Louisiana’s “Uncle Jack” Statue and the Problem of Interpreting Iconography in History Museums

In 1894 The Confederate Veteran, a magazine edited and published by Confederate veterans of the Civil War, offered an op-ed proposing the erection of new statues throughout the South in honor of the “faithful” slaves who stayed behind on their enslavers’ properties during the war. To wit:

It seems opportune now to erect monuments to the Negro race of the war period. The Southern people could not honor themselves more than in cooperating to this end. What figure would be looked upon with kindlier memory than old “Uncle Pete” and “Black Mammy,” well executed in bronze? By general cooperation models of the two might be procured and duplicates made to go in every capital city of the South at the public expense, and then in the other large cities by popular subscription . . . There is not of record in history subordination and faithful devotion by any race of people comparable to the slaves of the Southern people during our great four years’ war for independence.

For more than thirty years no Southern state took heed of these suggestions, but in 1926 a successful businessman in Natchitoches, Louisiana, commissioned the erection of a statue “dedicated to the faithful service of black people who had played an instrumental role in the building of Louisiana.” Although Jackson Lee Bryan was born after the Civil War in 1868, his privileged upbringing on Hope Plantation in Natchez, Louisiana, provoked nostalgic memories of earlier days when happy, contented black people slaved away on his parents plantation. Bryan committed $4,300 to erecting a statue, which was designed by Hans Schuler, Jr. the following year.

Photo Credit: Abagond https://abagond.wordpress.com/2010/07/23/uncle-jack-the-good-darky/
Photo Credit: Abagond https://abagond.wordpress.com/2010/07/23/uncle-jack-the-good-darky/

The Uncle Jack Bronze Statue, which is often referred to as “The Good Darky,” has an inscription stating that this statue was “Erected by the City of Natchitoches in Grateful Recognition of the Arduous and Faithful Service of the Good Darkies of Louisiana. Donor, J. L. Bryan, 1927.” At the dedication ceremony a resolution was passed stating that “the faithful and devoted service rendered by the old Southern slaves, in working and making crops and taking care of the [white] women and children, while their masters were away for many years, fighting to keep them in slavery, has never been equaled.”

Public iconography commemorating a historical person, event, or period serves a dual purpose in that it tells us something about both the historical moment being commemorated and the period in which the iconography is being erected. Uncle Jack, portrayed as an elderly black man in this statue, acts as a symbolic representation of both the 1860s and 1927. During the war the idealized Uncle Jack stayed at his enslaver’s home and faithfully tended to his duties even though the temptations of freedom knocked on his door. By 1927 Uncle Jack understood his role in Southern society and even embraced it, happily bowing his head and symbolically tipping his hat to the white society that had ostensibly provided care and protection for him throughout his life. Uncle Jack acknowledges that he doesn’t have the same rights as white people: he can’t vote, serve on juries, or use the same public facilities as white people, but these inconveniences are but a small price to pay for a more advanced, progressive society organized by the dictates of scientific racism, Jim Crow laws, and white supremacy. These are the messages the creators of “The Good Darky” monument hoped to impart on their viewing audiences.

Any casual student of nineteenth century U.S. history can easily see how this statue distorts what actually happened during the war. Hundreds of thousands of slaves ran away to contraband camps as United States forces regained control of lands throughout the South; roughly 180,000 African American men enlisted in the military through United States Colored Troops regiments following President Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation; and many other slaves, even if they didn’t run away, provided valuable reconnaissance and intelligence to U.S. forces in their effort to destroy the Confederacy. Some enslaved people may have stayed home out of a genuine sense of loyalty to their enslavers, but many were forced to stay simply because they had no other place to go or choice to make.

Uncle Jack’s life was priceless in the days of slavery, but his life became worthless in the war’s aftermath. He possessed nothing but his freedom, and that freedom was meager at best.

