The city of New Orleans is offering the rest of the country a lesson on how not to deal with Confederate iconography in public spaces. In advance of a decision that could come as soon as early as next week, the city is holding a series of public discussions. Mistrust and questions about the motivation behind the push to remove four monuments to Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis and Liberty Place, have done little to foster a consensus view or even a modicum of appreciation for opposing positions.
There is a better way, but it involves resisting the temptation to simply remove what is deemed to be offensive as if that alone will signal some sort of reconciliation with the past and present. What is needed is broad community support for public discussions and projects that take place over the long term.
New Orleans and other communities should be looking to the city of Richmond for guidance. In the former capital of the Confederacy, that includes Monument Avenue, there is a reason why we have not heard widespread calls to remove the famous monuments to Lee, Jackson, and Davis. As New Orleans debates monuments, the residents of Richmond are engaged in a discussion about the best way to preserve and remember the city’s history as a major slave trading center. These types of discussions are not unusual in Richmond and likely have gone far in bringing people together and minimizing the kinds of tensions and divisions that are all too common in communities dealing with how to remember and commemorate this history.
A strong push to add monuments – from Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue to the Virginia Civil Rights monument on the capitol grounds – offers residents and visitors a rich commemorative landscape on which to engage one another and track their collective memory. The National Park Service, Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission, Virginia Historical Society, American Civil War Museum and a host of smaller institutions peppered the now concluded Civil War sesquicentennial with a wide range of educational programs that catered to a broad swath of the local population.
It’s certainly not perfect and not everyone is satisfied, but Richmond has probably done more than anyone else in pointing the way forward.