April 17, 2021
Pearl River There were years when our offices were on Howard Avenue. The first one was about nine blocks from the Mississippi River in New Orleans at the edge of the Central Business District. Next, we were on Baronne Street, halfway between Canal and Howard, then we were at 401 Howard Avenue, even closer to the River in the warehouse district, which pre-gentrification and pre-Katrina was actually used for warehouses. Bisecting Howard Avenue between those two addresses, there was no way to avoid driving, walking and gawking through Lee Circle and the towering statue of Robert E. Lee on top of the pedestal. Back then the YMCA was across from Lee Circle before they abandoned the city for the suburbs, where they could make more money. Sometimes visiting organizers would stay there or grab a shower at the least. The streetcar made its turns between St. Charles and Canal around the Circle.
Let’s face it, unless you kept your eyes peeled to the ground all the time, there was no way to avoid Robert E. Lee and the curious and continuing celebration of the Confederacy, even in our majority-Black city. In the Boy Scouts, one of the featured hikes was the Jeff Davis Trail along the Mississippi Sound for ten miles until you reached his old home. I warned Professor Karen Cox before our visit on Wade’s World about her new book, No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice, that she needed to be sure she remembered that the interview would be running in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana where these kinds of statutes were like bad weeds in the garden.
While we were talking about one fight after another from Richmond to Charlottesville and of course New Orleans as well, she pointed out that for all of the national celebration in New Orleans and approval of then Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s leadership in the removal, the city was not the first to take such action. Several decades ago, Selma, Alabama had removed a Confederate statute. Cox cited a count from the Southern Poverty Law Center of such memorials at about 1800 and actual monuments and statuary at about 750 to 800. Years ago, on Wade’s World, I interviewed an expert in this area and he had counted about 300 in Arkansas alone, so all of these numbers are probably an under count.
As a historian, Cox was crystal clear that none of these monuments are about history or culture, because their backstory is always wrapped in white supremacy and the waves of revisionism and reclamation of the days when slavery ruled the south before the Civil War. The United Daughters of the Confederacy was the leading fundraiser and organizer of many of these statutes and their annual memorialization in the post-Reconstruction period in the 1880s and 1890s. The Sons of Confederate Veterans have also picked up the flag. Whatever the rationale, the monuments have been rallying points for white supremacy and, as Cox points out, often dominate public spaces like courthouse lawns and public parks creating divisiveness rather than common ground.
There was no way to avoid the fact that despite some of the recent success, this is an ongoing battle with more such Confederate monuments still standing to divide people than have been taken down or moved to private spaces or cemeteries. Sad, but true.