Is the past past? Confederate monuments, narrative tropes, and understandings of history
by Moira K. O'Shea
Questions of how we relate to our history have been at the forefront of U.S. national discourse as debates about school curricula, the renaming of military bases and public institutions, and other topics seem to be represented in online fora and the pages of newspapers every week. In these debates, we argue not only about how to represent the past, but whether the past is really past at all. Not least among the arguments that touch on these issues is the debate around Confederate monuments and other public commemorations of historical figures who have participated in oppression in various forms. Cities such as Richmond, Chicago, and New York have commissioned studies of their monuments, inviting comment and, in the case of Chicago and New York, issuing reports on the state of their urban representation of historical figures and events. While the last ten years have seen two waves of monument removals—the first in 2015-2017, and the second in 2020—controversies around the appropriateness of public monuments are no new phenomenon. In this essay, I outline a history of the debates around the removal of monuments to illustrate how our current debates about monuments have a past of their own that we have forgotten. Inherent in these debates and the suggestions for what to do with problematic monuments are diverse and sometimes contradictory understandings of our relationship to history. Take, for example, the removal of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans almost six years ago.
The removal began around 2 a.m. on April 24, 2017. While the police and onlookers watched, and snipers stood guard, workers with covered faces began to dismantle the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place. Despite worries to the contrary, there was little disruption, and around 5 a.m. the monument was loaded onto a flatbed and driven away. For the third and perhaps last time in 126 years, the monument was removed from public sight. Amid protests that sometimes turned violent, the city of New Orleans removed three more monuments over the next 25 days. By May 5th, a bright Friday afternoon, the last of the monuments, that of Robert E. Lee, was hauled away, leaving Lee Circle without a statue of its namesake for the first time in 133 years.
At first glance, it might seem as if the events leading to the removal of these monuments began in June 2015, when then-mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, called for the removal of four monuments: the statues of Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis, and the monument to the Battle at Liberty Place. Or one might assume that these events were sparked by contemporary events, such as the shooting of nine Black worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina by a White man and the subsequent removal of the Confederate flag from that state’s capitol building. Indeed, as New Orleans newspapers such as the Times-Picayune and the Advocate, and national newspapers such as the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Washington Post covered the story, coverage of the monuments frequently referenced these events. As in subsequent waves of monument removals, public commentary linked controversies surrounding the monuments to broader contemporary issues of racial justice and racial violence, making questions about the future of Confederate monuments all the more salient.
However, as I will show, the contestation—and eventual removal—of confederate monuments in New Orleans cannot be understood simply in terms of contemporary events, or as the actions of a single politician. Instead, the removal of these monuments must be understood as part of a much longer history of contesting confederate monuments in New Orleans. In the words of a local councilman, “I am the descendant of slaves. Before I knew there was a person called Mitch Landrieu, the people I cared about were talking about the need to take those statues down.” Indeed, in the case of these four monuments in New Orleans, very public contestations had occurred since at least the 1960s. For example, groups such as the NAACP, Concerned Clergy, and Black Lives Matter held protests in 1974, 2000, and 2014 respectively, seeking the removal of the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place, and later, to Robert E. Lee.
Throughout these controversies, monuments were sometimes temporarily removed or were amended with the addition of explanatory or exculpatory plaques; however, they were always returned, until 2017. As support for monument removal in public discourse grew over the decades—from being expressed primarily in the pages of newspapers such at the Louisiana Weekly, which began by serving predominantly the African American community, to being outspoken in the pages of the Times Picayune, a newspaper that has struggled with issues of race—the arguments both for and against the monuments themselves have remained remarkably stable, with both sides articulating their desires in terms that reflect distinct and divergent understandings of the relationship between the past and the present. It seems our disagreements about the past have their own past.
The monuments that were eventually removed in 2017 honoured three important figures of the Civil War and one event during the post-war Reconstruction period: Robert E. Lee, the commander of the confederate army; P.G.T. Beauregard, a confederate general and native son of New Orleans; Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy; and the Battle of Liberty Place. This battle, or really skirmish, took place on September 14th, 1874, when the integrated Metropolitan Police attempted to block the White League, a paramilitary organisation associated with anti-Black and anti-Republican violence, from receiving a shipment of arms. The Metropolitan Police were quickly overwhelmed, and the White League overthrew the government of Republican Governor William Kellogg. Although the city came back under Republican and Union control, the “battle” has been characterised by some as a fight for liberty from the rule of Republican “carpetbaggers.”
