Removal

By  |  September 5, 2017
“The General,” by Mark Flood. Courtesy of the artist and Maccarone, NY/LA “The General,” by Mark Flood. Courtesy of the artist and Maccarone, NY/LA

A guide in a hoopskirt showed off the tablecloth that the lady of the house at Oak Alley Plantation had selected as a finishing touch to her dining room. She pulled a rope that animated a ceiling fan, noting that a house slave would have stood here all night to keep guests cool during dinner parties. As the tour guide led our group of a dozen people upstairs, I caught a glimpse of the Converse sneakers underneath her skirt, and I wondered when she would explain how the labor of enslaved people had made possible everything we’d seen at this grand home in Vacherie, Louisiana. Instead, the guide positioned us in front of a set of double doors. After making sure we had our cameras ready, she flung the doors open. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she said, “the trees of Oak Alley.” By the end of the tour I knew exactly how many oak trees had given the plantation its name—twenty-eight—but nothing about the people who once worked the land stretching out behind the shaded drive.

I hadn’t taken a plantation tour since elementary school, but I had a few friends visiting me in New Orleans and they wanted to see a version of the South they’d imagined—a landscape and setting that my city had failed to satisfy. I should have told them that there isn’t one cohesive story. On our tour at Oak Alley, the history lesson didn’t go deeper than that tablecloth, a pretty lace affair yellowed with age. (In 2013, Oak Alley added an exhibit dedicated to documenting the history of slavery at the plantation.) But down the road at the Whitney Plantation, the first plantation in the country dedicated to telling the history of American slavery, one might learn something from the sugar kettles. They’re big and industrial, with lichen growing up their rusty sides. A plain-clothed tour guide stands beside them, explaining exactly what happened to the people who cut, boiled, and turned all the cane that passed through the drums. The physical spaces are similar—both plantations have Spanish moss and oak trees and a big house that evokes Gone with the Wind. (Oak Alley actually sells mint juleps on the property after your tour.) One landmark is contextualized, while the other is propped up and powdered.

In New Orleans, where I grew up, less luminous sides of history can be hard to see clearly through all of the chaos and celebration. In childhood, I frequently rode past the massive pillar with Robert E. Lee’s frowning countenance sitting on top of it. Visiting the aquarium meant parking next to the Battle of Liberty Place monument, a statue erected in honor of members of the White League, a group of men, mostly Confederate veterans, who killed police officers who were fighting for an integrated city government in 1874. And going home from soccer practice surely meant driving down Jefferson Davis Parkway, alongside a larger-than-life likeness of the Confederate general stretching out an open palm, just a mile away from a statue of a mounted P. G. T. Beauregard that welcomed visitors to City Park. 

 

I’ve known Mitch Landrieu since I played youth soccer with the Carrollton Boosters Club, one of the only places in New Orleans where I played alongside black children. He was my coach. One of my strongest memories, from the time when he was still in the state legislature: During a game, a chicken ran onto the field, and he let us stop to chase the bird.

I went away to college in 2007. By the time I moved back home in 2012, I’d become a reporter and Landrieu had become the mayor of New Orleans; he no longer had time outside of his day job to field a soccer team made up of five-year-olds. Covering events around town, I’d always give Landrieu a nod, and he’d occasionally come up to me after press conferences or community events and shake my hand, telling me how proud he was that I was working for the Gambit. He’d ask after my family with a “How’s ya daddy?”

Landrieu’s rise wasn’t any great shock. He is part of a New Orleans political dynasty, beginning with his father, Moon, who had nine children. (He gave them all names that begin with M.) Mary Landrieu, Mitch’s sister, is a former U.S. senator who lost her seat in 2014 to Bill Cassidy, a Republican, during a wave of anti-Democratic backlash in the middle of President Obama’s second term. Landrieu launched his political career as a state representative in 1988. He ran for mayor in 1994 but lost to Marc Morial; he became Louisiana’s lieutenant governor in 2004. In Baton Rouge, he designed one of the state’s only government-sponsored projects to commemorate its involvement in the slave trade: the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail, a winding path of historical and cultural sites that acknowledge the crimes suffered between New Orleans and Shreveport and celebrate the cultural and artistic heritage of Louisiana’s African Americans.

