Last month, officials here held a special meeting for contractors interested in taking on a city job estimated at $170,000. That’s not typical. Neither were the concerns of the unidentified attendees:
Could they work at night or in the early morning, when they were least likely to draw protesters? Did they have to post signage with their company name while they worked? Would the city provide security if necessary?
The job was to haul off three Confederate monuments standing on public land, by order of the City Council. The fate of the massive statues has been a topic of increasing debate — civil and uncivil — in the courts and on streets here for almost a year. The businesses currently considering the job to remove them are understandably wary: In January, the company originally retained to do the work withdrew after the owner, his family and his employees said they had received death threats. Less than a week later, the owner’s 2014 Lamborghini Huracan, valued at $200,000, was found aflame in a company parking lot in Baton Rouge. It’s still unclear whether the events are related. No arrests have been made.
Then in February, the city removed a list of possible replacement contractors from its website after some reported receiving phone calls or emails that promised financial repercussions if they took the job. The city reported the threats to the FBI.
While those who want to preserve the monuments continue to press their legal options in federal courts and a recently introduced bill in the state legislature seeks to block the removal, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu is confident that the prominent statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard and Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis will soon be removed from public view.
“If we’re going to have monuments on public spaces, they should represent who we are or who we want to be. … That’s as important as who we’ve been,” said Landrieu, noting the city will celebrate its 300th anniversary in 2018. “As we try to build a 21st-century, knowledge-based city that can compete in an international economy, I’m clear that the future does not belong to small, sleepy Southern cities that revere the Confederacy.”
Preservation is not synonymous with reverence, says Jim Logan, a New Orleans lawyer who is on the board of the Louisiana Landmarks Society, one of four plaintiffs in a federal suit to block the city’s plan.
He points to Manzanar National Historic Site in California, the site of a former war relocation center that held 110,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II. And when people complained that it was wrong to honor U.S. Calvary Ge. George Custer by putting his name on the Montana battlefield where his troops killed Native Americans and later died themselves, the park was renamed Little Bighorn National Monument.
“Nobody’s saying today we agree with what happened (at Manzanar). We’re giving people the opportunity to learn about it and to have a better sense of history,” he said. “You don’t bulldoze Custer’s last stand. You put up interpretive markers and give a broader treatment of what the historic event there had been.”
The symbols of American history’s darkest chapter have been getting sharper scrutiny since June, when nine black parishioners were gunned down during Bible study in their Charleston, S.C., church. The white man charged in those slayings, who confessed to police that he wanted to start a race war, arrayed himself with Confederate symbols in photos he posted online. South Carolina took down the Confederate flag from its statehouse grounds several weeks later, and a heated debate has spread across the country about whether emblems and monuments honor a proud past, bear witness to violence and cruelty or glorify institutionalized slavery.
In New Orleans, which has gone the furthest in removing the monuments, the fight is particularly nasty. The first contractor began the project and pulled out on the same day, according to the letter the company’s attorney sent to the city after receiving “telephone calls, unkindly name-calling and public outrage … as well as other area businesses threatening to cancel existing contracts.”
Opponents say taking them down is not what New Orleanians really want. They point to an October statewide phone poll on the issue sponsored by two New Orleans media outlets, WWL-TV and the Advocate newspaper. Of 800 registered voters, 68 percent said they opposed the renaming or removal of the monuments. Less than 20 percent supported removal. The rest were undecided.
The Rev. Shawn Anglim, who helms the diverse First Grace United Methodist Church at Canal Street and Jefferson Davis Parkway, is a member of Clergy for a United City, a group of more than 175 spiritual leaders who want the monuments to come down.
“These symbols are hurtful. They continue to divide people as they were intended to do, and they will keep doing it in subtle and profound ways,” he said.
Richard Marksbury, the dean of the School of Continuing Studies at Tulane University, said he doesn’t think that removing the monuments will make a difference.
“The swastika is not allowed in Germany. Does that mean there’s no anti-Semitism in Germany today? No. The movement goes underground,” he said. “People will just pick up some new symbol.”
If the Confederate monuments are removed, Marksbury asks, which statues and monuments will fall next? One of the city’s best known squares is named for President Andrew Jackson, a hero in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. He was also a slave owner who implemented the Native American removal policy known as the Trail of Tears.
“What’s the criteria for what’s offensive?” Marksbury asked. “If we just get a tractor and start pulling everything down, where does it end?”