Monumental decision: Who should be honored in place of the Confederates?

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The unveiling of the Robert E. Lee statue in 1884 was attended by Jefferson Davis and Gen. P.G.T Beauregard. The roundabout, here pictured in a period postcard, had previously been known as Tivoli Circle.

The unveiling of the Robert E. Lee statue in 1884 was attended by Jefferson Davis and Gen. P.G.T Beauregard. The roundabout, here pictured in a period postcard, had previously been known as Tivoli Circle.

I never would have guessed getting rid of the Confederate blemishes on our cityscape would become politically feasible — and so suddenly it’s almost a done deal! I’m elated.

Yes, my nostalgic sentimentalism gave me pause for about five seconds. I have many fond memories of Lee Circle, including swimming lessons at the old YMCA. And I always thought the statue of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard at the entrance to City Park looked cool, mainly because of the excellent horse.

The greatest loss will be an end to the periodic defacement of Jefferson Davis with swastikas and other markings appropriate to the ideology he stood for. More than the others, the Jeff Davis monument, on the parkway that bears his name, seemed to inspire political expression by our intrepid local population of anarchist vandals.

There’s a petition going around on social media to save the place names and monuments, Lee Circle in particular. But I question how many of the signatories actually live in Orleans Parish. You might think Beauregard would be getting more defense than Lee, if only because he was from here. Indeed, it’s hard to think of an historical figure that has less to do with New Orleans than Robert E. Lee. But they all need to go. The only question is what to replace them with.

One historic marker up for removal doesn’t need a replacement. The Liberty Place monument, hidden behind the Canal Place parking garage for the past 20 years, could be tipped over and just tossed in the nearest dumpster. The diminutive obelisk should have been a monument to the victims of the 1874 coup, in which Crescent City White League thugs shot at the backs of an integrated New Orleans police force, but it glorified the coup plotters instead, so just throw it out.

Since Confederate sympathizers no longer have the guts to argue baldly for white supremacy, they now claim that the Confederacy was a part of “history” (like everything else) and should be enshrined in stone and bronze for that reason. I agree with them to this extent: the sites of the three statues commemorating leaders of the Confederacy should be replaced with figures from that time period or earlier.

I think we play into the arguments of Confederate sympathizers if we feel we have to replace these old statues with people from a more recent time. We can’t just turn our heads in horror over the whole saga of New Orleans prior to the day before yesterday, in some vain search for a conflict-free historical moment that will never exist.

I think we also need to avoid the easy, touristic solution of just putting famous jazz musicians on vacant pedestals. Armstrong Circle, in addition to Armstrong Airport and Armstrong Park, would definitely be overkill. New Orleans is a lot more than the home of one famous guy; we should have the courage to acknowledge more of our history than what’s safe and cuddly and good for tourism.

Here are my recommendations for what should replace the three existing Confederate monuments. I’ve also got a suggestion for another monument in a different location that’s long overdue.

The big opportunity is Lee Circle — keep the towering column, but let’s put someone else up there. Many people have made good suggestions. Almost any figure would be better than Lee, given how tenuous his connections are to New Orleans. It’s obvious that he always represented an imposed ideology with very little organic connection to the society of the city. We should replace him with somebody local, but also from the same era.

That said, I think we should resist the temptation to be on the politically safe side and replace all of these monuments to white men with monuments to black people. The city needs to do more to honor its black leaders, but that doesn’t have to mean a ban on statues of white people.

How about a white New Orleanian of roughly Lee’s generation who stood for a more inclusive society than Lee did (when he wore the uniform he wears on the column). Since Lee Circle is in the American Quarter of the city, it would be even better to get somebody with ties to that neighborhood.

The Lee monument was dedicated in 1884, a dark time in New Orleans for local people — white or black — who envisioned the more inclusive society that had been attempted during Reconstruction. One prominent and nationally successful local writer spoke up: George Washington Cable.

Cable had already written a novel sharply critical of the slaveholding society that the Confederate monument builders were beginning to twist into some fairytale golden age. In 1884 Cable started going around on the lecture circuit — a mass medium of the day — delivering an oration called “The Freedman’s Case in Equity.” The speech excoriated efforts to erode black rights that were spreading across the South.

After vituperative attacks in the Southern press, followed by death threats, Cable was forced to leave his hometown for good — in the same year New Orleans adorned Lee Circle with its monument to some guy from Virginia who led the war for white supremacy (even though he, too, had later supported Reconstruction).

If we include Armstrong Park, Musical Legends Park, and numerous other locations, how many monuments to musicians do we already have in New Orleans? And how many monuments to writers? A bronze Edgar Allan Poe presides in Baltimore. Shouldn’t we celebrate our literary heritage as well as our music?

Through today’s sophisticated anti-racist lens, we can see numerous flaws in Cable’s literary effort to promote racial equality. Like his buddy Mark Twain, he briefly served in the Confederate military — but so did Afro-Creole writer and activist Armand Lanusse. Subjecting people of the past to contemporary litmus tests about what language they used and what uniform they may have worn, for whatever reason and however briefly, is historical illiteracy.

