wanted you to get a chance to give us an overview of what is the Battle of Liberty Place. I’ve actually heard people say, “Oh, which Civil War battle was that?” People aren’t aware that was in 1874, which was nine years after the war. As Molly’s been describing, New Orleans had undergone a very radical transformation of the social order here. So Justin, I’m going to let you take it from there.
Nystrom: You know they’re not half wrong. In some ways, it is kind of an extension of the Civil War. I’ve looked at those Lusher papers and he was quite a drama queen. He really was.
Osborn: Yes, he was.
Nystrom: Yes sir, absolutely. As Molly pointed out, Reconstruction, I mean it’s a difficult time. I always sort of laugh as a historian, we read lots about the 19th century so it sort of separates us from a lot of the world because not that many people read that deeply about the 19th century. I laugh when I hear people talk about “Yeah the ‘60s man, there was lots of change.” There was a lot of change during Reconstruction, some really, really fundamental change. The Battle for Liberty Place really starts, and we tend to think of Reconstruction as this debate between two opposite poles, but there’s really a lot of gray during Reconstruction.
Governor Warmoth, who becomes governor with the Constitution of 1868, young guy, 26-year-old, real handsome, kind of a wheeler-dealer sort of a guy, runs to the left to get the governorship and then runs to the center. Sounds familiar, as he governs. He’s really good at what he does but he’s got a lot of rivals in the Republican Party, and ultimately his rivals who are associated with Grant. Grant doesn’t like Warmoth, Warmoth had said bad things about Grant during the war. This is a very quick version of it. Warmoth loses control of the Republican Party, but he’d been successful at getting white southerners into the Republican Party. Many members of the Washington Artillery were in the Louisiana state Republican-controlled militia up in to that point, but when Warmoth is gone, it splits the party and it creates a situation where the [Republican Louisiana governor] nominee will be William Pitt Kellogg from Illinois. He’s backed by Grant and the administration. At the same time the conservatives build this coalition party called the Fusion Party and they run a candidate, a slate of candidates, for the state election in 1872. The turmoil is enormous during the election. It’s really hard to tell who won the election, there’s lots of fraud during the election, but at the end of the day Grant’s federal judiciary recognizes the Kellogg government.
This is the moment where things start going bad for Grant generally and for Reconstruction specifically because the national reaction to the recognition of Kellogg’s government is very sharp. You have to remember Grant had all these other scandals going on in his administration. Great guy, not a real good judge of character, he trusted the wrong people and put them in his cabinet. Grant has a lot of fires to put out.
Meanwhile, the White League, which will emerge in the spring of 1874, is a movement to overthrow this government that they’re seeing in the press, a lot of people in the press feel it is an illegitimate government. In Georgia, it is redeemed through violence in 1871. Texas is redeemed in violence in 1873. The federal government really doesn’t do anything about it and so they’re emboldened by this as well. I always laugh when I see people, “Gosh, the Reconstruction violence was so terrible,” and it was, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
You had a generation of men who spent four years killing each other settling the single most important constitutional question of the 19th century. It’s not too surprising that they’re going to continue killing each other a little bit after the war. This of course replicates itself out in the Wild West quite a bit and also in wild New Orleans. So the White League goes in this Battle of Liberty Place, overthrows for three days Kellogg’s government.
It’s a pretty bloody vicious thing. A lot of people forget, at Canal Street there are all these spectators. A bunch of men dying, and about 30-something guys die in this battle in total on both sides, but there are hundreds of injuries of spectators. Bullets are zinging on people on balconies on Canal Street watching it go down. Not real smart.
Grant, of course, is livid. The army is not in New Orleans because the threat of yellow fever in September, so three days later the Army arrives and the White League surrenders. They don’t turn over their arms, they march home to the cheers of American soldiers. This is a bad sign if you are part of this group of people who have seen your rights come to you, black army veterans who fought for their country and became citizens, and some of them became politicians, and most of them just became voters and citizens in full. This is a bad sign about the federal government’s commitment to your rights over the long haul. The nation sees what the White League does.
We’ve got to understand that we have this conception of race as a southern thing, but this is a national racial problem of white supremacy. It’s really proved positive in the election of 1874, the midterm elections. The House of Representatives which have been 2-to-1 Republican going into the election is 2-to-1 Democrat going into the 44th Congress in 1875. The lame-duck 43rd Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1875 granting equal accommodations. This is ruled unconstitutional in 1883.
To give you an extent, this is really, I argue that Reconstruction begins with the Riot of 1866 at the Mechanics Institute which was on Dryades, which was roughly where the Blue Room in the Roosevelt [Hotel] is today. It ends down at the foot of Canal Street by Harrah’s [site of the Battle of Liberty Place]. To me, these are two really important sites of memory in terms of Reconstruction. It’s starts in bloodshed and ends in bloodshed. It all goes down here.
Mitchell: If I could just add to that, I actually have a student working on sort of the nation’s response to the Battle of Liberty Place. He looked at newspapers as far-flung as he possibly could and they’re very divided. It was hard for him to even sort of organize the responses by region or even by political party, but essentially some people saw this as a threat, that another Civil War is going to break out. It was that bad. The Battle of Liberty Place was that bad in that the Republic was in danger again. Other people are saying the government needs to get out of New Orleans, we need to stop occupying the city. This Reconstruction thing needs to end. There’s not … It’s a real bellwether for the end of Reconstruction I think what happens here in New Orleans.
Adderley: I think if I could step in there too, the other thing that my … I love quoting my students. My undergraduates in modern African American history, they asked me that goes to something Justin said about how the Civil War opens with the pathway to potential citizenship and civil rights for people, the overwhelming majority were formally enslaved. My students, in studying 1866, asked me how is that different from the role the federal government for example today in the racial violence. They started their course right after Ferguson. I think that we want to keep that in mind in terms of, as Justin pointed out, we can put this down in a very narrow set of southern cities if we want to, but I think it would be a mistake in terms of thinking about how very difficult both the problem of the place of black people in the nation has been, especially since the Civil War and Reconstruction moment. If my sophomores can remember that, I really, really, really hope as we figure out what to do with these public spaces, that we can do that.