The monuments were all erected in the post-Reconstruction years between 1884, with the unveiling of the R.E. Lee monument, and 1915, with the unveiling of the P.G.T. Beauregard monument. They were part of an attempt to romanticise and valorise the Civil War, known as the Lost Cause, and were erected in a political climate that saw the rolling back of civil liberties and voting rights for African Americans. The Lee monument was unveiled on January 22, 1884—George Washington’s birthday. In the dedication speech given at the unveiling and articles written at the time, attempts were made to link the two historical figures as men equally dedicated to honour and country, thereby attempting to lift Lee to the status of Washington in the pantheon of national heroes. In one opinion piece written at the time, the author remarks that they “were both charged with rebellion” (emphasis in the original). After these monuments were unveiled, commemorative activities, often organised by the United Daughters of the Confederacy or the Sons of Confederate Veterans, were held annually into the 1970s, with speeches, organised laying of wreaths, and musical performances.
However, beginning in the 1960s and 70s, public protest surrounding the monuments began to arise in New Orleans. Perhaps first among the four monuments to be the subject of this attention was the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place. This monument had become a rallying place for white supremacist groups including the Ku Klux Klan, and a site at which speakers at commemorative events in the 1960s decried federal interventions impinging on ‘school choice’ (read desegregation) and other areas as akin to those of the Reconstruction era. In 1964, the monument was put into storage for approximately five years to make way for the construction of the International Trade Mart. Groups that supported the monument extracted a promise from the mayor at the time that it would be returned to its original site and that the removal would be handled “just as was the repair and restoration of the Robert E. Lee statue on St. Charles.” While the monument was in storage, commemorative activities continued to take place without the monument itself, and after the monument was returned in 1970, the speeches at subsequent commemorations included reference to the idea that it was not only White Leaguers who were against the “carpetbaggers,” but that Black New Orleanians also rallied against Reconstruction “interlopers.” These narratives, which explained the monument not in terms of race, but in terms of liberty, ran directly counter to a plaque that had been added to the monument by the Crescent White League in 1932 that “recognised white supremacy in the South.”
In 1974, the NAACP New Orleans College Chapter and the New Orleans NAACP Youth Council organised protests against the monument. In a page of letters to a local newspaper, the Times Picayune, about the Battle of Liberty Place monument, readers began to voice tropes that continue to resonate in contemporary debates about the fate of contested monuments. These letters are predominantly supportive of the monument. They range from arguments about the destruction of history and assertions that “slavery was never truly the issue behind the Civil War,” to fears of a ripple effect:
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People must be embarked upon a movement to destroy everything related to history. Should they continue, and be successful with their asinine efforts to remove the Liberty Monument… probably their next move would be to destroy the Coliseum in Rome.
The single opposition to the monument came in a letter written by a self-identified young Black man who, nevertheless, did not want the monument to come down. He explained:
[as someone] opposed to white supremacy… [I] cannot accept the views that the plaque proclaims. But the monument should be allowed to stand, for it is a constant reminder of what can happen if blacks should become zeal-less in their efforts to gain and keep the rights that so many have paid the price for.
This movement was seemingly put to rest by the installation of an additional plaque that read: “Although the Battle of Liberty Place and this monument are important parts of New Orleans’s history, the sentiments in favour of White supremacy expressed thereon are contrary to the philosophy and beliefs of present-day New Orleans.”
By 1981 the controversy began anew. Then-Mayor Dutch Morial was accused of having tried quietly to remove the monument without public notice. However, by this time, opposition to the monument had a clear voice in the pages of the Times-Picayune. Comparing a page of letters called “Your Opinions” in 1981 to a similar page mentioned above in 1974, an almost complete reversal can be seen. Instead of almost all letters being in support of the monument, almost all were in favour of taking it down. Letters in opposition to the monument draw attention to the continued injustices taking place in New Orleans at the time: “The doctrine of white supremacy is alive and well, waiting for the right political climate to re-release itself. This is evident in the popular upsurge of the Klan.” Others applauded the mayor for initiating a symbolic “decision to further King’s vision of peace, love, and brotherhood.”