In 1968 black activists vandalized the Uncle Jack statue, and apparently somebody chucked the statue into a nearby river. The statue was recovered and removed from public view, however, and stored at the Natchitoches Airport for four years. Jackson Bryan’s daughter, Jo Bryan Ducournau, desired a new public location for the statue, and she began fielding offers from interested parties. Although some local residents wished for the statue to return to its original location, Ducournau and other civic leaders throughout Louisiana believed the statue would fit better in a museum where its meaning could be interpreted and contextualized by museum professionals (sounds like a familiar strategy, eh?). The statue was placed on public display at the Louisiana State University Rural Life Museum in 1974, and it remains there today.

Despite the museum’s stated purpose of interpreting “life ways of the working classes of the 18th and 19th centuries” in the Louisiana and Lower Mississippi River Valley, its leaders have largely failed in this endeavor with regards to the Uncle Jack Statue. Historian and sociologist James Loewen, writing in Lies Across America: What American Historic Sites Get Wrong, asserts that:

When statues become controversial . . . civic leaders sometimes suggest that they be carted off to a museum. The statue of ‘The Good Darky’ shows what can go wrong with that solution. Although run by a university, the Rural Life Museum has not used ‘The Good Darky’ to ‘provide insight into the largely forgotten lifestyles and cultures of pre-industrial Louisiana,’ the museum’s avowed purpose. Instead, it situated the statue in a place of honor. No plaque gives any information about its history or symbolic meaning, and on the layout of the museum given to every visitor, it is identified by the familiar segregationist form of address, ‘Uncle Jack.’

Beyond the writing of interpretive text markers or plaques I would be absolutely shocked if any sort of facilitated dialogue or interpretive program ever takes place at this statue. Loewen’s description of the statue’s interpretation (or lack thereof), which he wrote in 1999, still seems to be the same today in 2015. According to the Rural Life Museum’s online description of the statue:

Uncle Jack is still controversial today. Individual reactions vary: to some, it is an honor; to others, it’s demeaning; and still to others, it is fond reminiscences. However, everyone will agree that it is part of Louisiana’s history.

In the future [it] is hoped that an accurate interpretation of the statue will be revealed not only to our visitors but also to ourselves.

Whatever the hell any of that passive nonsense actually means.

So what do we do with this statue? Remove it? Find another way to recontextualize it in a museum setting? Relocate it to its original place? Each option presents its own challenges. Saying that removing the statue will be a morality play that “destroys history” or that all problems are solved by putting it in a museum setting seems incredibly mistaken to me in this particular instance.


40 thoughts on “Louisiana’s “Uncle Jack” Statue and the Problem of Interpreting Iconography in History Museums

  1. Having just taught the Spanish American War units of the American history survey, I’m struck by the international context in which these statues went up. Specifically, the United States, after gaining Cuba and the Philippines, was mystified by the fact that people of color there didn’t want to be civilized by Americans. See here, and here. So the question wasn’t just a local power trip disguised as an outbreak of loving nostalgia, but it was an affirmation that these paternalistic aspirations were possible in the imperial context, despite what Emilio Aguinaldo said.

    Great post.

    1. That’s a brilliant point, Chris. The international and imperialist context in which this statue came up is also really important. Thanks for sharing those resources.

    1. So the shooting in Oregon, and else where was the fault of the Confederate Flag. Do you think maybe the United States flag was involved just a little bit?

      1. What does the Oregon shooting have to do with the discussion at hand? Who is arguing that the United States flag is an unblemished symbol of a perfect nation?

      2. It, and some of these other mass shooting, has as much do with the discussion as the Confederate flag has to do with the shooting in Charleston. but the subject of mass shooting was brought up. You had no problem with the subject then.

      3. The subject of the Confederate flag was brought up after the mass shooting in Charleston because Dylann Roof posed for pictures in which he burned the American flag and proudly waved the Confederate flag. He is an avowed white supremacist whose online writings and vocal/symbolic support of the Confederacy (among other countries like Apartheid era South Africa and Rhodesia) is well-known. There is more than a coincidence behind Roof’s ideological beliefs and his actions that day when he decided to murder nine black churchgoers at Emmanuel AME. Most rational people understand these facts and, quite predictably, the discussion over the legacy and meaning of Confederacy has taken a national stage in the wake of this tragedy. That is why the Confederate flag was brought up in connection with the mass shooting at Charleston, and why it has not been brought up in connection with other mass shootings in Oregon and elsewhere where sympathy for the Confederacy and a dedication to white supremacy were not underlying motives for the shooter’s actions. None of what I’m saying should be controversial.

