When I visited New Orleans a few weeks ago, I made a point of seeing a monument dedicated to the Battle of Liberty Place. Following a close gubernatorial election that the Republican Party narrowly won, roughly 5,000 angry Democrats, including many ex-Confederates and white supremacists, organized as the self-proclaimed “White League” and stormed Canal street in downtown New Orleans on September 14th, 1874, engaging in ugly violence with black and white city officers and state militia members. Eleven police officers were killed and a temporary state of anarchy existed until federal troops could restore order to the city three days later. This monument is one of several throughout New Orleans and the country as a whole that have been seen as prime candidates for removal from public spaces in recent years, although they’ve always been controversial and contested.
Over the past two years I’ve heard many impassioned pleas online and in face-to-face conversations to not remove these monuments commemorating Civil War era figures and events. The decision of the New Orleans City Council in 2015 (which is still currently being decided in court) to remove four Confederate monuments, including the aforementioned monument to the Battle of Liberty Place, has garnered particular criticism from monument defenders who see the city’s historic landscape being destroyed (although most folks I’ve talked to have no idea what the Battle of Liberty Place was about). History is history, they say, whether we agree with the particular person or event being commemorated. To remove any icon will lead to the erasing of history and the potential for more collective ignorance of the past.
This position is unavoidably short-sighted in my view. It fails to thoroughly interrogate what the purposes of public iconography should be. It assumes that public iconography only intends to commemorate and teach us lessons about the past and is not a statement of contemporary values; that something like the Liberty Place monument is merely a tribute to events in 1874 and not also a symbol of events in 1891–the year the statue was dedicated–when racial segregation, Jim Crow, and lynchings became commonplace throughout the South; when blacks were being disenfranchised and removed from political office; and when the very same White League again took the law into their own hands and lynched eleven Italian immigrants without ever being charged for their crime. It also assumes that public iconography can exist without interpretation and act as a “neutral,” self-evident symbol of historical commemoration of which we all agree about its true meaning.
The Liberty Place monument is a case in point. The text, part of which has been recently broken off, attempts to play the role of an objective symbol through the use of vague, passive language that gives equal honor to all involved in the battle: “In honor of those Americans on both sides of the conflict who died in the Battle of Liberty Place. A conflict of the past that should teach lessons for the future.” But what was the conflict about? What lessons should we learn about the future from this event? The text, it seems, obscures more than it educates.
In 1932, local leaders decided to clarify what the conflict was about and what lessons should be learned from this monument. Additional text was added stating that “United States Troops Took Over the State Government and Reinstated the Usurpers But the National Election 1876 [sic] Recognized White Supremacy in the South and Gave Us [i.e. the whites] our State.” The lessons of the monument for these leaders was that armed revolt against the democratically elected Republican governor and state government was justified because the “usurpers”–white and black Republicans and the federal government at large–took power and attempted to instill a new order of biracial governance in the South on the basis of political equality. With the election of President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and the removal of federal troops from the South, the Battle of Liberty Place contributed to the eventual restoration of white political, cultural, and economic supremacy in the South. This revised text has since been removed, but it clarified the purpose of the Liberty Place monument for viewers in the 1930s and beyond, demonstrating that the commemoration of history is also a political message and that this particular text was a statement of values in New Orleans during the Jim Crow era.
In the 1990s the city of New Orleans attempted to remove the Liberty Place monument. After the Ku Klux Klan protested its removal, a compromise measure was enacted and the monument was relocated from Canal Street to a remote spot at the intersection of Iberville and Badine streets, where it is now located next to a public parking garage and large electric poles that look more majestic than the monument itself.
As I walked around the monument one night during my trip, I couldn’t help but think about the numerous families I saw walking by the monument and what they were thinking as they made their way towards other activities in the city. Black, White, and Asian families walked past the monument and took short glimpses at it, probably focusing on its aesthetics or wondering what the monument intended to commemorate. And as I analyzed this neglected, broken monument to white supremacy–a monument that probably has less of an excuse to remain in a public space than just about any other Civil War era monument in the country–I wondered if leaving it in this remote location could actually be a fitting symbol to the history of racism, white supremacy, and the Lost Cause in the United States. Maybe the true lessons of the Liberty Place monument are different than the ones originally envisioned in 1891 and 1932.