The stately marble or granite of a historical monument implies finality, a historical moment fixed in time and place. In reality, however, the history and debate over historical monuments and memorials reflects the times and places in which they were built, moved, and taken down. On Monday morning, New Orleans city workers began removing the Liberty Monument, celebrating the victory of the white supremacist Crescent City White League over the city’s integrated police force in 1874. The city will also remove three other statues honoring Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and P.G.T. Beauregard. The successful effort to remove these monuments began in 2015 under the leadership of Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Landrieu’s pledge to place them in a museum ensures that the city will acknowledge its racist past, while no longer venerating those who undermined the values that New Orleanians treasure today.
Let’s first focus on the Liberty Monument itself. The text underneath the monument (shown above) crows about the triumph of white supremacy over the “usurpers” following the election of 1876. In explaining the removal of the monument, Mayor Landrieu explained,
Of the four that we will move, this statue is perhaps the most blatant affront to the values that make America and New Orleans strong today. I believe more strongly today than ever that in New Orleans, we should truly remember all of our history, not some of it. And that means we will no longer allow the Confederacy to literally be put on a pedestal in the heart of our city.”
Unlike the statues honoring Davis, Lee, and Beauregard, the Liberty Monument did not commemorate a battle or figure of the Civil War. Rather it celebrated a crucial event of Reconstruction, the bastard child of American history surveys, when white Southerners organized campaigns of violence and terror against newly enfranchised African-Americans and their white allies to regain political control over Louisiana. On September 14, 1874, after months of careful planning, the White League attacked and defeated the city’s metropolitan police force in a pitched battle, disarmed the African-American state militia, and deposed Republican Governor William Kellogg. This coup d’état enraged President Ulysses S. Grant who ordered Federal troops into the city and restored Kellogg to office, but the damage had been done. The White League had broken the backs of the integrated police force and African-American state militia. Following the presidential election of 1877 and the permanent withdrawal of Federal troops from the South, the White League took control of the state and began enacting their policies of white supremacy that would last generations.
The history of the Liberty monument since its construction reflects the city of New Orleans’ history with white supremacy. In 1891, the city built the monument celebrating the triumph of the White League and restoration of white power. The city held annual wreath laying ceremonies at the monument to commemorate the actions of the White League until World War I. The racist text celebrating the overthrow of the “usurpers” was not added to the monument until 1932. Following the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement, the city’s attitude towards the monument began to change. In the 1970s, the city added another plaque at the base of the monument attempting to move away from its celebration of white supremacy. In 1989, the city began major renovations of Canal Street prompting a wave of debate and discussion over the fate of the monument. In 1993, the city council declared the monument a nuisance and taken to a warehouse for safe keeping. They subsequently allowed the monument to be reinstalled near its original location at the foot of Canal Street. Since then locals have taken to vandalizing the statue to protest police brutality and the city’s current racial problems. Now thanks to the actions of Mayor Landrieu, the city council, and a Federal appeals court, the monument is gone.
Despite their appearance, monuments and statues are not fixed in time. Rather they have histories of their own that reflect and reveal the eras in which they were built, modified, and now removed. Mayor Landrieu himself has acknowledged this reality, saying, “This is about showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile — and most importantly — choose a better future. We can remember these divisive chapters in our history in a museum or other facility where they can be put in context — and that’s where these statues belong.” Simply tearing them down, as Landrieu points out, teaches us nothing. Placing them in their proper context gives us the opportunity to learn how and why they were built in the first place and hopefully replace them with something better.
For more information about the Battle of Liberty Place see this great article sponsored by the NEH: https://www.knowlouisiana.org/entry/the-battle-of-liberty-place