Nystrom: I would add that one public space, that to me is really important, speaks to this at the intersection of Causeway Boulevard and the river, Camp Parapet. After the city fell, slaves streamed into New Orleans because they knew that, as Molly pointed out, this was a great place to be. [Cellphone music interrupts the forum.] There’s an “Empire Strikes Back” moment with the White League, I think. [Audience laughs.] [Union General] Benjamin Butler was a really, really keen lawyer, and of course declares these freedmen as contraband of war. You could claim property like cotton and real estate, things like that. He calls them contraband, coins the term contraband, and sends them to Camp Parapet to be trained as American soldiers. The military experience of black Civil War soldiers is to me the headwaters of the Civil Rights Movement in a large way because if black men do not fight for the Civil War, I always contend you don’t have a 14th Amendment in the way that you have it.
Johnson: One thing I want to touch on was it’s been said that Jefferson Davis, in Mayor Landrieu’s statement, did not have a very strong connection to New Orleans, however he did die here in 1889. His funeral to date was the largest New Orleans has ever seen. One hundred thousand people filed into Gallier Hall to see his body. It was four days of lying in state. The funeral procession, it is recorded, it took an hour and a half for it to pass by in its entirety at one corner. It was kind of the precursor to the super-krewe parades, I think. It was a very, very big deal. But for those of you who may not be aware, when Jefferson Davis was captured, it was rumored that he was dressed as a woman, that he was in disguise trying not to be noticed obviously by Federal officers. But Molly, you said you have done some research on how these statutes of Jefferson Davis, and perhaps the one here in our city, were in many ways intended to redeem him. So, if you could address that.
Mitchell: Sure. I’m building on research of another scholar who actually wrote a very good op-ed in the New York Times not that long ago on this very question. Jefferson Davis, it seems as though when he was captured he was actually wearing his wife’s overcoat. But the North quickly seizes on this, it’s too good not to accuse him of wearing women’s clothes and therefore sort of depicting the whole South as cowardly. The key person that latches onto this as you might imagine, who might be the most key person in the 19th century in terms of entertainment, was [P. T.] Barnum. He has a sort of wax figure made of Jeff Davis in drag, a bearded man with the ladies clothes on and it’s in the Barnum Museum. It gets put up in 1865, but some of you may know that museum burns down and so there’s documentation of old Jeff Davis being thrown out of the museum as it burns and hitting the ground. But southerners were very affected by these caricatures and cartoons of Jefferson Davis, and of course he lives for many years after the Civil War. So his monument, they don’t even form a committee for his monument here in this city until 1898 and it doesn’t go up until 1911. These statues across the South, the way in which they are posed are very self-conscious in their effort to restore respectability to the figure of Jeff Davis.
Johnson: You’ll see there’s a cartoon in your program on page 3. Really the most important period in relation to these monuments is post-Reconstruction because all of the monuments in question were built during that time period. I guess I want to open this question to you all. It had been decades after the Civil War and there emerged this ideology of the “Lost Cause,” as it was called. What do you think fed into that and why was it allowed to, I guess, grow to the degree that it did? I’ll let any of you jump in on that one.
Adderley: I would say I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer the why it developed. I think part of the reason it was allowed to grow was the thing that I’ve spent more time paying attention to in my own courses on slavery in public memory is that two things are true about the post-Reconstruction period. One is that this was an increasingly terrible period for African Americans. There are African-American historians who say particularly the 1890s, the 1910s, that first decade just because of the scale of racial violence that was unleashed once Reconstruction ended.
This is often looked at and we can have many debates given the horrific things that have happened to Africans and African Americans in this nation’s history, what’s the worst period? But there was a time, including when I was in graduate school, that we were told sort of standard narrative that this was the worst period.
However, the other thing that after some of what as Justin I think hinted that, there was a way in which Civil War really was fought through Reconstruction. There wasn’t a national level among white political actors, but a desire for national white political unity, so that the reason, it’s not so much that the whole nation bought into the Lost Cause narrative, but to answer David’s question of why it was allowed to thrive, that an honest conversation about our history actually picking up some of the work of Reconstruction that was still undone was less important to a lot of even national politicians than this idea, that it is good for the nation, meaning the white male political actors running the nation for us to have political unity.
That allowed essentially an a historical train to leave the station. We can look at the Lost Cause narrative now and critique it and wonder how did it thrive for so long. That was kind of the motivation and it was a choice that this idea of national political unity is more important than any … What kind of civic culture we have in the 21st century if we let this train leave the station.
Mitchell: Yeah. I think that’s right on the national level with the Lost Cause. It’s absolutely right but then, if we look on the local level, it serves a different purpose which is sort of an immediate very material way to reestablish your political authority and so the monuments that we’re talking about go up in this period of time when there’s sort of the material manifestations of this Lost Cause ideology but if you look at the very specifics of how these particular monuments … I was told I was not allowed to use the word erected.
Nystrom: We had a fun conversation about that.
Mitchell: When these monuments go up, they go up with the backing of the mayor. Why are they in such prominent places? I hope I’m not getting too far ahead of us. That’s because they had the backing of the mayor. It’s also because New Orleans physically did not suffer that much during the Civil War so these monuments, and I have a graduate student is working on the history of these monuments so she’s very interested in what is going to happen to them. They had to fit into the existing landscape, that’s why you get Lee and Tivoli Circle, that there is sort of an opportunity to put them in a very prominent place. Same with Beauregard, Jeff Davis, not as prominent, but serving a certain purpose which was to beautify the city.
They put [the Jefferson Davis statue] in a sort of today you call it up-and-coming neighborhood, that at the time, wasn’t so great. Actually initially, Davis was supposed to be across the street from Tulane University. We’re not sure exactly why that didn’t happen but I bet Tulane is glad it didn’t. Anyway, so these varied materials sort of concrete physical markers on the landscape were enforcing not just Lost Cause but political power on the local level. That happened throughout the South. That’s not unique to New Orleans. What is kind of unique is how prominent our monuments are to the sort of pivot point of the city.