Just five years after Hurricane Katrina, in June 2010, Landrieu was elected mayor of New Orleans. He was reelected in 2014, winning 64 percent of the vote with a wide range of support among both whites and blacks, though he was often criticized for leaving parts of the city out of the recovery process, creating neighborhoods unshielded from the nationwide epidemic of gentrification, and relying too heavily on public-private partnerships to keep the city safe. (He worked with trash mogul Sidney Torres, who created his own patrol of the French Quarter to supplement the city’s police department during a period of especially high crime.) Landrieu has a gift for rhetoric, and like any good politician he knows when to fall back on key phrases better suited for daytime television. Over the years, I’ve heard him repeat the same cheesy slogan a thousand times: “One Team. One Fight. One Voice. One City.”

New Orleans had been talking about getting rid of its Confederate statues for decades when Landrieu formally called for their removal at a one-year anniversary event for Welcome Table New Orleans, a racial reconciliation initiative. (It was June 2015, one week after Dylann Roof walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and killed nine African-American churchgoers.) To emphasize his point, he pulled a chair to the lip of the stage and improvised the kind of conversation he imagined black fathers in New Orleans had with their daughters to explain the significance of Robert E. Lee and why the city saw fit to hold him up on a literal pedestal looking down over one of our most high-traffic intersections. It was a crass and awkward moment: a white mayor pretending to be black and talking about a pain he’d never felt. Still, the crowd erupted into applause when he concluded by saying, “I think today’s the day we start having the discussion about what we’re going to put there to celebrate our three-hundredth anniversary.”

I caught up with the mayor two years later, on a hot afternoon last March at City Hall. “What I know is that these four particular monuments should never have been put up,” he told me, referring to the Liberty Place, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P. G. T. Beauregard monuments. Since the 2015 racial reconciliation panel, he’d battled constant protests, countless public forums, and threats of violence, but he looked calm and rested—confident, like his father looked in photographs I’d seen. “I know I have the power to take them down, and I know I have the time to do it,” he said. “So I’m going to do it.”

 

left New Orleans again when I was twenty-seven. I’d been a reporter there for two years, and I wasn’t sure where to go next. Like a lot of my peers, I grew up believing that to be successful, you had to leave. Pre-Katrina city leaders griped about this “brain drain,” something Landrieu attributes to New Orleans’s not-very-secret tendency toward exclusion, which he says the monuments represented. 

“How many generations of young African-American leaders did we lose because they didn’t feel welcome?” he said on that March day at City Hall. “How many white progressive people left this town because the business community was so closed off, or because they couldn’t get into the country club? That whole notion of—This is ours, not yours. That mentality has kept New Orleans much smaller than she needed to be.”

When Landrieu feels passionate about a subject, his words seem to tumble out from between his teeth, though I never get the feeling that he’s lost control of what he’s saying.

“This city needs to make some really hard decisions about who she wants to be—a little sleepy Southern town that reveres the Confederacy, or a twenty-first-century city that honors its past but thirsts toward the future? There’s a reason that New Orleans was bigger than Atlanta and Houston in 1960 and we’re smaller than them today. And it’s the reason you’re in New York right now.” 

When Louis Armstrong was nine years old, he was arrested in New Orleans for firing a gun into the air. The New Orleans Police Department labeled him as a “dangerous and suspicious” character. This bothers Landrieu. Armstrong is one of New Orleans’s most famous sons, and it’s disheartening that he didn’t feel welcome in his hometown after he’d made a name for himself. 

“Those statues represent the attitude that this city isn’t really yours.” 

Landrieu insisted that the various threats and criticism hurled his way since the 2015 announcement were simply part of the territory of making change. “In a historical context,” he said, “this is the blink of an eye.” But the threats were real. Someone set a contractor’s car on fire after his company was hired by the city to remove the monuments, and an anonymous donor who is said to have put up more than $170,000 to remove the statues (the city’s only contracting bid to remove the monuments was priced at $600,000) received death threats in his mailbox. I assumed such vitriol would slow what was sure to be an already Zamboni-paced project, stretching its execution long past Landrieu’s tenure as mayor. But with all that’s happened since, I wonder now if such a direct outpouring of hatred actually accelerated the removal of these statues, making action that much more necessary. 