        Please explain how any of this is relevant to the shooting in Oregon.

      4. Oh gee one photo of a kid with mental issues posing with a little old Confederate flag. Now you are gonna tell me Roof is the only one who burned a US Flag. That is a cause??? How about all these other mass shooting , they were under the US flag but I hear no calls to take down that flag., one shooting was by a US soldier!!!!

        I am rational and I understand perfectly. It was a chance for those who are biased about history to forward their agenda. Facts meant nothing.

        The only people who are clamoring about the Confederate battle flag and white supremacy are people who have an agenda. or lack historical facts.

        And speaking of White supremacy, is that anything like the KKK’s official flag, the UNITED STATES FLAG!!!

  2. Also…

    This is an excellent cautionary tale. What happens when politicians and others sweep these things under the museum rug? Despite all the noise that folks like us make about needing to “interrogate” this history (and Ashley Luskey is absolutely right about that need), museums largely avoid doing so. I heard through the grapevine that the director of the South Carolina museum that accessioned the SC CS flag is ambivalent about the flag’s presence in the collection, but is excited that it being there will attract sympathetic budget money from the legislature that can be channeled into conservation work on other historical flags. I actually have no problem with the later sentiment, but the former is indicative of museums’ apparent complicity in the … well, I won’t call it a coverup … the deadly inertia. We are earning the distrust good people like Aleia Brown harbor.

    Are there examples of a monument steward or a museum with an historical Confederate flag centering a productive dialogic program on such an artifact?

    1. That’s a great point about museums playing the role of a “rug” in which all the tough, controversial history is hidden. I am having a hard time thinking of any specific dialogic programs but I think John Hennessy at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Battlefield has done something along those lines, and I know that John Coski has done many talks about the Confederate flag over the years since he wrote his book on the flag in 2005 (I believe).

  3. It appears to me that those offended by the statue are those who are ignorant of true factual history. Of course we know the overall agenda is to remove anything Confederate from public.

    1. Whose agenda is it to “remove anything Confederate from public”? The question is whether the historical persons, events, and moments a society chooses to commemorate are worthy of that commemoration. What you find worthy of commemoration may not be the same as what other people consider as worthy of public commemoration. Most of the people who are offended at this statue are offended because they understand that this statue is an obvious distortion of the history and horrors of slavery and Jim Crow, as I discussed in this post. I’d be happy to give you some resources on these topics if you’d like to learn more.

      1. Al Mackey, Brooks Simpson Nikki Haley to name a few. To see the attacks on anything Confederate all one has to do is visit Simpson’s or Mackey.’s blogs.

        Ah so you wish to change the quest and now it is society. LOL LOL Most people who are offended are ignorant of history. Are you denying that some slaves were loyal to their masters and supported the Confederacy? That is to who the statue is dedicated.

        I can also give you resources on slavery and Jim Crow if you want. Also we dfan discuss the atrocities committed by Union soldiers on the negroes in Louisianan if you wish

      2. You won’t get any intelligent responses from George Pervis, Nick. He’s just a troll who’s neither capable nor interested in learning more. He actually sees nothing wrong with the statue.

        Personally, I think this particular statue belongs where it is, in the museum, as an example of Jim Crow era racial thought. However, it needs to be properly interpreted. Just putting it in the museum isn’t enough. It has to have its history shown and placed within the context of the Jim Crow era. Simply putting it in the museum with no explanatory interpretation and no context is only doing a quarter of what needs to be done. I’m wondering why the professionals running the museum haven’t done anything with it yet. Are they lacking the resources with which to do this? Or is it a question of lack of motivation? And they need to change the way they refer to it in the layout. It sounds like there’s a lack of motivation. If that’s the case, it will take outside pressure to move things along.

        1. Great comment, Al. I share your concerns and agree that a museum setting would be appropriate for the statue with the caveat that public historians would need to work hard to develop appropriate programming, interpretation, and context.