Johnson: Greg, I want to talk about the role of the African-American community in that time period, and if you could just give us some context to where they stood in those years.
Osborn: I’m just going to back up a little bit. As Molly said, we have a large free population of color, very educated, skilled, and they saw how important education was. So those sort of the girls could go to school. Ursulines Academy was integrated up through 1823 and when they moved down to Ninth Ward and [the school] was closed to free girls of color, the School of Mount Carmel opened in the Treme. Girls had a better access to education, boys got their education through apprenticeship.
You were 12 years old. You’re going to learn to make furniture. You’re going to be a plasterer, a brick mason, and they studied with white master carpenters or free-men-of-color master carpenters, and they were taught to read and write and some math. Going into the Civil War, they are part of the Native Guard, which is just a home guard, just to mostly parade, not to fight. When the city is occupied, when Butler comes in, then they joined the Union quickly. They had their own officers. They quickly change sides and 20,000 African American men fought for the Union from this state. That’s more than any of the states in the country. Where’s their memorial today? Where’s the memorial to Andre Cailloux or these other people who fought and died or …
Adderley: That’s literally almost half the entire free black population. It’s extraordinary. I think if you take white or black, Gregory and Justin probably know this, just percentage-wise for a demographic group to fight for Union at that percentage, it’s stunning.
Nystrom: A lot of white New Orleanians fight for the Union as well. There are several regiments of Unionist soldiers raised here. I mean this is an immigrant city. It had some demographic similarities to places like Boston.
Osborn: My co-members have said, the free people of color were in a position to take political power. You have the Roudanez brothers who had the Tribune. The newspaper was very radical. They were educated in Europe and had come back very radicalized men of color. It quickly … Reconstruction doesn’t last very long at all, maybe what 10 years, and then an eroding of rights, and then you get this segregated streetcar law in 1890 and so segregation on a national level begins here. Well the court case will begin here. It started already in New Orleans and in the South. One of the things, we could free slavery or end slavery, but you’re not going to give civil rights to people in a swoop of a pen. It’s going to be the attitudes of the people. The memory of these people who fought in the Civil War, they are the ones who are putting up these monuments. The last Confederate veterans before they’re dying want to have some of these memorials and they do it before they die, and they do it after they’re dead.
Johnson: We’re going to discuss how some other cities and institutions have handled their Confederate memorials. But before we do, I want to go back and discuss the erection of the obelisk that marks Liberty Place. That was built in 1891 which was 17 years after that incident. As I understand it, it was in very close proximity in time to the mass lynching of Sicilians here in New Orleans. There’s a connection between that and the establishment of this memorial that had initially been built to mark this insurgency, this attempted coup. Justin ,maybe you could address some of that for us.
Nystrom: Yeah. I just want to bring a little … the Lost Cause was also a tonic. If you have children and if you lost your child, you wanted to believe it wasn’t for some just really stupid cause, which it actually was, in the end. You didn’t bury your child for greed or anything like that, that there was some higher purpose. These memorials kind of sanctify that. It’s hard to blame people for it, I think, in a way. If you have a kid, you know.
Mitchell: Well, except for the fact that … Sorry—
Nystrom: No, no.
Mitchell: That so many of the memorial committees were actually the children, the children of dead or aging Confederate soldiers. It’s interesting in New Orleans for some reason that my student has not been able to sort of pin down yet, two of the three committees were made up of men whereas in most of the South, it was the United Daughters of the Confederacy who made up a lot of these committees. Jeff Davis’s committee was headed by, at one point, was headed by the wife of the mayor and the White League ties and all that. There are White League sort of associations. If you look at the list of directors of all these monuments, you see that. The main point I’m trying to make is they took a really long time to raise the money. So the state gave $5000 each to Lee and maybe, I’m forgetting, Beauregard or Davis, and then the rest of the money was raised through subscriptions, through fundraisers, all the stuff, and it took them 10 years or more. Beauregard took the longest.
Osborn: Twenty years for Beauregard.
Mitchell: Twenty to raise enough money because these were very expensive, thousands and thousands of dollars, and so by the time they finally go up, most of these guys are dead. It’s their children who want to believe this myth of the Lost Cause because they want to believe it, but also because, as I stated, the sort of local political landscape is such that they sort of confirm white supremacy by stamping the landscape with this statue. Sorry Justin.
Nystrom: No, it’s okay. The point I’d like to make, the phrase Lost Cause comes from the 1866 book by Edward Pollard. This idea, which was very critical of the Confederate leadership, was that this was a divine lost cause because of the failed leadership of Davis. Lost Cause is this giant area of scholarship of course, but the monument to Liberty Place which is interesting … you know, Fred Ogden, who led the White League at Liberty Place is an interesting guy and when I was writing my book, I, in a strange way, came to really respect him. He comes up very badly in history and he definitely has some very retrograde views on race, but he wanted a monument to the White League members who died in the battle.
He’s very early on spearheading this. In 1878, they’re going to have these mule races at the Fair Grounds to raise money for it but what happens is this is in the spring and then as the mule races are starting, yellow fever hits the city. Ogden is … he’s one of those people that sort of throws himself into causes and he’s really big in the Howards, which was an organization that ministered the people who got yellow fever, so he was going around giving people beef broth which apparently people thought was helpful for yellow fever.
I mean this was a big thing. That whole idea gets shelved. Ogden dies of liver cancer in 1886. Ogden’s kind of passed over because he’s a soldier, that’s what he does. He’s not very articulate. His cousins are lawyers. They’re very smooth operators, but Ogden does one thing really well: He fights. He dies insolvent and so all these people who sort of passed him over for privileges, they tell his widow, you name it, we’ll pay for any kind of memorial and you see this boulder in Metairie Cemetery on page 5. I think his wife, she knew what she was doing because the boulder weighs 40,000 pounds. She was on vacation in East Tennessee and saw this boulder down in the bottom of ravine and that moment knew she found the perfect marker for her husband.
