New Orleans Statues and memorials of various stripes are getting a good hard look after decades where they received a pass from the public and politicians no matter how obnoxious their content and symbolism. Confederate memorials are in every nook and cranny in the South, and it will take a while to root them all out, if that’s even possible. Other statues whether of Theodore Roosevelt celebrating imperialism or Abraham Lincoln with a freed slave at his feet are also part of the dialogue and debate.
New Orleans in some ways was ahead of this more recent curve. A monument to the reactionary battle by the White League against the black power of Reconstruction had long been shuttled about in infamy, especially after it became a gathering spot of the David Duke’s and Kluxers. The elevated statue of Robert E. Lee in Lee Circle at the edge of uptown and the Central Business District was finally removed after a lengthy fight and controversy during Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s last term in office. Other cities like Richmond, Virginia have now moved in similar directions responding to the upsurge of Black Lives Matter.
We live across the street from an arch that purportedly was one of the first memorials constructed to World War I veterans. The arch is now on the edge of the street with a fence behind and alongside of it that walls off the back yard of the high school situated there. The school has had its own name game. Once it was called Nicholls High in the last century, named after a former governor of the state, Francis T. Nicholls, who was no friend of Black Orleanians, leading to the Orleans School Board changing the name to Frederick Douglass High School. Charter school conglomerates took the school over and tacked to various winds, first deleting the name and now more wisely retrieving it as Douglass KIPP High School.
The arch was the centerpiece in middle of McCarty Park, a city square. The head of the local civic association didn’t like the fact that people, especially Black people, would congregate in the park all hours of the day and night, even as others walked around the square and enjoyed the shade of the huge oak trees. He lobbied for the school board to take it over and eventually a trade was affected and the arch was moved to its present location.
The arch recognizes all of the soldiers from the 9th ward who fought and, in some cases, died in WWI. On one side, now facing the street, are the names of the white soldiers. On the other side is the list of the Black soldiers, now behind the arch in the new positioning. It is somewhat remarkable in Jim Crow New Orleans that the Black soldiers were chiseled on the arch at all, segregated, but at least recognized and memorialized. For the thirty-one years we have lived across from the arch, we have often encouraged visitors and people passing by to walk around and view both veteran plaques.
Over the weekend, the base of the arch was plastered with BLM slogans in red paint and various vulgarism about the police. Perhaps the arch has now made the list for removal. If it offends, it should go, but not without mixed feelings. I know of no other memorial that recognizes a neighborhood and all the soldiers who fought or died, both black and white, anywhere else in the city or frankly the country. We’ll see what the future holds, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I would miss the arch and our ability to give the honor it deserves, even with all its flaws, of names now long forgotten over the last one-hundred years.