 

Civil rights leaders have sought the removal of the Liberty Place monument since the 1960s, and in 1974, the New Orleans City Council added an inscription to the monument explaining that the statue did not reflect the city’s current philosophy (thus, nullifying the statue’s intention). In 1989, the statue was moved from its prominent place on Canal Street to an obscure location near the Mississippi River. And then in 1993, Rev. Avery Alexander confronted an opposition group led by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke to remove it once and for all. It seemed a small order to remove the stone obelisk—one less controversial than the removal of life-sized statues (“The Liberty Monument speaks for itself,” the mayor told me)—and yet a photograph from a protest in the 1990s shows men at the statue’s base baring their teeth on the verge of violent action, held back by police officers. 

In 2016, a statewide poll’s results decried the mayor’s intentions. Three historical-preservation societies and the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans filed suit against the mayor and the city’s Department of Transportation, claiming that the City of New Orleans did not have the authority to tamper with sites recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. Earlier this year, the courts ruled against the plaintiffs and in favor of the city. “I was really surprised by how many people think they own the property in the City of New Orleans,” Landrieu said. 

In early April, I reached out to the Louisiana Landmarks Society, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. A spokesperson there sent me to the Monumental Task Committee, another plaintiff. An MTC volunteer named Kurt Fromherz returned my inquiry. Fromherz is a patient man, but over the phone he said that the Monumental Task Committee has been knocked around by the press. He was clearly frustrated by the questions I was asking. I sent Fromherz some follow-up questions via email, and he responded on behalf of Pierre McGraw, the president and founder of the MTC. He argued that all of the monuments were worth saving—even Liberty Place. “They are monuments to a brief but complicated chapter of American history that should not be glossed over,” he wrote. “Also, they’ve all graced the city’s landscape for more than a century and have never been considered ‘nuisances’ until mayor Landrieu made that claim. The mayor of New Orleans created a problem where none existed, now we have a giant divisive and emotional controversy. Mayor Landrieu can’t be diverse, inclusive, and tolerant when he is working tirelessly to erase an undeniable part of New Orleans’ history.”

Take ’Em Down NOLA, the nonprofit co-founded by Michael “Quess?” Moore, began calling for the removal of the monuments in 2014 (just under a year before Mayor Landrieu did the same). The group issued a statement in March calling for the removal or renaming of a dozen monuments, twenty-four streets, seven school campuses, and two hospitals: “These structures litter our city with visual reminders of the horrid legacy of slavery that terrorized so many of this city’s ancestors. They misrepresent our community. We demand the freedom to live in a city where we are not forced to pay taxes for the maintenance of public symbols that demean us and psychologically terrorize us.”

They started coming down on April 24. First Liberty Place was whisked away to a storage facility near the Mississippi River. Then Jefferson Davis, then P. G. T. Beauregard. Contractors worked in the middle of the night, fearing threats of violence. In between the removals, protestors wielding weapons and Confederate flags squared off with protestors singing “take ’em down.” I watched videos of the spectacle from New York, feeling a mix of pride and nostalgia as cranes lifted the obelisk, and then Davis, and then Beauregard on his horse. On my laptop screen, he looked like a tiny toy soldier.

 

While the city was doing the hard work of reckoning with its past—making itself more hospitable, more open—I was feeling homesick thirteen hundred miles away. I had watched the livestream of a city council meeting where familiar faces took the microphone to urge their representatives toward removal. I awoke every morning to a reporter for NPR’s local affiliate in New Orleans on the national news, describing the chaos of the night before. I wanted to stay up late watching the cranes work under the cover of darkness. I wanted to go home and know how it felt to drive past the old locations of the statues. I wanted to feel their absence.

As the four monuments came down, the city became the subject of national attention, praise, and scrutiny. Out-of-town protestors arrived. #boycottNOLA trended on Twitter, with thousands of users ranting about the ways the city had forsaken them by removing history. (“It doesn’t surprise me,” the mayor told me.) The mayor of Hanceville, Alabama, wrote to Landrieu asking if his city could accept the monuments from New Orleans. The New York Times published opinion piece after opinion piece, from dissenters and supporters. Many writers argued that the removal of Confederate monuments was only the first step on a long journey toward racial reconciliation. “Gathering there,” wrote Michael Tisserand, “friends and I talked about witnessing history; we’d hoped to see something we didn’t like about ourselves taken down and carted off. But that would let the city and us off too easily.”

Amid the chorus of opinions and think pieces, the loudest, most eloquent voice was Mayor Landrieu’s, immortalized in a speech he delivered on May 19, 2017. The remarks were meant to unify the city after a divisive period, but they were also meant to explain, from start to finish, the position he had taken from the beginning. “There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it,” he said. 

