By Christopher Mele, The New York Times
New Orleans on Monday began removing four monuments dedicated to the era of the Confederacy and its aftermath, capping a prolonged battle about the future of the memorials, which critics deemed symbols of racism and intolerance and which supporters viewed as historically important.
Workers dismantled an obelisk, which was erected to honor members of the “Crescent City White League” who in 1874 fought in the Reconstruction-era Battle of Liberty Place against the racially integrated New Orleans police and state militia, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in a statement.
(A crew begins the removal of the Liberty Place monument, one of four Confederate monuments slated for removal in New Orleans. Courtesy of WWLTV and YouTube)
The workers were dressed in flak jackets, helmets and scarves to conceal their identities because of concerns about their safety, The Associated Press reported. Police officers watched from a nearby hotel.
Other monuments expected to be removed include a bronze statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in a traffic circle, named Lee Circle, in the city’s central business district since 1884; an equestrian statue of P.G.T. Beauregard, a Confederate general, and one of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.
Citing security risks and threats to contractors seeking to do the work, the city would not reveal details about the removal of the other statues.
The monuments were erected decades after the Civil War ended by people who wanted to demonstrate that the South should feel no guilt in having fought the war, the mayor’s statement said.
(Mayor Mitch Landrieu held a news conference on the early-morning removal of the Battle of Liberty Place monument in New Orleans. Courtesy of WDSU News and YouTube)
“The removal of these statues sends a clear and unequivocal message to the people of New Orleans and the nation: New Orleans celebrates our diversity, inclusion and tolerance,” Mr. Landrieu said.
“This is not about politics, blame or retaliation. This is not a naïve quest to solve all our problems at once. This is about showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile — and most importantly — choose a better future.”
The debate over Confederate symbols has taken center stage since nine people were killed at a black church in South Carolina in June 2015.
South Carolina removed the Confederate battle flag, which flew at its State House for more than 50 years, and other Southern cities have considered taking down monuments.
(The Confederate battle flag was removed from South Carolina’s state capitol the morning of July 10, 2015, after Nikki Haley signed a bill passed by the state’s legislature authorizing its removal. The flag is now displayed at a nearby museum. Courtesy of PBS NewsHour and YouTube. Posted Jul 10, 2015.)
Harcourt Fuller, an assistant professor of history at Georgia State University in Atlanta, and a scholar of national and regional symbolism, said in an email that supporters of the monuments see them as part of their “historical and cultural legacy that needs to be maintained and protected.
“We’re talking largely about these concrete symbols,” he added.
“By themselves, they’re lifeless. They’re not living symbols. But we as citizens project our own historical values onto them.”
The Liberty Place monument commemorated a violent uprising against the racial integration of the city’s police force.
(Two citizens engaged in a lively debate over the city’s process to remove four monuments throughout New Orleans. Courtesy of WWLTV and YouTube)
From 1932 until 1993, it bore a plaque that said, in part, that the “the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state,” the city statement said.
In 1993, the plaque was covered with a new one that read: “In honor of those Americans on both sides who died in the Battle of Liberty Place” and called it “a conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future.”
After moving the statues into storage, New Orleans will seek a museum or other site to house them. The city said it gained private funding to relocate the statues, though it did not say how much money it secured or identify its source.
The opposition to the monuments’ removal — expressed in op-ed articles, social media posts and shouting at public meetings — was vigorous. A group opposing their removal said it had collected 31,000 signatures for a petition.
Demonstrators gathered for a candlelight vigil on Monday as workers removed the Liberty Place monument.
Robert Bonner, 63, who said he was a Civil War re-enactor, protested the monument’s removal.
“I think it’s a terrible thing,” he told The A.P. “When you start removing the history of the city, you start losing money.”
“You start losing where you came from and where you’ve been.”
The removal happened on Confederate Memorial Day, which is formally observed by Alabama and Mississippi to commemorate those who died in the Civil War.
In December 2015, the City Council voted 6-1 to take the statues down. In January 2016, a federal judge dismissed an attempt by preservation groups and a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to stop their removal.
An organization dedicated to preserving monuments in New Orleans, the Monumental Task Committee, opposed removing the statues.
In a statement on Monday, Pierre McGraw, the group’s president, said the removal process had been “flawed since the beginning” and that the use of unidentified money reeks of “atrocious government.”
(Monumental Task Committee Founder and President, Pierre McGraw offers a description of the effort to prevent the City of New Orleans from destroying four historic monuments. Courtesy of Monumental Task Committee and YouTube. Posted Sep 19, 2016)
“People across Louisiana should be concerned over what will disappear next,” the statement added.
Professor Robin A. Lenhardt, a law professor at of the Center on Race, Law and Justice at Fordham Law School, said in an email that city officials should be concerned about where to go from here.
“Simply to remove the statutes without a plan for community engagement and discourse would be a mistake, a real missed opportunity,” she wrote.