      3. Please find me the exact passages in which Al or Brooks call for the wholesale destruction of Confederate iconography. They have been critical of some Confederate iconography, yes, but they have never called for its wholesale destruction. Governor Haley is a politician whose opinions on the flag shift with popular sentiment in her state and nationally. I’d take her perspective with a grain of salt.

        I *specifically* stated in this VERY post that “Some enslaved people may have stayed home out of a genuine sense of loyalty to their enslavers.” I have no doubt it happened every once in a while.

        What Union soldiers did or did not do to African Americans in Louisiana is a red herring and wholly irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

        We are done here. Thanks for your comments and have a great day.

      4. Nor will you get intelligent responses from Al Mackey. Come on Al put up a link to your trashy blog and let everyone see your hate and bigotry put on public display. Not scared or you???

        Jim Crow had nothing to do with honoring loyal servants. This is just a smoke and mirrors tactic you are using. Besides Jim Crow started in the North.

        Oh you are free to come to Cold Southern steel, and prove me wrong anytime you please. I won’t ban you for posting fact like you did me.

      5. Nick,
        I just told you go to Mackey’s or Simpson’s blog. I am not going to be a gofer for you. You are also welcome to come to my blog, Cold Southern Steel, and read or make civil posts.

        yes you did say that didn’t you? And that is what the statue is about isn’t it? Not a problem except for people like you? Stayed every once in a while. That statement proves exactly how much research was done by you. I have documented many times loyal slaves stayed home.

        No the treatment of negroes in Louisiana is as relevant to this discussion as mass, shooting by the CBF, Jim Crow, removing statues, or changing history. It is a subject you don’t want to open for fear of the truth being told.

  4. And now we see that Pervis is a liar as well. You know, Nick, that I’ve never called for removing “anything Confederate from public,” to use Pervis’ semiliterate language. Pervis just makes this stuff up as he goes along. I’ll repeat here what I’ve said many times at my blog. I think confederate monuments should be interpreted as relics of the time in which they were erected. They tell us far more about those times and the people who erected them than they do about what and who they are memorializing, especially when they are factually wrong. In cases such as this one, I think having it in a museum is most appropriate mostly because it’s offensive and likely to be damaged if not protected in a museum. Having said all that, the disposition of confederate monuments is up to the people in the places where they are located, and I’m content to leave it in their hands. In some cases they will do what I think should happen. In other cases they will remove the monuments or destroy them. In other cases they will do nothing to them. Whoever has the political power has the ability to decide what to do with them.

    I won’t even get into Pervis’ mangling of the Jim Crow reference and his total lack of knowledge about it.

    1. Thanks again, Al.

      You, me, and many other thoughtful scholars have taken a very similar approach in that we are advocating for thoughtful discussion and contemplation about America’s commemorative landscape and how it represents the values of this country, both past and present. What happens to Confederate iconography throughout the country, as you say, will have to be debated and discussed in local communities throughout the country. Some items will remain, some will be moved (possibly to a museum), and others will be completely removed. What and who is worthy of public commemoration? That is the crux of the discussion at hand about Confederate iconography.

      I have not seen you or Brooks Simpson or anyone else taking this discussion seriously advocate for the wholesale destruction of Confederate iconography, and that’s the position I hold as well. That Mr. Purvis would accuse you and Brooks of advocating that position, and then demand that I find evidence of those statements when I ask him to document proof for those claims (as if *I’m* the one making them!), shows that he has a tendency to sometimes make claims about other peoples’ thoughts based on his emotions rather than actual evidence.

  5. Nick, I hope your aren’t mad. You see most people get mad when I come to their blogs because I use cold hard facts in my responses. It is a shame we never got the point of exchanging facts, I could have shown you about 10,000 names and numbers of Negroes who supported the Confederacy in some way shape or form. Hardly just a few as you say.

    At any rate I would like to invite you and your readers to a website I maintain, Southern Heritage Advancement Preservation and Education (SHAPE) at http://southernheritageadvancementpreservationeducation.com/page.php?4

    I have some very good documentation here including who fired the first shot at Sumter and the REAL Cause of the war.