Landrieu addressed a small crowd standing in Gallier Hall, itself a monument to the city’s history as the former meeting place of the New Orleans City Council. In front of six American flags and three flags of the City of New Orleans, a police officer opened the ceremony with the national anthem. No one sat. Everyone shuffled. Nearby, Robert E. Lee was still being lifted up and taken away.

Landrieu addressed the multitude of histories we have before us. “One story told,” he said. “One story forgotten or maybe even purposefully ignored. . .  For a long time, even though I grew up in one of New Orleans’s most diverse neighborhoods, even with my family’s long, proud history of fighting for civil rights . . . I must have passed by those monuments a million times without giving them a second thought. So I am not judging anybody; I am not judging people. We all take our own journey on race.”

The speech was apolitical. This time, he sounded like a father reasoning with his child, without need for the theatrics he’d enacted two years earlier: he was calm and introspective. It was a personal account of the journey the mayor himself had taken and how that journey led him to where we all are now. It is not the kind of speech politicians often give today, and in the era of Trump, it felt like leadership. 

The media shifted its attention: the address was heralded as one of the greatest political speeches in years, a remarkable reminder of the power of phrases longer than 140 characters. (In an interview with the Nation, Michael “Quess?” Moore described the speech as a “typical white-savior cooptation of the narrative.”) Landrieu wound up on a list of potential presidential candidates for 2020, compiled by the New York Times. And for the first time in my life, I felt proud of the New Orleans political machine, so often lumped with Louisiana politics as a manipulative, corrupt, and broken thing. The city had listened to its people. It had done the right thing. 


As a kid, I joined a softball team after my stint on the soccer field. Landrieu coached alongside my seventeen-year-old brother. Today, the team photo is framed on my brother’s living room wall, with Landrieu smiling broadly beside us as we posed in our teal uniforms. Staring at the photo now, the scene looks idyllic to me, this mix of black and white faces, happy children holding Gatorade bottles on a bright green field. But then I’d remember how when I left practice, a cop would drive alongside my brother and me as we made our way to the car. I was too naive to recognize that not everyone on the team got this special treatment, or to see the implication inherent in two white kids being escorted through a mostly black neighborhood: that there’s danger in otherness, and that bad things happen when we blur the lines that separate us. 

In her essay “No-Man’s-Land,” writer Eula Biss suggests that white people feel uncomfortable in black neighborhoods because they feel like they’ve done things for which they deserve to be punished. “We secretly suspect that we might have more than we deserve,” writes Biss. “We know that white folks have reaped some ill-gotten gains in this country. And so, privately, quietly, as a result of our own complicated guilt, we believe that we deserve to be hated, to be hurt, and to be killed.” This very fear was palpable during the fight to take down the monuments: fear and shame and a reluctance to look in the mirror, reckon with the past, and move on. It prompted white folks, many from out of town, to chain themselves to the monuments, to march with Confederate flags and even an assault rifle, and to boycott New Orleans. 

Who knows what will go up in front of City Park in the future. Or who will sit atop the pillar in Lee Circle. How will we decorate the neutral ground in Mid-City, on Jefferson Davis Parkway? Landrieu says the choice isn’t his, and he’s right; it’s the city’s choice, and one that likely won’t be decided until after he leaves office. Sitting in his office, Landrieu did speculate as to what might replace Robert E. Lee. He imagined a piece of art dedicated to the things that make New Orleans unique, something that might reflect the city’s past, present, and future. In May, Landrieu publicly called for a dialogue about what would go in Lee Circle, and he specifically pushed for a three-hundredth anniversary monument for New Orleans. He noted that there are six different options being considered for the space and that a new monument commemorating the city’s upcoming milestone would be a worthwhile investment.

The day after the Liberty Place monument came down, I talked to the mayor on the phone. He was excited about the national attention the city was getting, I think, and he wanted to know if I felt it, too. Landrieu had just been interviewed by Rachel Maddow, and I was trying to keep up with him—to keep up with what was happening in the city. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t left to float away, far from a hometown that I could see changing over the Internet. “Jeanie, do you tell people you’re from New Orleans?” he asked. “You should. I hope you do.”


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Jeanie Riess works at the New Yorker. Previously, she was a reporter in Mississippi and Louisiana. Her work has appeared in Smithsonian, the New Republic, South Writ Large, and elsewhere.