Last month we ran a piece by activist-artist Mwende Katwiwa (“Confronting Histories Old and New with #BlackSpring ”) which spoke at length about the monuments, street names, and other honors bestowed upon the architects of the defeated Southern Confederacy, and what it feels like to be a Black citizen in this country living with those reminders daily.
The argument is hardly new, but unfortunately, Mwende’s piece became ultra-relevant after the slaying of nine churchgoers by a young, radicalized white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina. That event put into stark relief the debate over whether Confederate symbols— especially those that are government sanctioned—are still appropriate today. Here in New Orleans, many monuments have come under increased scrutiny, namely Lee Circle, South Jeff. Davis Parkway, and the P.G.T. Beauregard statue at City Park. I’m happy to see the Landrieu administration jump ahead of this issue and begin to explore ways to reappoint these landmarks.
It’s clearly time for that Robert E. Lee statue to go. Some people have cried foul, suggesting that removing his likeness is akin to toppling Stonehenge or an attempt to erase chunks of history, ugly though they may be. But I think that’s a pretty weak argument. Before it was Lee Circle it was Tivoli Circle, and hopefully soon it will be something else. Cities change and evolve, and if anything, replacing these monuments with figures that better represent its citizens will, I think, induce a new wave of civic pride and commitment to New Orleans. At its most benign, I see this conversation as a chance to do some citywide spring cleaning, akin to moving pictures, furniture, and tchotchkes around a house in order to shuffle the energy.
A lot of suggestions have been made, many quite humorous (Richard Simmons! Guitar Lightnin’ Lee!). Ernie K-Doe would make a great beacon: his regal figure and self-appointed title “Emperor of the Universe” seem like natural qualities for a statue. However, in the spirit of Quixotic political crusades that embody Antigravity, I’d like to suggest another person of great historical importance for consideration: Henry Glover. Hopefully you are already familiar with this name. Henry Glover was a 31 year-old New Orleanian who was killed by the NOPD in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. Glover, who had been previously shot in the chest, was rushed to a commandeered police outpost in Algiers, only to be met by violent cops who beat and detained Glover’s rescue party. Glover himself bled out in the backseat of the car he was brought in, and his remains were set afire and left to burn anonymously on a barren stretch of levee. Subsequent investigations would eventually reveal the NOPD’s role in this crime and the coverup that followed.
When we enshrine things and set them into the public geography, the idea is to never forget, and I would think a monument to Glover would set his story, literally, in stone. I’m not trying to be morbid. I just see it as an opportunity to reflect not only on the grisly details of one man’s death, but to appreciate the resurrection of the facts and the eventual light that shined on this grim episode, all during a major watershed event for the city. A monument to Glover would be a hopeful reminder that a government (and in this case, its agents of enforcement) can’t vaporize the truth when it has gone violently off course. Glover’s case—and not the removal of outdated statues—is a true example of an attempt to erase history.
Hundreds of years into the future, if you want to know who Robert E. Lee was, you’ll be able to find out. Removing his statue will hardly affect that. As for this modest proposal, I won’t hold my breath. I’m aware that Lee Circle (and every other Confederate monument like it) will be replaced with figures far more palatable to the people who actually implement these decisions, which, speaking of—will we ever see an election on this?
New Orleans is going through some intense growing pains right now, some of them healthy and some of them not (and you can read plenty more about that in this month’s issue). Removing these monuments is one thing we can all work on to truly revive our city. —Dan Fox