It was all kinds of trouble to get it to Metairie Cemetery. This rough boulder was her husband, but I think that the last laugh when these people who treated her husband very poorly. The monument comes about as David so rightly pointed out in 1891. You’ve got to understand that the White League was a coalition of guys who didn’t necessarily like each other. When the state went back into Democratic hands, these two factions, main factions split apart again and the two main factions in New Orleans have always been, at least in 19th century, the urban ring, which is sort of the immigrant, it’s not 100 percent either way, and then the reformers who are self-styled good government people, the uptowners, as the more Protestant tended to be.
By 1891 both of these groups are trying to lay claim to the legacy of the White League and as Shakspeare in the wake of the assassination of [New Orleans police superintendent David] Hennessy —
Johnson: Mayor Shakspeare.
Nystrom: Mayor Shakspeare, yeah not William, not the Bard, the mayor. The monument, a lot of the speeches when the monument is erected, dare I say the shaft put in place, are very reminiscent of this idea of the call for good government, very veiled remarks about immigrants and the sort of bossism that was the ring politician. You have one side really trying to claim it, and of course the monument is subsequently altered several times.
Johnson: Which you’ll see versions of that on this handout. I’m going to have to interrupt you there because before we conclude I wanted to have Molly talk about how other communities have been ahead of New Orleans in many ways and addressing the contentious nature of Confederate memorials. If you look on page 5, that’s the beginning a few examples of what some other cities have done. So Molly …
Mitchell: I’ll try to make this quick. I gave myself as assignment to sort of go around and see what other cities have done. I will first note that I don’t have a picture of Baltimore, but earlier this month, the mayor of Baltimore, who has you might imagine a lot on her plate, issued a very interesting statement about the need to establish a special commission under the guidance and direction of their sort of historical preservation and promotion of the arts office, but she says this takes time and she wants that commission to sort of look into the history of the monuments as what we’re trying to do here, and sort of make a very reasoned decision.
That committee, I think, has been put together and sort of the jury is out on what’s going to happen in Baltimore. I think they have nine monuments and they’re sort of crumbling so they have more than we have, but they’re not in very good repair. They do have a monument to Roger Taney, though if you know who he is, and that doesn’t seem to be up for any debate, but he’s the guy who sort of said that African Americans can never be citizens. He has a statue in Baltimore.
Memphis, you may have read Nathan Bedford Forrest is under siege there. That one seems to be the closest to being removed and so far nobody’s removed anything. I’ve read that if removed, he would be sold to the highest bidder which is an irony for a slave trader. Then Charleston is actually probably been working on this the longest. They restored their old slave mart in Charleston for one. I don’t have … There’s a chart, but if you go to the Washington Post, you can see two historians made a chart of Charleston and they sort of have dots where the original Confederate monuments were installed and then over time, how many monuments do African Americans in African American history have been done since they sort of started this initiative in the late ‘90s.
Let’s see, Louisville, you do see a picture of Louisville on page 5. They established Freedom Park, the civil rights memorial. I tried to find a picture that had these two things next to each other but I guess it doesn’t work out that way, but it was created to respond to the Confederate monument that you see there and you can read the quote from the president of the University of Louisville. That was a contentious monument and they made the decision to put up a civil rights monument to sort of counter the Civil War monument but left the Civil War monument in place.
Page 6, at the bottom you see Richmond. Of course they have Monument Avenue in Richmond, for which Lee and Beauregard are on the National Register of Historic Places but they managed to get a statue of Arthur Ashe installed in 1996 when people created a debate about the monuments on Monument Avenue. I can talk more if you have questions about any of these.
Montgomery is actually super interesting to me. This has just happened at 2013. The Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery is interested in equal justice, but they have chosen to sort of take a historical bent on that so they’re studying, they have a whole report in the history of lynching. Before that, they got a whole report on history of slavery and they have managed to get these markers installed all around Montgomery.
The Confederate monuments are still there. They didn’t challenge those, instead they chose to fill a huge gap, a gap we also have in New Orleans about the role of their city in the slave trade. We had this largest slave market in the South. Montgomery surprisingly was a very, very active market in enslaved people. They got these historical markers put up, interestingly not with the backing of the Alabama Historical blah-di-blah-di-blah. They had to submit their markers to that organization and their organization came back and said well all your facts are correct, but we won’t sponsor these markers.
They ended up finding another sort of institution to go through and that same Alabama organization had just given a marker to the Confederate post office that was open for four months. Then finally, Ole Miss, which is another really interesting example. They’ve been struggling with this for a while at Ole Miss and it takes a long time. Especially a place like that where the whole architecture of the University is Confederate if you’ve ever been there.
They did install the statue to James Meredith in 2006 and last year someone put a noose around his neck, and the state of Mississippi as you can see declined to file charges but it was a federal hate crime. But Meredith himself actually doesn’t like the statue. He thinks it is sort of papering over the injustice that continues. I put that in there because I think that’s something if we are serious about rethinking these monument spaces, that we have to think about sort of new interpretations of the Civil War for instance that will expand people’s understanding and not just add sort of a black face to the monument parade. We really have to think about what we want future generations to understand about history. I think Rosanne, you have other examples.
Adderley: That’s one of the things that Molly and I especially have been talking a lot about in preparation for this is, there is an impulse and I would say that I learned a lot from Greg and he actually may answer a question that I’ve had. One of the more recent Civil War memorials, and I do not know the date on it, is the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington DC that happened when Mary Landrieu was still a senator and she was among — because DC is of course a federal jurisdiction — she was among the senators that was working on the project. We couldn’t put a picture here but I suspect that part of the reason that the senator for Louisiana was interested in having that done was that in the nation’s capital there was no memorial to the African Americans. As Justin emphasized, the Union may not have won the war without them and their role was so critical, but the disproportionate role of African Americans from the state, I think that may explain the role of our senator in that memorial. You can go online. It has a whole something like African American Civil War Memorial.org.