    My blog, Cold Southern Steel, owned by me but separate from SHAPE, is located at https://coldsouthernsteel.wordpress.com/

    You can go hear and see for yourself I have challenged Mackey’s hate of anything Confederate for sometime. You are welcome to post anytime, anyplace, but I insist on civil
    insult free exchanges.

    Thank you for letting me be your guest.

    George Purvis

    1. Thanks George,

      You stated in an earlier comment that “Al put up a link to your trashy blog and let everyone see your hate and bigotry put on public display. Not scared or you???” That is completely uncalled for, as is your claim that I am trying to “ban” you from this website you even though I’ve approved every comment you’ve posted. Whether you’ve actually dealt in “cold hard facts” rather than personal opinion in these exchanges is a matter of debate, but I’ll let that drop.

      I’m not angry at you, George, and I’ll definitely stop by to check out your resources, but you should heed your own advice and work a little harder to promote “civil insult free exchanges” on other folks’ blogs, especially ones you might disagree with. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated.

    2. Here we see exactly why George Pervis “gets in trouble,” to use his terms. First, he has problems telling the truth. He claims he uses “cold hard facts,” yet we can see in all his responses here he has been fact-free. When challenged to provide evidence for his claims, he deflects and refuses to provide the evidence. Next he’ll claim he’s been banned from your blog, too, even though he hasn’t been. Second, he lives in his own fantasy world instead of the real world. That’s why he thinks he has the names of 10,000 black confederate soldiers. He could really use the services of a good psychiatrist. Finally, he’s dim. A great example of that is his demanding I post a link to my blog without realizing there are links to my blog all over this page–because he’s lacking in intelligence. He can’t figure it out on his own.

      I encourage everyone to visit his site to see what passes for evidence in his little world.

      Note he’s had practically nothing to say about the topic of this blog post in all his ramblings here, and what he has said is merely his own delusions and falsehoods about others. What does he think ought to be done with the statue? Does he think the statue distorts history? Does he see any problems with the statue at all? Here’s his chance to surprise me and engage intellectually with the topic.

      1. facts– troublesome little things aren’t they Mackey? If it was easy to dispute my facts you would have already done so. You and Dick would be wise to stick to your insults, that is where you excel.

  6. Nick,

    My apologies, I think you did not understood my comment. It was actually directed to Mackey to put up a link to his hate filled and bigoted blog. See Mackey and I have some history and it is not pretty. I never insult first, it is a policy of mine, but once insulted or attacked personally, I can stand with the best of them.

    Again sorry for the confusion.

    In a day or so I will write some comments about this page. I’ll notify you when I do. There are a few items I would like to explain to readers.

      1. I see insults are allowed by those who agree with you. Interesting. Nothing left to be said about the biased of this blog is there?

        Great job Al and Jimmy, just the sort of responses I was looking for!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. Will you be offering anything new or be using facts? I am interested to see if you will simply be restating the same claims you made on Crossroads, Dead Confederates, Student of the Civil War, Civil War Memory, That Devil History, True Blue Federalist, and The Historic Struggle.

  7. I’m confused; I can understand honoring history, noble deeds, great acts, and great people; I don’t understand honoring ideas, people, or history that we can now know to have been wrong or misdirected.

    Southern history is obviously mixed with slavery and oppression of African Americans. Southern history is not defined by slavery and civil war, as there is no need to “erase” history, there is also no need to celebrate ideas or people that were involved in subjugating an entire race. There is no need to celebrate leaders that fought against the United States of America, and there is no need to celebrate people or events that lead to the killing of American soldiers.

    People and cultures often make mistakes because they don’t know better or because they don’t realize they are causing hurt. They correct the mistakes, they don’t honor them or try to justify them. Wrongs are wrongs and mistakes are mistakes – whether they were committed by Northerners, Southerners, Indian fighters, Nazi’s, or Benedict Arnold’s. Slavery was a wrong and a mistake, Jim Crow was a mistake, we don’t need to honor or support someone or something that presents these issues as history.

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