As in recent controversies, contemporary events sharpened the debate. Police shootings of four Black New Orleanians in the Algiers neighbourhood as well as KKK activities were cited, not as precipitating forces, but as events that made the issue of the monument all the more pressing. Former KKK grand wizard David Duke tried unsuccessfully to obtain a restraining order preventing the removal of the monument and claimed equivalency between the monument to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place. However, these claims are vehemently contradicted in opinion pieces appearing around the same time. In the end, the matter was left unresolved. The City Council of New Orleans voted to retain for itself the final say in the removal of any monument, statue, or plaque in the city of New Orleans and planned to remove the inscription referencing white supremacy. Instead of removing the inscription, it was, in the end, simply covered over.
In 1989 it was reported that the monument was to be moved due to “traffic engineering” and to improve access to the Canal Street ferry and the Aquarium and that city officials did not know if the monument would be returned when the work was finished. This set off the largest and most protracted controversy until the monument’s removal. Lasting four years, it involved state and federal preservationists, a suit by a local pharmacist against the city for emotional damages caused by the absence of the monument, and federal Housing and Urban Development officials demanding repayment of funds used for the traffic improvement if the monument was not returned.
Despite the fact that the monument was not on the National Register of Historic Places, the idea that it might be eligible, its being considered historically significant by the Louisiana Landmarks Society and other groups, and the fact that the roadway, sidewalk, and traffic-signal improvements were in part federally funded, led to the necessity of an agreement being negotiated with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. This agreement stipulated that the monument be re-erected by May 1, 1991. Whether or not there were underlying reasons for the monument’s initial removal, it became clear that the city administration was loath to return it to its initial location. In April of 1991, a four-month extension was granted to the city, and while the city attempted to give the monument to the Louisiana State Museum, their offer was refused. Having missed a September deadline as well, federal historic preservation officials began action to coerce repayment of funds, and a private citizen brought a suit against the city and the mayor’s office. After missing three deadlines, the city was, in the end, forced to re-erect the monument, although in a slightly less prominent position, but protests broke out at the re-dedication ceremony, which was marked by speeches by David Duke, among others, as well as by the very public, forceful arrest of a respected civil rights leader, Avery Alexander.
Public discourse regarding the monument was more negative at this time than during any of the previous incidents. Opposition to the monument and to arguments that it was not connected to racism used David Duke’s involvement to illustrate their points. One staff writer argued:
First supporters of the Liberty Monument tried to tell us that the controversial piece of stone that sits at the foot of Iberville Street has absolutely nothing to do with race. Then, they brought in former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke for the monument’s rededication ceremony last Sunday and obliterated that argument.
Others leveraged analogies between Hitler and the Holocaust to express disagreement with a previously published article calling for a nuanced understanding of the Battle of Liberty Place:
If a citizens’ group in Munich, Germany, attempted to dedicate a memorial to commemorate Adolph Hitler's futile effort in 1923 to take over the German government—what we now call the Munich Beer Hall Putsch—surely Mr. Gill would understand if the Jewish citizens of that city were a bit nervous about any such attempt. Certainly, Mr. Gill’s support of these Jews would not waver, even if the citizens’ group argued that the memorial did not celebrate Hitler’s later persecution of the Jews and other minorities (after all, no Jews were killed in Hitler’s putsch) and was only meant to commemorate the Fuehrer’s wonderful record of German economic recovery and his all too successful establishment of the Third Reich.
The tide of sentiment had clearly turned. Despite this, supporters of the monument continued to advance arguments in favour of preserving the monument that would sound familiar to observers of today’s monument controversies, citing a need to honour history and fear of a ripple effect (that is, the argument that if one is removed, many or all will be removed). During public hearings on the monument held in 1993, Rev. Henry McEnery asked: “Should we demand the Egyptian pyramids be destroyed because they were built by slaves?”
