New Orleans: Lee Circle Without General Robert E. Lee - Mayor Landrieu’s Stand
May 24, 2017
I had heard rumblings about symbols of the Confederacy that remain in plain sight in New Orleans. The tipping point, fueled by unease after high profile police killings of black men across the country and Dylann Roof's murdering of nine black men and women in a Charleston church, raised the ante to make changes.
To me, a frequent visitor, the statue of General Robert E. Lee, was a sort of civic wallpaper, a vague reminder of southern history and as recognizable a site of New Orleans geography as Bourbon Street. To African-Americans and a growing number of white citizens, it was an offensive symbol of the Civil War's racial overtones.
Right thing to do or not, I never thought anyone would have the gumption to remove General Lee from Lee Circle.
On May 19, 2017, Mayor Mitch Landrieu did just that. The words he uttered to describe his decision were more powerful than the cranes that lifted the statue.
Landrieu's mix of facts, aspiration, history, and personal anecdotes quoting conversations with some of the city's best known African Americans, was broad and inclusive, at times reaching lyrical and poetic heights. It should be required reading for every civic leader and every high school student in the land. It was not a calculated sound byte to be easily digested.
It was the kind of speech you wish politicians and leaders of every stripe would have the nerve to make. My guess is that, like me, you'll read it more than once because it is refreshingly American in the best sense of the term.
History drapes around New Orleans like the Spanish Moss hanging from its live oak trees. It's impossible to disentangle the moss from the trees. But words that Mayor Landrieu used in his declaration to the city that elected him go a long way to disentangle antebellum attitudes from modern day realities. Disappearing Robert E. Lee isn't going to disappear racial attitudes overnight but it's a powerful start.
New Orleans is not your typical southern city. There's nothing remotely typical about New Orleans. From its gumbo history of being owned by France then Spain then France again before being bought in the Louisiana Purchase, and the loads of Italian, Irish, German, and Haitian immigrants that co-existed with descendants of Spanish, French, and Creole (free people of color) culture in the early 1900s, New Orleans was hard to categorize. It still is.
Shock waves created by Mayor Landrieu's act of civic courage have reached my home town of Boston. Ty Burr, a Boston Globe columnist and film critic, asks, "Are Boston's statues honoring all the right men?"
Henry Cabot Lodge, Samuel Eliot Morison, and Christopher Columbus have prominent statues in their honor. Burr's profiles about the men's intolerance and views were embarrassing eye-openers. And are timely conversation starters. Should the statues remain? Should they be removed? Should their plaques be rewritten?
The fact that they were deemed worthy of a statue in the past speaks volumes about what the attitudes of the general public were at the time. How we manage their presence today represents who we are now.
What happened in New Orleans is likely to create a domino effect. Our assumptions about our local histories and heroes are about to be questioned. The answers, as in the case of Boston, are going to be hard to reconcile.
The biggest question: will the answers bring us closer together.
Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.