What we need to do is gauge the courage and vision of the stands people took in their own times. Cable’s stand for racial equality got him run out of town. I like the sound of “Cable Circle.” Bring the man back home. Put Cable on the column.

I suspect that Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration would rather see new monuments that could be better marketed to tourists. Cable Circle would be much more of a head-scratcher than Lee Circle or Armstrong Circle, but the monument isn’t a great selfie-op in any case, given how high its column lifts the statue above the street.

My next recommendation would be a tour guide’s delight, though she’s mistakenly been omitted from the city’s official commemoration of great New Orleanians: Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen. She should have a statue and it would do double duty for her daughter and namesake. Bayou St. John is the right place for a Laveau statue, since that’s where mother and daughter held their St. John’s Eve celebrations until they moved them closer to the lake. That makes them the perfect replacement for Beauregard.

The substitution is sure to be a big hit with the tourists, but with locals as well. The elder Laveau was revered by New Orleanians of different races and social classes at the time of her death in 1881. I would depict her seated magisterially, with daughter Marie, who assumed her mantle, standing behind with a mischievous gleam in her eye—since she was more of a disruptive trickster than her mother. Both should be scaled a bit larger than life, as befits their legends.

My idea about what to do with Jefferson Davis Parkway and the monument to Davis at its Canal Street crossing is influenced by what stands on the parkway neutral ground at Banks Street: a monument to Cuban independence hero, José Martí.

At a time of renewed Hispanic migration into New Orleans, and of renewed ties with Cuba, rededication of this picturesque boulevard provides a unique opportunity to salute our Spanish heritage. I like the series of statues on Basin Street commemorating Latin American revolutionaries, but people have been grousing about wanting to re-locate the Simon Bolivar statue for a long time. So why not move it to the parkway? He could anchor the parkway at Tulane Avenue (where a lesser Confederate now has his bust); and iconic Mexican President Benito Juárez could anchor the other end at the new Lafitte Greenway.

Latinos are abundant in the Mid-City area, and deserve an official nod from the city about the contribution of the Spanish colonial period to the city’s history. Streets named for the Spanish governors (Miró, Gálvez, etc) are also close by.

More to the point, remembering the Spanish period is especially useful as a way to distance New Orleans from the South represented by Lee and Davis and Beauregard. One of the most exceptional aspects of New Orleans when it entered the United States in 1803 was the city’s high proportion of free blacks. It was the Spanish who made it so, by allowing numerous avenues to freedom for slaves, opportunities that the Americans would quickly block.

Indeed, the day in 1803 after the formal parade celebrating the Louisiana Purchase, a parade that included two militias of free blacks, Gen. James Wilkinson, an alarmed aide to Gov. William Claiborne, sought additional American troops from Washington, warning that the “formidable aspect of the armed Blacks & Malattoes (sic) … is painful and perplexing.”

The French Quarter features a very prominent monument to Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville, the French founder and four-time colonial-era governor; now it’s time to recognize a Spanish-era governor. I propose that the Davis statue be replaced by one honoring Bernardo de Gálvez, the man also remembered in the names of St. Bernard Avenue and St. Bernard Parish. Among Gálvez’s many accomplishments is the capture of the British garrisons at Mobile and Pensacola in support of the American Revolution. That’s right, Gálvez is the only Louisiana governor to have attacked Alabama — and won! That should be reason enough for a monument.

Carl Sandburg’s famous poem, “Chicago,” celebrates that city of “building, breaking, re-building,” but that’s not us. The New Orleans way is not to ignore everything that happened more than five minutes ago, but to agonize over our history in a search for ghosts more amenable to the values we hold dear.

This is not an impossible task. One figure from the past — a figure more deserving of our collective reverence and grief than any other — has been ignored to date. Atoning for that neglect provides an opportunity far greater, and also different in kind, from simply swapping a fresh statue for that of a figure who has been disgraced.

We need a memorial to the people who built the city and its wealth, notwithstanding the life of terror forced upon them. We need a memorial to the victims of slavery.

There is John Scott’s beautiful “Spirit House” at the corner of Gentilly Boulevard and St. Bernard Avenue, and it should remain there. But a prominent location should be chosen for a more monumental statement.

The riverfront has an immigrant memorial and a Holocaust memorial, both of which are fine with me — until I reflect on the absence of a memorial to the holocaust of unwilling immigrants. Enslaved Africans were more responsible than anyone else for building the city we now hold dear, and for enriching the jerks who put up the Confederate memorials that we finally have the courage to tear down.

Spanish Plaza, currently in flux, is the perfect place for a “Tomb of the Unknown Slave.” People can reflect on it when they buy their outlet mall consumer goods, and it can be a terminus for numerous processionals and political demonstrations.

The river is the natural spot for the immigrant memorial, since that’s where my Irish ancestors and many others disembarked with hope and a dream. The slave memorial needs to be on the old riverfront, too, since that’s where they were hustled off in chains to build a great city that would then struggle to forget them — until now. What happens at this newly hallowed public space will be more important than any other public monument in the city, old or new.

C.W. Cannon’s latest novel is “Katrina Means Cleansing,” a young adult book about Hurricane Katrina for middle-school readers. He teaches writing and New Orleans Studies at Loyola University.

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