As some of the monuments to the Confederacy have come down, New Orleans finds itself at the forefront of a national conversation about statues that are, as Mayor Mitch Landrieu reminded us, “an inaccurate recitation of our full past, an affront to our present, and a bad prescription for our future.”
With their removal, amid both anger and joy, our city has struggled to contain competing understandings: that things have gone too far, and that this is just a beginning and has not gone nearly far enough.
For many, and certainly for the collaborative of artists, architects, planners, and urbanists who comprise Paper Monuments, the most pressing question is, what happens next? What are the symbols we want to celebrate in our public spaces? What are the legacies we want to honor?
Paper Monuments is a public history and public art project that strives to engage residents in a democratic process to determine what monuments are appropriate for New Orleans today.
We invite all New Orleans residents to propose symbols for our city that represent our collective vision, and, as we look to the future, to honor the erased histories of the people, events, movements, and places that have shaped our history.
Beginning in June, the Paper Monuments team began asking what is an appropriate monument to our city today?
The answers we’ve gotten have been amazing.
The Paper Monuments project produces posters which pair curated works, primarily from local artists, with narratives on the people, places, events, and movements missing from New Orleans complex history. We have reached out to some of New Orleans best scholars, activists, and storytellers to get their ideas.
Tulane University historian Sylvia Frey proposes St. Louis la Nuit, who was born in West Africa in 1728 and enslaved in New Orleans, where he helped to develop indigo as a key crop for the early economy of the region. La Nuit was freed for extraordinary service, fought in the American Revolution, and purchased land along Bayou Road. Selling smaller parcels to free women of color, he established the first free-black neighborhood in the nation.
Leon Waters, chairperson of the Louisiana Museum of African American History and manager of Hidden History, LLC, a publishing, touring and research company, proposes a monument to the General Strike of 1892, in which more than half of the city’s workers walked off the job for three days, shutting down the city and winning concessions on overtime and wages and securing a 10-hour day. The strike was remarkable for its scale and for the interracial solidarity shown by unionized teamsters, scalesmen and packers against the racial divide-and-conquer tactics of the Board of Trade.
Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, the noted Louisiana folklorist, proposes a monument to the San Malo Maroons, a self-sustaining community of the formerly enslaved who held and defended territory from Lake Borgne to the Mississippi River throughout the swamps on the eastern side of New Orleans and down into St. Bernard Parish.
Tulane historian Lawrence Powell proposes that we memorialize the funeral of André Cailloux. Cailloux, a captain of the First Louisiana Native Guard, was a leader in New Orleans’ free-black community and founder of the Friends of Order mutual aid society. He died a hero’s death leading the Guard in support of the Union assault on Port Hudson, Ms., during the Civil War. His example inspired mass enlistment of black soldiers against the Confederacy.
Father Claude Paschal Maistre performed last rites, in defiance of the archbishop’s threat of excommunication for any priest caught ministering to former slaves. Mourners lined Esplanade Avenue for Cailloux’s funeral and the procession of soldiers from the Second Louisiana Native Guard, along with a white regimental band from Massachusetts, may well mark the emergence of brass bands at funerals.
Powell’s proposal, paired with artwork by Langston Allston, was the first Paper Monument in circulation.
The proposals and posters created by scholars and artists are a door into a broader process for Paper Monuments. Over the next year, the Paper Monuments team will be working to collect community proposals and partnering with the University of New Orleans’ Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies to archive and catalogue them. We will be out at public buildings, community meetings, and festivals throughout the city, providing opportunities for residents to write, speak, and draw sketches of their monument concepts.
Our project is dedicated to expanding the circle of those who have a say in our public art, while seeking new concepts for people and events worthy of representation in public space.
We’d love to hear from everyone. A look at the community proposals we’ve collected so far provides evidence that all of us can collectively and creatively shape our city.
Community proposals reflect our vibrant culture. Among suggestions are monuments to Mardi Gras Indians, Super Sunday, a genealogy of New Orleans musicians, and the conversion of Lee Circle into a celebration of Allen Toussaint, Lee Dorsey or Fats Domino.
Proposals range from the deeply personal — a chess piece that represents love of the game, but is envisioned as a black queen, representing respect for black women — to the universal. An 11-year-old has proposed a sculpture of an atom, the cosmic building block.
We have proposals that reflect movement leadership among youth and women. They range from the Fyre Youth Squad to two John McDonogh High School students who organized five busloads of schoolmates and led them to a government meeting in Baton Rouge to express their frustration with schools that have more security guards than teachers. Another suggestion centers on Women of the Storm, a collaborative that cut across boundaries of race and class and proved vital in securing media coverage and congressional support for the city’s post-Katrina recovery.
The removal of the confederate monuments has revealed deep-seated divisions in our communities, but it has also sparked important conversations about the ties between symbols and systems, the links between the present and the past, the differences in how we experience our built environment, and what stories we tell and remember.
Paper Monuments views a community-driven, democratic process as critical to continuing and expanding those conversations. New Orleans needs a transparent public process for championing public art and monuments in our city. The goal is to ensure that when future generations question the intentions behind our monuments, the answers will be ones they can be proud of.
If you want to participate in Paper Monuments, reach out online, or find us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. If you have a monument to propose or need to do more research, please join us from 2-4 p.m. on Dec. 2 at the main branch of the New Orleans Public Library, 219 Loyola Ave., for History Unbound, a day of reading, writing, and celebrating New Orleans’ history.
Sue Mobley is co-director of the Paper Monuments.
Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.