Can We Still Interpret NOLA’s Confederate Monuments?

I know that for some of my historian and public historian friends watching the city of New Orleans take down its Civil War/Reconstruction era monuments was not easy to watch. Our tendency is to treat monuments as artifacts and the broader landscape as an opportunity to learn about how communities remember their collective past. As someone who has used monuments extensively over the years I sympathize with this position.

We would rather see interpretive markers placed around the monument or even allow for additional monuments to be placed in close proximity to reflect a changing community – anything to maintain the physical object.

But in doing so we have failed to appreciate that what took place in New Orleans and what is taking place in other communities is part of an organic process that can be traced back to the dedication of these monuments.

This is ultimately part of the story that we as public historians and educators need to figure out how to tell and there is no better place to do it than at the sites themselves. I can easily envision a tour of the sites of the monuments that just came down in New Orleans. We can make use of any number of new technologies that can help us to envision the former monuments, especially GPS and apps that provide additional context, including images and sound.

But it is the questions that we can engage our audiences around that will really matter. The absence of a monument may help us even more to better understand how key events and change in the surrounding community led to its removal. Again, this is as much a part of the story as the work that went into erecting these monuments.

In the case of New Orleans we can have our students compare Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s powerful speech that he delivered while the Lee Monument was coming down on Thursday with some of the original monument dedication addresses. It is also an opportunity to explore the role of local activism in shaping Civil War memory as was the case with Take Em Down NOLA. What else?

This is not a setback for public historians, but an opportunity. Let’s get to work.

10 comments… add one
  • Ted McKnight May 21, 2017 @ 12:05

    What is a public historian?

    • Kevin Levin May 21, 2017 @ 12:59

      Public historians tend to work in positions that involve interpreting history for the general public. Think museum/historic site.

  • B Thomas May 21, 2017 @ 8:31

    All the people rending their garments and gnashing their teeth over the loss of these monuments… I wonder how much they have personally donated to actual historic sites for maintenance or preservation. There are hundreds of historic and “historic” buildings and places in New Orleans (and Richmond Virginia) but you never see this level of agitation when a 120 year old building gets torn down or is crumbling to dust or something. It’s almost as if there is something else going on, something not history-preservation related at all, something specific about these monuments to white supremacy that people get all hyped up about. Can’t put my finger on it though.

    • Bob Huddleston May 21, 2017 @ 9:20

      Since the proclaimed purpose is to remember those who fought in the Civil War, I am sure the protesters would have no problem with helping pay for a statue of US Grant on Richmond’s Monument Avenue,

  • Bob Huddleston May 21, 2017 @ 5:29

    “[Democrats] McEnery and Penn[13] having been elected governor and lieutenant-governor by the white people, were duly installed by this overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers, Governor Kellogg (white) and Lieutenant-Governor Antoine (colored).

    ” United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.”

  • Bob Huddleston May 21, 2017 @ 5:28

    BTW, Gustavspeed, did you ever visit New Orleans and go to, among others, the Liberty Place Monument? Did you ever read the inscription? Do you have any problem with it?

  • Bob Huddleston May 21, 2017 @ 5:24

    And the monuments were not blown up. They are still around, waiting for a new home.

    • Kevin Levin May 21, 2017 @ 5:28

      That’s right. There is some concern that they may go to Beauvoir. I have no objection to that, though I don’t expect that they will be properly interpreted. My larger point here is that as public historians we ought not think of removal as the end of our obligation to interpret the site on which they once stood. We will have missed an important chapter of the story.

  • Gustavspeed May 21, 2017 @ 5:05

    This is not different than when Muslim extremist blew up ancient monuments in the middle east. It is just that our extremists behavior is viewed more favorably by the elite intelligencia.

    • Kevin Levin May 21, 2017 @ 5:14

      With all due respect, this is nothing but pure hyperbole. The decision in New Orleans went through a democratic process involving a the city council, mayor and numerous public forums. Get a grip.

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