Like the 1981 conflict, this controversy was also left somewhat unresolved. It left the monument under a federal protection order but with a new law that enabled the New Orleans City Council to remove monuments that are considered nuisances and a new amendment to the monument with the addition of a plaque honouring “Americans on both sides.” The plaque listed the names of the members of the Black and White members of the metropolitan police who died in the skirmish and concluded with a missive that it was “[a] conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future.”
In the most recent controversy, the office of the New Orleans Mayor, Mitch Landrieu, spoke of discussions surrounding the 2018 tricentennial of New Orleans, saying:
Part of this process should include a close examination of the historical symbols throughout our city and what changes could be made as we approach 2018, including the Robert E. Lee statue in Lee Circle. These symbols say who we were in a particular time, but times change. Yet these symbols—statues, monuments, street names, and more—still influence who we are and how we are perceived by the world.
The statements of the mayor and the mayor’s office set off another round of controversy, and in this controversy, ultimately opposition to the monuments succeeded. In the months after June of 2015, there were at least three opportunities for public commentary at City Council meetings, heated public discourse in newspapers and online, and the creation of several committees and organisations with the purpose of either taking down or retaining this and other confederate monuments. While the shooting of nine people in a Charleston, SC, church and the subsequent removal of the confederate flag from that state’s capitol in Columbia may have preceded and even given greater urgency to the issue of the monuments in New Orleans, both the Mayor and citizens who fought to take them down insisted that the movement is not a response to these other actions, but something with deeper roots.
Despite a 6-1 resolution of the New Orleans City Council in December 2015 to remove the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place as well as those to Lee, Davis, and Beauregard, the process faced numerous obstacles. A lawsuit to keep the monuments, which stayed the city’s hand for a number of months, was resolved in favour of the City Council’s resolution; however, the city was not able to immediately remove the monuments. At first there was difficulty finding a contractor to do the actual work, the first contractor having rescinded his bid due to death threats and his Lamborghini having been set on fire; later, continuing lawsuits stymied the removal. It was only two years later that the monuments were finally removed.
In this most recent example, a culmination of both narrative style and legal precedent can be seen. Opponents of the monuments declare that these monuments were erected to propagate the ideology of the Lost Cause and that they reflect and perpetuate a history of pervasive inequality in the United States. If David Duke and Hitler are considered anathema to the supporters of the monuments, then they must also consider the monuments and their symbolism to be highly inappropriate in the public sphere. In leveraging these narrative tropes, a memorial and moral dissonance is asserted which attempts to put supporters of Confederate monuments in a difficult position. By drawing these connections, monuments are burdened with additional memorial frameworks—most strikingly, that of the holocaust—and ostensibly supporters of the monuments would then have difficulty maintaining that they support the monuments simply as representations of military figures or objects of the past that have no bearing on the present.
Supporters of Confederate monuments use their own well-established narrative tropes: one might be characterised by the separation of history and current social problems; another might be characterised as predicting a ripple effect that would generate an overwhelming number of similar claims. These tropes are remarkably similar to those expressed almost twenty-five years earlier. After Mayor Landrieu called out a local businessman for his support of the monuments (for which he later apologised), the man in question responded with a two-page ad in The Advocate in which he addressed Mayor Landrieu directly:
I ask you, Mitch, should the Pyramids in Egypt be destroyed since they were built entirely from slave labour? We all have learned about the power and abuses of the Pharaohs and the plight of the slaves since the Pyramids are still with us today. What about the Roman Coliseum? It was built by slaves, who lived horrible lives under Roman oppression, but it still stands today and we learn so much from seeing it. Egypt and Italy should be grateful they had no Mitch Landrieu in power or these magnificent structures would not exist for the world to see today.
When supporters of the monuments use the tactic of ripple effect or bring out the example of the Colosseum or the pyramids of Egypt, they argue for a moral and historical equivalence between these objects and those like Confederate monuments: they are part of a difficult past, but it is a past from which we can learn.