But I think that we need to be very sort of cautious about the logic of … I agree with Greg’s hint that there is no marker to the many of the extraordinary accomplishments of free people of color in the city. That is in some ways remarkable. However, there is this impulse to essentially erect monuments to honor African American achievements after the time of slavery. That’s a good impulse. But as Molly suggested that there is in this conversation a really urgent need to do the unfinished work of dealing with the history of slavery. The reason the history of Confederacy is controversial and unpleasant and difficult is precisely because it is about how slavery ended and what was in effect being defended by that government separate from what may have been in the heart of every individual Confederate soldier.
Some of the things that I teach with what I do public memory is things from other sites around the world were in fact there are monuments to enslaved people. Two on the inside cover are from Haiti and Jamaica respectively where there are huge national monuments and traffic circles to enslaved people who fought slavery.
My colleague Hazel Taylor who’s one of the historical interpreters at Destrehan [Plantation], she says she finds it remarkable that in the country that loves the language of freedom fighters, we do not have monuments in the main. There is a statue, quite prominent statue of Denmark Vesey in South Carolina, but we have relatively few statues to those Americans who fought for their literal physical freedom on this landscape. But those monuments do, in fact, exist. But I don’t think that that too is sort of substitution narrative, reinterpreting and finding a way to deal with the spaces in which we are uplifting quite literally the generals, the leaders of the government that fought to maintain the enslavement of at that point four million people.
It’s not just a question of putting African American history into our public landscapes or of indeed as we are overdue in the city of New Orleans. South Louisiana, home of the largest slave rebellion in United States history — where is that monument? That’s an addition narrative. That’s a substitution narrative and I think that we’re really called to reinterpret what it means, and the taking down is one sort of easy start to a conversation, but that doesn’t deal with the history I think as robustly as we could.
Johnson: Very good, thank you. Well, as you can tell, this is a subject we should have many, many more seminars and forums about. We’re going to give you all a chance now to ask questions of our panelists, and again I would just ask that that be respectful. And also, we are not a forum here to have speeches by the audience. We want questions because again, we brought these historians in with their expertise and they’ve only been able to share the smallest sliver of it within this hour. With that, we have a microphone here and if anybody would like to line up to ask some questions, we’ll be happy to hear them.
Audience #1: Good evening. Thank you for being here and offering us this opportunity. Has anybody in the panel discovered or studied the coincidence that the erection of Robert Lee’s statue coincides with the Centennial Cotton Exposition of 1884. Is there a business context or a marketing context to the time?
Mitchell: That’s a really good question. It’s my graduate student, actually a PhD student, Amber Nicholson and she’s studying this right now. She doesn’t have full-fledged documentation but we suspected that that is definitely true. Lee’s monument committee started in 1870, which was well before the Centennial, so literally right after he died. They created a committee trying to get that monument out so it could’ve gone up at a different time had they been able to raise more money, but probably at some point, it was deemed a good idea to sort of align it with the Cotton Centennial hoping that you would get a lot of tourists and that’s something else I left out. It’s that these were tourist sites and the city treated them as such and promoted them as such. That’s another sort of irony that we’re now thinking about, worrying about what tourists are going to think about these monuments when actually they were created for tourism, not exclusively of course but with tourists in mind, which is again why they’re in such prominent places but that’s a terrific question and we’re still sort of sorting through it.
Audience Member #1: One super technical question for Justin. The uniforms that Lee and Beauregard are rendered in on their statues, Beauregard is wearing his brigadier general’s outfit and is Lee wearing his commander’s outfit as the leader of the Army of Northern Virginia so that these are legitimately military statues in military poses complete with the symbology of the horse rider with the four paw of the horse raised significant of a role in battle?
Nystrom: I’m convinced my eyesight is not that good, and to be honest my knowledge of uniforms is probably even poorer, so I can’t answer that question.
Johnson: Anybody else in the panel then?
Adderley: I think we’re going to have to give that to Amber.
Mitchell: I’ll put her on it, we’ll find out.
Audience Member: The horse and the paw is baloney, check it on snopes.com. It’s not true.
Osborn: One of the descriptions of Beauregard [statue] is they call it not a horse, it’s a Shetland pony.
Nystrom: Beauregard was not a big man.
Osborn: He was five foot seven.
Audience Member #2: I want to say a few things. One is that I’m glad we are having a conversation. I know that the mayor’s called to have the conversation to equalize the emotions involved, and people are upset, but I think a good thing about it is that were having conversation would never happened otherwise. We were challenged to ask ourselves these questions and take ourselves out of our comfort zone, but I have a question. I’m learning more about my own history now because I didn’t learn this in school and neither did my children and so the absence of this kind of history is fundamental to the identity of our children.
That’s why I’m really very glad that we’re having the conversation. Now I have a question about the White League, and I’m more interested in finding out how it evolved and when did it start to dismantle, what was their role and what is the Colfax Massacre and how does the White League play into that and the little I do know about it is disturbing. I think thatover 150 African American and slave people were massacred.
We don’t hear about that. I just recently heard about that and the White League’s involvement so I think the more we understand what it means to African Americans when you talk about my ancestors. It creates, I can tell you it creates for me a great deal of fear. I try to put myself into the place of white Americans, of historians, and saying let me look at it through your lens but of course I can’t look at it all the way through your lens because I’m not you, but I’m hoping that when we have these conversations that we really try to stop and think that we’re talking about human people and that those human people today still … I’m a huge person about the lives of your ancestors. You still walk with them, their spirit still move with you.
Johnson: I’m going to let you cut off, because I want Justin or whoever just to address the White League. I think that is very important. If that wasn’t interpreted properly and we need to hear that now, so whoever.
Adderley: I’m going to let Justin take the White League and one of the things that maybe he can pick this up, one of the things about the Colfax Massacre, which is Grant Parish, it’s not the White League. It says something about the White League didn’t have a monopoly on engaging in white supremacist political violence. That is a similar killing of mostly black in opposition to the Reconstruction era, we will give some rights to African Americans’ governments, but it’s white people in Grant Parish, that it’s not the White League which is a very not entirely New Orleans only, but very specific political organization. I do think that that’s an important point to remember because we like to be able to point to something like the White League that will check off and see who where white supremacist people willing to resort to violence by their membership in an organization when this period of American history is rife with people that didn’t check any card in any organization and were willing to engage in that kind of violence.
