Bidding Adieu to Confederate Monuments in New Orleans

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Jefferson Davis Monument, New Orleans.

In the wake of the human tragedy Charleston, South Carolina, where nine members of Emanuel AME Church were murdered by a white supremacist neo-Confederate, there has been a push in southern states to remove the symbols of the region’s Confederate past.  Until now, only battle flags have been targeted.

But recently, the city council in New Orleans voted to remove Confederate monuments from its urban landscape, including those to Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, as well as one to the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.  Council members accomplished this feat through an ordinance that defined these monuments as a public “nuisance.”

According to the ordinance:

They honor, praise, or foster ideologies which are in conflict with the requirements of equal protection for citizens as provided by the constitution and laws of the United States, the state, or the laws of the city and suggests the supremacy of one ethnic, religious, or racial group over another.

This angers Confederate sympathizers like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy who believe that such memorials honor their ancestors’ sacrifices.  It also makes some historians a little uneasy, as they worry about erasing history, arguing that even when that past is ugly it should remain as a reminder to never repeat that past.

Yet much of what the ordinance says is true.  Confederate monuments were erected in a moment of white supremacist backlash to black progress and were not simply memorials to honor ancestors.  They were that, but they were also powerful symbols of white rule serving notice to black citizens that they were, at best, second-class citizens.

Unveiling ceremonies, Jefferson Davis Monument in New Orleans, 1907.
Unveiling ceremonies, Jefferson Davis Monument in New Orleans, 1907.

When the Jefferson Davis Memorial in New Orleans was unveiled in 1907, it was attended by thousands of white citizens. The ceremony included over 500 children from the city’s white public schools who formed what were known as “living battle flags.”  These children, dressed in the colors that make up the flag, were then arranged on a stand so that they formed a Confederate battle flag.  In that formation, they sang “Dixie” and even “America.”

But make no mistake, the loyalty expressed by white southerners during this and similar ceremonies across the South were first and foremost to the former Confederacy.

Monuments and memorials are generally a reflection of the values of the generation that originally placed them there. In 1907, the Davis monument reflected the values of a generation of whites dedicated to the idea of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Indeed, during speeches given at unveiling ceremonies across the South, they said as much.

So how should we consider removing such monuments and memorials?

If landscapes are constantly evolving, can the removal of the Confederate monuments in New Orleans or elsewhere be understood as part of that evolution and a reflection of values of the current generation?

Others will see this as a historic preservation issue.  As most of us know, preservation is a difficult sell under the best of circumstances.  Some buildings get preserved, while others are razed in order to build something new in its place.

In this, I am reminded of a statement made by a curator at the National Museum of American History many years ago during one of my visits.  She discussed how the museum had previously exhibited women’s work in the 18th and 19th centuries by showcasing several spinning wheels of various sizes. She asked, rhetorically, “how many spinning wheels are needed to demonstrate that this was the kind of work most women did?”  Not an entire room full.

The same might be asked about the hundreds of Confederate monuments and memorials that are found across the southern landscape.

How many are needed to demonstrate that a generation of southern whites built monuments to the Confederate past?

 

 

 

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Me and Jeff Davis are Finis: The Price of Confederate Heritage

moijefferson-davis-portrait

My journey through the culture of the Lost Cause and what had been (still is?) the cult of Jefferson Davis came full circle years after my initial visit to Beauvoir upon learning about the creation of the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library. This project was initiated by the Mississippi Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), which owns and operates the site, and through its lobbying efforts became a financial beneficiary of the State of Mississippi. On their own, the Sons were not successful in their efforts to raise money for the library. In fact, the money they raised was not enough to renovate the house, much less build a presidential library.

The original.
The original opened in 1998.

So the Sons lobbied state officials, especially then Governor Kirk Fordice, who confirmed his support for Confederate history during each year of his two terms in office by officially declaring April as Confederate Heritage Month. The SCV’s lobbying efforts to garner funds for the library were rewarded in 1993 when the state gave $1.5 million in bond funds for the project. Then, two years later, Governor Fordice signed a bill giving the SCV an additional $3 million. Thus, the State of Mississippi awarded $4.5 million in taxpayer funds to a private institution to create (without a hint of irony) the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library.  Not “Confederate Presidential Library,” mind you, but Presidential Library.

This kind of state support was common in the early twentieth century.  Throughout the South, state legislatures and local governments gave today’s equivalent of millions of dollars to erect Confederate monuments, build soldiers’ and widows’ homes, and fund other Lost Cause projects.

jimcrowedAs states poured funds into creating stone likenesses of Confederate soldiers, their black citizens suffered as schools were underfunded and many lived in abject poverty.  Not much has changed in the last century.  It may be 2015, but it wreaks of 1915.

In today’s Mississippi, most minorities and poor whites must attend substandard public schools where state expenditures on public education place the state at the bottom in nationwide rankings. And yet there always seems to be money for a historic site dedicated to a pro-slavery president of a defeated Confederate nation.

This was brought into sharp relief when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. It nearly wiped Beauvoir from the map and destroyed the library.  But have no fear, both the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) and the Mississippi Emergency Management Association (MEMA) came to the rescue. From a report from the Department of Homeland Security:

“As of May 18, 2010, Beauvoir had received a public assistance award of $17.2 million from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), a FEMA grantee, for damages related to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.”
Lost Cause Detritus: Beauvoir after Hurricane Katrina. Author photo, 2006.
Lost Cause Detritus: Beauvoir after Hurricane Katrina, 2006. Author’s photo.
Jefferson Davis Library and Museum, take two.
Jefferson Davis Library and Museum, take two.

Not only was Beauvoir restored, the library was rebuilt to the tune of $17.2 million dollars. This on top of the original $4.5 million comes to $21.7 million for the site. Let that sink in.

Understanding Jeff Davis’s role in the Confederate tradition has, for me, meant truly knowing what a hold the Lost Cause still has on the South. Are white southerners, as my colleague David Goldfield writes, “still fighting the Civil War?” Certainly some of them are.

What’s more significant, I would argue, is that the white South continues to honor, revere, and value Confederate heritage without putting up a fight at all.  It’s all around us if we look, and paid for by local, state, and even the Federal government–especially in the Deep South.

The price of Confederate heritage goes beyond the millions that were spent to commemorate it and the millions spent to preserve it. There’s a price to pay for honoring the heritage that I encountered through the memory of Jefferson Davis.  It’s a heritage that has come at the expense of African American progress and the region’s poorest citizens, black and white. It’s a heritage that has hampered race relations and civil rights. And, it’s a heritage that has hurt the region’s reputation throughout the nation.

Simply put:  Confederate heritage has cost the South too much.

Beauvoir, 2006. Author's photo.
Beauvoir, 2006. Author’s photo.