Dismantling America’s monuments to white supremacy

10 May 2017

New Orleans is undergoing a monumental change, albeit one beset by stops and starts. Last month, under cover of darkness and armed guard, contractors furtively dismantled a granite obelisk dedicated to the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place. Heckled by a couple of staunch objectors, their removal of the piece – long condemned by officials and residents alike for its overt celebration of white supremacy – was considerably more successful than their attempts, on Monday evening of last week, to do away with the city’s bronze statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from his prominent Mid-City spot. As anti-monument protestors clashed with Davis supporters on site – Confederate flags conspicuous among Davis’s advocates – the authorities decided to postpone proceedings. Thanks to his followers, Jefferson Davis will have one last stand.

There has been renewed scrutiny and heated public debate over the place of the South’s Confederate and white supremacist legacy in present-day America. The New Orleans City Council’s plan to dismantle a total of four monuments represents the most radical approach yet to the ongoing problem of Lost Cause memory and the racial violence it is founded on. Yet while the move will irrevocably alter the city’s landscape – revising a topography of oppression to reflect the values of a modern, racially diverse community – the City Council’s intervention remains controversial among Confederate sympathisers and public historians, both.

In the case of the Liberty Place monument, the Council’s stance is hard to fault. Erected in 1891, the obelisk celebrates an insurrection launched by the Crescent City White League in 1874. Largely comprised of Confederate veterans, the League’s violent coup sought to depose elected northern Republicans and overthrow their attempts to bring political stability and African-American rights to the postwar South. Before Federal troops restored order, the White League’s 5,000 militants held the armory, state house, and downtown New Orleans for three days: in commemorating their act, the southern Democrats of the city government who erected the monument 17 years later ultimately celebrated what historian Kevin M. Levin has recently called ‘a violent act of terrorism’. Inscribed on its side is a paean to ‘white supremacy in the South’. In the years following its construction, the monument became a rallying site for the Ku Klux Klan.

The Liberty Place monument in New Orleans was removed on 24 April and is to be placed in a museum. Photo: Wikimedia commons

The Liberty Place monument in New Orleans was removed on 24 April and is to be placed in a museum. Photo: Infrogmation/Wikimedia Commons (used under Creative Commons licence [CC. BY 3.0])

It seems something of an ethical duty to question, as the New Orleans City Council have done, the place such reminders of a morally reprehensible past can have in a civic society looking to nurture inclusion, tolerance, and social responsibility. In voting to remove the obelisk, as well as statues of Davis, and Generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, the City Council has arguably taken an active step to acknowledge and advance the change in social values that has taken place since the 1890s. Its plan to resituate the monuments in museums, where they can be displayed and recontextualised, certainly seeks to mark them, and the beliefs they represent, as historical artefacts.

Indeed, the museum move has proven a popular and effective means of dealing with Confederate monuments elsewhere. The University of Texas at Austin recently relocated a bronze sculpture of Jefferson Davis by Italian artist Pompeo Coppini to its new Briscoe Center for American History, removing it from the South Mall where it had long been the subject of complaints from the academic community. Recognising the statue’s status as a work of art, and one to be learned from, the Briscoe Center’s exhibit says more about the sculpture’s history than Davis’s, dismantling Confederate ideology as it does so, and actively rendering it the stuff of the past.

Of course, as flag-waving protestors demonstrate, the Confederate legacy isn’t quite as easy to relegate to history as the instigators of these projects might hope. The racial and social conflicts raised by that past are still, undoubtedly and regrettably, present. It has been suggested that moving monuments from their original public settings is tantamount to erasing history (especially when they are moved to storage rather than re-displayed), and there is also a case to be made that recontextualising such monuments in situ might prove more productive, for the community as a whole, than relocating them. Numerous public historians have pointed out the potential benefits of using Confederate monuments to generate public conversations and collective projects, which might work to produce built responses to them.

As well as enabling a democratic discussion about that past among all residents – not solely government officials – the creation of new plaques placing statues in historical context, and more ambitious approaches to recontextualisation, could prove a socially significant means of enabling civic empowerment and symbolically reclaiming the South’s historical landscape. Some public historians have gone as far as suggesting that new monuments to slaves or Union troops be erected as modern counter-memorials in the vein of Kristen Visbal’s Fearless Girl, which was placed opposite Wall Street’s Charging Bull to celebrate International Women’s Day back in March. Modern comments in granite and bronze could begin to affirm the South’s cultural and civic landscape as one of conversation, rather than one of oppression, or one completely void of any references to its troubled past.

Either way, current events in New Orleans may well herald a widespread change in policy towards the monumental remainders of the Confederate legacy.