The second thing that I will say to you about monuments and public spaces, and there is no competition between the fact that this history is very personal to who we all are and as a historian of slavery frequently walking the streets of the city, even after doing it in the city for 20 years, my blood runs cold.
Audience Member #2: Thank you for that.
Adderley: Justin or Molly can take the White League.
Nystrom: I think Rosanne brings up a good point. Actually, a lot of people, when they saw there was an opportunity to kill black people, rode into Grant Parish and turned it into the melee that it was. The White League , the term White League actually starts out in Cajun country, I think in Opelousas I think it’s the first White League if memory serves, but me it’s not like the Shriners. There isn’t a national organization and they don’t wear fezes but they have all their different … Each little parish has kind of a different character depending on who the leaders of the community in that area.
If the white leaders of community have more, I don’t want to say amicable but less hostile relationship with the black community and the White League doesn’t take that … In Grant Parish, things go really, really badly. The Grant Parish I know some of them, some of the histories call it the White League but one thing I will say is when the other massacre in Coushatta, when the defendants at Coushatta were on trial in New Orleans, many of the prominent men in the White League held a charity benefit for them for their legal offense.
There may have been varying degrees but there was certainly a commonality. In New Orleans, the White League was interesting because this was 1874 and a full third of the members were too young to have fought in the Civil War so you had these guys who were 19, 20 years old and here was this opportunity for them to get involved with something and fight, sort of if you will, sort of like the statues of Davis, sort of like redeem the loss of the Civil War and through this battle which ends up turning up quite differently. Most of the men were under 40, so the guys leading it, Fred Ogden was, I think, 38 years old at the time and so all these younger guys who were in the White League and a lot of them are kind of Who’s Who, a lot of professionals.
One of the great ironies of the White League and the connection to the lynching of the Sicilians is that one of the White League companies is led by J. P. Macheca who was Maltese, but by New Orleans standards, Sicilian, and he’s a wealthy shipping magnate and he leads a company in the White League Battle of Liberty Place, but he also dies in the lynching of the Sicilians in 1891. So it’s New Orleans, it’s complicated..
Johnson: But it was that lynching that kind of help coalesce some of the fundraising efforts to finish the Liberty Monument.
Johnson: I would say that we have a digital encyclopedia that the Louisiana Endowment has founded called Knowla, KnowLouisiana.org, where we do have very well written scholarly entries on the Battle of Liberty Place, the Colfax Massacre and the White League. If things are kind of not coalescing in your mind here, I would encourage you to go online and read more. I think we’re going to take another question.
Audience Member #2: I just want to say thank you. I just want to say one last thing is that please remember that symbols are important and that the subliminal messages to our children in those images are very important. Thank you.
Johnson: Thank you.
Audience Member #3: I think the panel has done a great job, in particular, Professor Adderley, of reminding us that there’s a whole other story that needs to be told, but as historians, I would like you all to address the question of whether to tell that story, is it necessary to remove the symbols of a previous time. In other words, can you tell both stories at the same time, and if not, why not?
Johnson: I should say I did not ask the panelists to give their absolute opinion on this political issue but they are welcome to voice their opinion on that. Don’t expect each one of them to say a yea or nea on this. They have that option.
Adderley: I guess, in the interest … thank you I’m glad that the panel has been productive to you. We were all talking about the fact we would welcome the opportunity and all of us at some point this afternoon thought maybe I’ll stay home. I would say in my own case, it goes back to something that and I have struggled with what my opinion about the taking down of monuments is.
One of my first conversations as an African American historian in New Orleans, I’ve been here since the mid-90s, was about the renaming of the public schools and that’s a whole different conversation. I do think, and it gets to something that the previous questioner said. I am in favor of a reinterpretation of the spaces we have for this reason, on sort of an unreconstructed, if you will, Lee Circle without a reinterpretation of that site. If you have something like Louisville is impressive because it’s close that it’s actually the Freedom Circle is the opposite.
My preference and I won’t go into great length, I have a very specific way I think we can redo Lee Circle to embrace the history of enslavement that the Confederacy is irredeemably attached to, that can embrace … Not meaning embrace support, that can embrace the history of the politics of this city that led to the positioning of that statue but to reinterpret that space so that you arrive for argument, it’s Louisville, I already said it, Freedom Circle and you learn about both the history that is not there now and the history of it getting there. I believe the spaces must be reinterpreted because when you keep a prominent statue like that, it’s kind of hard to say … This actually is a true story. You can’t make this up. I have friend. He rang me on the phone. He said, the funniest thing happened. My kids they were the 9 and 11, they asked him about Jeff Davis Parkway. They said, “But isn’t that a bad man?”
Therein lies the problem that if you have, even if you have and this is the city that I envision, even if you have a city whose public spaces in multiple places deal with the history of enslavement which is the majority of the history of the city as we approach our tricentennial, is that history. It takes up more of the time than almost any other single other thing. While I want those things, I think the problem with not reinterpreting, is that it’s hard to have as Louisville does, there’s Lee, I think that is in Louisville.
Mitchell: It’s just a Confederate dead.
Adderley: Yeah it’s Confederate dead without a reinterpretation so that’s what I think as a historian is necessary is a reinterpretation of the monument space which may involve versions of leaving parts or all of the statues there and adding other things to them. My own plan for reinterpretation actually is about adding things to the site.
Mitchell: Rosanne, I’ve talked a lot about this and we mostly —
Adderley: She knows the plan.
Mitchell: I know the plan. We mostly agree. I think I would say that this whole sort of debate has exposed for me the failing of historians, of this period on some level because for us, for a long time, we went to grad school learning about the Lost Cause and how these memorials fit into the myth of the Lost Cause and the reunification of the nation etcetera, etcetera, but we didn’t bother to really pass that sort of interpretation on to a broader public in a way that we should have.
I think one way that’s helpful for me to think about is that while they are monuments and they were put up as monument-memorials with very specific stories to tell, for us now over time, they have become artifacts. Those artifacts contain within them information about worldview, information about politics, and information about political power and racial injustice. I’m in favor of, as Rosanne in using this word, reinterpretation. I think it’s a really good word. I will just throw out there that I figured out that the statue of Lee and the column were not created by the same person. If we took him off his column, we wouldn’t be destroying one person’s vision.