As these comments by supporters and opponents of confederate monuments demonstrate, there exist radically different views on what monuments have to do with history, and the role that history plays and ought to play in present-day life. Opponents of the monuments see an incongruence between the values represented by the monuments and the values of equality and justice that should characterise present-day society. They assert that it is because injustice continues in the present that the past is not really past, and that the monuments themselves should be understood as destructive, reflecting and participating in a continuing legacy of racism in the United States. Supporters of Confederate monuments take different views. While most agree that the past associated with these monuments diverges from our understandings of what society ought to be today, they argue that the monuments themselves are not problematic precisely because they should be understood as historical rather than contemporary objects and protected for their historical value. Another group of participants in the debate call for a process of “fixing” or contextualising the monuments by adding plaques or explanatory material in order to present them “in the context of their time.” Thus, the three distinct temporal relationships to the monuments emerge in the narrative tropes that are used to support varying positions as well as in the suggestions for how to respond to the monuments themselves.
Over the last five decades during which it was in public view, the Battle of Liberty Place monument was removed, returned, amended, and re-amended. Yet, it continued to be site through which struggles over the role of history in the present took place. If monuments such as the Battle of Liberty Place can be materially amended or even removed while the narratives surrounding them remain relatively stable, how are we to think about the past and the possibility of reshaping our public spaces? The choice between keeping or toppling monuments seems inadequate to the task of bridging divergent understandings of the role of history in the present, and yet the presence of heavy material symbols such as Confederate monuments cannot be ignored. It is time, then, to radically rethink the role, form, and lifespan of monuments in our public spaces.
 Quoted in Robert McClendon in the Times Picayune, December 18, 2015, “Charges May Not End with Four Statues - Liberty Place Under Protective Order”
 For more information on the construction of Confederate monuments, see Winberry, John. “‘Lest We
Forget’: The Confederate Monument and the Southern Townscape.” Southeastern Geographer 23, no. 2 (November 1983): 107–21, and Fahs, Alice., and Joan. Waugh, eds. The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
 R.E. Lee Monumental Association (New Orleans), and Charles E. Fenner. Ceremonies
Connected with the Unveiling of the Statue of General Robert E. Lee, at Lee Circle, New Orleans,
La., Feb. 22, 1884: Oration. 46 p. New Orleans: W.B. Stansbury & Co., Print., 1884.
 1884. “Washington and Lee” Times Picayune, January 22.
 C.f. Fealing, Ken. 1981. “Mayor Takes Steps to Remove Liberty Monument from Canal Street” Louisiana Weekly, January 24.
 C.f. 1963. “Tribute Paid to Liberty Battle Heroes by Herbert” Times Picayune, September 14 and 1967. “Herbert Says U.S. Courts Hurt Freedom of Choice” Times Picayune, September 15.
 1964. “Mayor Pledges Obelisk to Stay: Move from Canal Street Site Opposed” Times-Picayune, December 19. The removal of Robert E. Lee referred to in this piece occurred in 1954 when the wood of the pedestal had dry-rotted and had to be replaced. As far as I can tell, the only outcry was from the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which did not want the statue to be removed from the pedestal at all.
 Theodore, William. 1974. “Against Despotism” Times-Picayune, February 19.
 Sloan, L. 1974. “Coliseum Next?” Times-Picayune, February 19.
 Hunter, Joe. 1974. “Meaning for Blacks” Times-Picayune, February 19.
 Marcelia, Vanward. 1981. Times-Picayune, January 26
 Smith, M.D. 1981. “Pulverize Monument” Times-Picayune, January 26
 DuBos, Clancy., & Massa, Joe. 1981. “Monument inscription will be removed by city” Times-Picayune, February 27
 C.f. Eggler, Bruce. 1989. “Monument to whites is canned on Canal”. Times-Picayune, October 11.
 Frazier, Lisa. 1993. “Celebrating Old Divides” Times-Picayune, March 12.
 Epstein, James. 1993. “Liberty Monument - How to satisfy everybody” Times Picayune, April 6.
 Finch, Susan. 1993. “Monument Hearing Is Divided - History Invoked for And Against” Times-Picayune, June 30. Incidentally, there is now broad consensus among Egyptologists that the pyramids were built with paid labour.
 Section 146-611 of the Code of the City of New Orleans.
 Barry, Jarvis. 2015. “Statue of Lee and issue for N.O. - Mayor concerned how symbol fits in city’s future” Times-Picayune, June 24.
 Stewart, Frank. 20176. “An Open Letter from Frank Stewart to Mayor Mitch Landrieu.” The Advocate, May 3.
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