One comment

  1. Dt Juliette Peers Jun 16 2017 at 4:03 pm

    The removal and desecration of images of enemies of the state was an accepted part of Roman political life, a formal public dishonour named as damnatio memoriae, and the destruction of built and material culture of a defeated foe was, like rape of enemy women, de facto psychological warfare millennia before such a concept was formalised. In recent years the relocation of the Bronze Soldier of Talinn, and associated Russian war graves in 2009, put contested memorialisation firmly on the agenda at both art and architecture/design conferences. The Bronze Soldier controversy arose long before Dylann Roof or the Black Lives Matter movement stirred modern consciences, given public arguments over statues are now strongly associated with race and post colonialism. This linkage was affirmed newly and spectacularly by Mitch Landrieu’s removal of four Confederate memorials in New Orleans. Landrieu’s post-removal speech, transparently praising his own actions, whilst widely applauded as a new benchmark in racial equality, simultaneously reveals less admirable content, a favouring of extreme theatrical sentiment over rational discussion in public life, especially around identity, a supreme self confidence via specifically North American narratives and celebrity name dropping as corroborating authenticity. The performativity and dramatic self-projection within the agora shown by Landrieu and other advocates for removing controversial monuments in the United States, cuts across the frequent claims that removal represents an inevitable expression of natural justice and a limpid process of delivering a rightful morality to public space and the designed landscape.

    Two of the monuments, those to Generals Beauregard and Lee, set into impressive formalised beaux arts civic spatial installations, now despoiled by civic decree, were of undoubted world significance. Under other circumstances, these monuments should have found advocates amongst Victorianists and curators. Yet given that racism and politics are currently prioritised over art history and connoisseurship, introducing a counter narrative, in light of the positivist consensus is difficult. Art professionals enter an unheimlich ambiguous space when they almost gleefully advocate the destruction of nineteenth century material culture and define such destruction as socially and morally desirable, without consideration of the de facto foreclosing of debate. Once an monument is deemed offensive, it is usually a matter of when, not if, it will be removed and possibly relocated, be it on civic, university or ecclesiastical property. Nineteenth-century figurative sculpture (also paintings, stained glass and urban design) is collateral damage in tectonic plate-shifts around politics, culture and race. Attitudes to Confederate Monuments also document a generational divide, when younger white North Americans publicly wear and accept the burden of centuries of complex racial inequalities with more expiational self-consciousness than older. Younger Americans equally regard protecting the rights of a range of minorities in public life as more important than unfettered freedom of speech.

    Conversely British academics, including Cheryl Hudson, Frank Furedi, Joanna Williams and Chris Patten opened a space around the decision to keep the Rhodes statue at Oriel where robust debate about the coexistence of differing ideas and plural meanings embodied by historical material culture, is possible without endorsing racism or censorship. British practice highlights potential lacunae in North American debates and an associated reluctance to pull apart current intellectual paradigms or confront difficult taboos. In an era which recognises the prevalence of wicked problems that resist simple answers, and equally multiple narratives and audiences, exploring solutions that suit a range of affected parties should be plausible.

    Besides Confederate Monuments, no other artworks pay so spectacularly for the sins of their originating culture. Elastic tolerance is directed towards artworks from other societies whose values differ substantially from present day norms. Much admired historic art including Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Pre-Columbian was produced in societies where slavery and impressed labour flourished, as too some African, Asian, Oceanic and Middle Eastern artefacts. Some Third Reich artworks are granted art historical traction and Maoist and Stalinist imagery is warmly regarded as popular kitsch, in both instances sidelining the state-endorsed crimes behind the artworks’ political context. The revelations of systematic abuse of children and first nation peoples by various churches currently makes no real impact upon the display of historical Christian art. Islamic art and architecture is separated from the popular tabloid stereotyping of Moslems as terrorists.

    Removing Confederate monuments does not erase the academically discounted ‘Lost Cause’ from public life: it accords it an unheimlich authority. Confederate public memorialisation was ardent and intense, because it was a collective shared construct, a hyper-elaborate fantasy that ambitiously reconfigured urban space and made myth reality. Protesting the egregious offence and analogue tangible pain triggered by Confederate public art grants it a liveness and agency, rendering its fabricated back story of malleable histories real and authentic. Furthermore erasing the Confederacy normalises public life by removing a proto post modernist emphasis on the power of narrative above enlightenment notions of fixed truth. Thus Landieu’s gestural fiat and the lobby group Take-Em-Down Nola enact conservative as well as radical powers, whilst deploying the same spectacular dramatics that served the Confederacy for a century or more.

    Dr Juliette Peers
    Senior Lecturer, School of Architecture and Design
    RMIT University
    Melbourne Australia

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