That sort of made me feel better as someone who likes artists, but I do think that thinking of these monuments as artifacts is something that historians have not really conveyed to broader public in a very good way. I tend to feel like a lot of responses that I hear are people saying just take them down, the past is over. That means that they’re not getting, they’re not seeing it the way we see it as sort of evidence of a society and it is in fact I also think of it archaeologically. It’s a sort of a strata and you can remove that strata, you can say that you’re not forgetting but you are removing a strata of the city’s history. One more thing that I’ll say and I will pass it along is that a lot of scholars are now thinking about the city as an archive. It’s a public archive and if that’s the case, then we are custodians of that archive and archivists have to decide, as Greg well knows, what to keep, what’s not really worth keeping, and what stories should not be silenced. Generally, good archivists don’t throw away things because they don’t agree with them, they try to figure out a way that they can be useful to scholars and future generations.
Nystrom: I’ve seen a lot of editorial antagonism towards these monuments, some of the pieces written by good friends of mine were like take down the monument and plunk somebody else up on the column and call it a day. I do tend to … We all have, as historians, we share this worldview, but one of the antagonistic things I’ve seen in this articles that really sets wrong with me is sort of to talk about interpreting these monuments and expanding the view of these monuments as artifacts is somehow a marker it’s not even up for debate, it marks as advocates of the Lost Cause. I do sort of take offense by that. I’m very much in agreement with the comments you’ve heard before. This is an opportunity to take the mythology of the Lost Cause head on.
There’s so much more that we need to commemorate as we’ve discussed. Everybody’s children should be able to go and look, kind of like what does that mean and not feel oppressed by it certainly. I don’t think anybody wants our kids feeling oppressed by a monument. These are teaching moments. We didn’t learn this in school. Well, maybe we can learn something in the public space.
I mean when I drove here, I went past the Karnofsky music store, the Iroquois Theatre and Eagle Hall, which are just crumbling into the dirt. We’ve got the single greatest cultural export of the city and let’s just turn it into dust over there in the parking lot district as preservationists call it. We’ve got so much more of the story to tell and to me, the replacing of just taking and replacing a monument reminds me a little bit of my brother, who doesn’t plan ahead very well. One Christmas, he was on my way to my parents’ house and he went and went into like the Dollar Tree and bought a box of Christmas ornaments for a present for my dad. My dad hates Christmas. It doesn’t show very much foresight.
Is this how you commemorate something that’s important to you? You just go and substitute it in somebody else’s monument. I think these things are worthy of a little more thought. Some of those monuments, particularly the Maroon, is a powerful sculpture and there’s a really great book called Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves by Kirk Savage. This really transcends that. There was thought put into this and the sculptor was hired and there was a powerful message here. I’m not just sure the swap like Indiana Jones with this little bag of sand … I don’t think that does it for us. I don’t think it’s enough, and that’s all I’ve got to say. I’m not sure that Greg wanted to do this but …
Osborn: I work at the library so my boss’s boss’s boss is Mitch Landrieu. I’m not here to give you my opinion. I’m here to give you history and this has been a learning process for me. These monuments are in prominent places and the monuments for African Americans are either, I’ll say relegated to Armstrong Park or … I think the first African American monument we had is still Louis Armstrong. We have deserving people. We have a statue to Mardi Gras Indians or Congo Square dancers or to A. P. Tureaud or Avery Alexander but as the other panelists said in other cities, the African American monuments have come up very slowly and it’s only been the last 10, 15 years. I don’t know when Louie’s statue went up, I guess in late ’70s. He died in 71. But Mahalia Jackson was more recent so we have these by the way there is a monument to Union soldiers at Chalmette battlefield. That’s the national memorial for the Union and it’s down in Chalmette, down in St. Bernard Parish.
Johnson: I can only think of two monuments related to slavery in the city which would be John Scott’s Spirit House on Gentilly Boulevard and then the Tomb of the Unknown Slave in St. Augustine [church].
Osborn: The one in St. Augustine was not done for the public. The one for the unknown slaves was more from Father LeDoux and the community of St. Augustine. These memorials come from graves. There’s the very beautiful grave for the Army of the Tennessee where Beauregard is buried. So it has the equestrian statue of [General] Johnston and the unknown Confederate soldier. A lot of these memorials started in Metairie Cemetery or Greenwood for firemen. Then going out of that, they wanted more public monuments to Lee, to Davis, to Beauregard. But they coincide to the cemetery. I’m a tour guide. I’m in St. Louis Cemetery Number One and we’re doing a horrible job of memorializing or preserving, that to me saying St. Louis Number One, you go there for the history, the history of the place, and it’s really, we’re not taking care of that place. It’s private but it’s the individual monument of slaves to governors to [Edgar] Degas’ grandparents — everybody’s in there but they’re not necessarily … [Homer] Plessy’s down there.
Mitchell: If I could just say one more thing, this is something that has come to me as we’ve been thinking about this panel and I was sort of the one charge looking at other places see what they had done and no one is really willing to talk about finances. I couldn’t find a number and my suspicion is that most cities who have gone through this already and sort of they’re not talking about necessarily seriously from taking down every Confederate monument, decided lawsuits are expensive and there is a possibility that people would hold things up with lawsuits but also the expense of dismantling these things … I can’t even begin to guess.
I mean Lee is actually, his statue’s in eight different pieces. It was very hard to get him up on that thing. I don’t know how you’re going to get him back down without breaking him but, in my mind, as we’re all saying, there’s so much more the city needs to do in terms of historical markers, not just monuments but historical markers again to the slave trade, we have all the research from that Purchased Lives exhibit, we have all the research. We could make a trail of slave-trader sites through the city, and as well as on the project I’m working on, fugitive slave sites where people ran away too. We can mark all of that. That takes money and it takes time and dedication as do really good monuments like the ones that we’re admiring here, they take a lot of money and if we’re short on resources, do we want to spend those resources on monuments that many people dislike or do we want to try to fill the silence that exists.
Johnson: Yes sir.
Audience Member #4: Thank you. Panelists, thank you so much for being here. I have a question that relates to perhaps a present-day reaction to what happened in the past and it seems to be present day in many aspects of our society — a great guilt over the issue of slavery and segregation and everything related thereto in the past and also with the guilt, there comes this, I want to avoid the big stink bomb of the guilt associated with past of slavery. For instance, you might talk to someone who is in the center of the free persons of color. You might talk to them about race and slavery, but in the dialogue there’s no mention of the fact that 30 percent of the free persons of color and the heyday of their golden age in New Orleans history, they owned other Africans as slaves.
I don’t think anybody running for mayor today wants to say, oh by the way my ancestors owned slaves. There’s a guilt to that. There’s a stink bomb attached to that. If you talk to a Northerner and ask why they did North get involved in the Civil War … Oh, it was to abolish slavery, but that doesn’t make sense when you see as reflected in the exhibit at The Historic New Orleans Collection that so much of the North was heavily invested monetarily in insurance, in banking, in manufacturing in the slave trade and you look at the early writings of Lincoln, he was a friend to the African American. He didn’t like slavery but that’s not why he sent so many federal troops in the beginning of the war into the bloodbath that the Civil War became. It was to preserve the union.
Then you might talk to a Southerner and he says, well we were nice to our slaves. What you see in 12 Years A Slave, some of that was exaggeration but the average slave owner, he had a sense of patriarchy towards his slaves and only beat them what they deserved it and was actually providing a service to them by looking out for their benefit. Then you might talk to someone, an African-American in New Orleans today, or someone else in the United States, what about the fact of Africans capturing other Africans in Africa, in the 1800s, selling them to the European slave traders, oh and selling out of their own stock because slavery —
Johnson: Yeah, we need to get to the question because we’re running out of time now.
Audience Member #4: I’m going to put you a little bit on the spot Craig, Mr. Osborne, and perhaps Ms. Adderley as well but I’d like your answer to this. When you describe sir —
Johnson: Okay, just ask your question please.
Audience Member #4: When you describe the Native Guard just marching around New Orleans, did you leave out on purpose the part that they volunteered service to fight for the Confederacy, to protect the institution of slavery, to protect their own slaves, or did you just leave that out perhaps because you felt a little guilty about that part and Ms. Adderley, Dr. Adderley, the data ‘m reading, the historic accounts I’m reading, indicate that little less than 10 percent of the Native Guard ever served in the union forces.
Johnson: We’re going to stop there. We’re going to let them address that question.
Osborn: You go first.
Adderley: No. I was on the African Americans from Louisiana serving in Union forces, my comment was solely only on, Greg’s the experts on the numbers if it’s 20,000, that’s a huge percentage of the free black population here, so we want to sort of argue over exactly what percent, as I don’t think this figure was about the Native Guards, it was about free blacks in the state of Louisiana who volunteered for the Union.
In a big answer to your question, you’ve brought up a lot of issues and I think it’s very important that we address them. You are absolutely correct. This is unpleasant for all of us and I think that one my criticisms of the way we have started this conversation is we need to admit that, that it is difficult for white people for one set of reasons, that is difficult for black people for a different set of reasons. If we don’t admit that, then we are starting this conversation in a bad place and that is no one wants to talk about the enslavement of their ancestors or the enslavement of other people by their ancestors.
It remains also the case, two things, that overwhelmingly while they were certainly persons of African descent that owned the enslaved in the United States in this part of the world in the Americas, in the Caribbean, this was the place where racialized slavery was created. There are systems of enslavement in Africa all over the world. We have limited time here but the problem that we inherited is the structural white supremacy that came out of the creation of a system of racial slavery in this place.
Good for you for bringing that up and if we, if you do nothing when you leave this place, when this conversation comes up, this is what this is about and it is not easy. It is not easy on any of us for a lot of reasons. Now that said, that is not a reason to not have the conversation. I, and in terms of the way racialized slavery was carried out in the United States, there’s that water was carried by largely by persons who define themselves as white. You can dance around that any kind of way. Doesn’t mean that every African-American’s persons hands were clean but this isn’t about sort of trying to pick through our ancestors and figure out who’s guilty of what. It’s about being truthful about the society and how it was constructed. The thing with most frustrates me is when we talk about slavery as “a part of our history.” It the thing on which as you said, it’s the thing which the nation was built. I’ll repeat when Northerners sort of turn up their noses at Southern states as if somehow this is a problem like racism or slavery is something that was created in the South, that is an untruth.
Osborn: When I was talking about the Native Guard, the Native Guard were made up of free people of color or free before the Civil War. The 20,000 African Americans who fight during the Civil War for the Union are mostly made of former slaves. Not every free man of color, he might not have been of age to fight for the Union. They didn’t volunteer their service to fight, the governor of the time, I think it’s [Thomas] Overton [Moore], said that we want a home guard who’s going to defend property because the white Confederate men are going to be, are going to be out of state. So you’re home guard, yes some of you are slaveholders, you’re property holders, you’re going to defend your property and the city’s property in case of a Union invasion, but I’m going to let my cousin talk about this because he is the expert on blacks fighting in the Civil War and blacks fighting in wars in general, so Isaiah Edwards.
Mitchell: If I could just add-
Johnson: Molly, that will have to be it, after your comment.
Mitchell: Just one footnote, that they also justified signing up based on their participation in defending New Orleans in the Battle of New Orleans [of 1815]. It was a defense of New Orleans that they were calling on when they signed up to protect property.
Johnson: We have to close now. We’re running out of time. This is a subject obviously …
Audience Member #5: Can I answer this young man’s question?
Audience Member: Yes, go ahead.
Johnson: Sir, we’re just kind of running over time. However, if you’d like to come up and talk to the panelists as we convene. Thank you all. It really was great.
Louisiana Public Broadcasting aired a community discussion on July 22, 2015, about Confederate memorials and other symbols in the state. To view this episode of Louisiana Public Square, visit this link.