The Louisiana Landmarks Society believes that our city’s monuments should be preserved as artifacts of New Orleans’ rich, historic built environment. The fact that statues or monuments put up 100 or more years ago may still remind us of persons and events now viewed differently from a broader and contemporary historic perspective does not rob them of their legitimacy as historic witnesses. Monuments serve as historic "mileposts" which mark the evolution of a city's culture through the years and how our ancestors, rightly or wrongly, experienced their set of values at another time. Monuments continue to hold value today through their ability to remind, explain, and teach.
Other places with long histories are full of artifacts from earlier eras with viewpoints that may be seen today as lacking an appropriate level of historic balance and objectivity. Richmond, Virginia, with its Monument Avenue; the Japanese-American relocation camps at the Manzanar National Historic Site; and the Little Bighorn Battlefield monument are ready examples of how, rather than removal, new context can be given to old monuments, by lending balance or giving a fuller treatment to heretofore one-sided historic presentations.
Further, we urge you to carefully consider the thoughts and conclusions of university history professors who have addressed these complex issues of what monuments can mean today. In that vein, we offer for your consideration and for the record the transcript of a recent panel discussion hosted on July 23, 2015, by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. We strongly urge you to read the full transcript, also available with audio at LEH’s website, www.leh.org, but for the sake of brevity we offer you the following germane excerpts:
- From Molly Mitchell, an associate professor at the University of New Orleans, where she serves as the Ethel and Herman L. Midlo Endowed Chair, Joseph Tregle Professor of Early American History. She is the author of Raising Freedom’s Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future After Slavery, and also the co-director of freedomonthemove.org, a database of all fugitive slave ads in North America:
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I think one way that’s helpful for me to think about is that while they are monuments and they were put up as monument-memorials with very specific stories to tell, for us now over time, they have become artifacts. Those artifacts contain within them information about worldview, information about politics, and information about political power and racial injustice. I’m in favor of . . . reinterpretation. I think it’s a really good word.
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. . . I do think that thinking of these monuments as artifacts is something that historians have not really conveyed to [the] broader public in a very good way . . . I also think of it archaeologically. It’s a sort of a strata and you can remove that strata, you can say that you’re not forgetting but you are removing a strata of the city’s history. . . . [A] lot of scholars are now thinking about the city as an archive. It’s a public archive and if that’s the case, then we are custodians of that archive and archivists have to decide . . . what to keep, what’s not really worth keeping, and what stories should not be silenced. Generally, good archivists don’t throw away things because they don’t agree with them, they try to figure out a way that they can be useful to scholars and future generations.
- From Laura Rosanne Adderley, associate professor of history at Tulane University, where she teaches African-American and Caribbean history, specializing in the history of black enslavement, emancipation and the slave trade, especially in the 19th century. She also directs the program in African Studies and serves as a Tulane member on the board of the Amistad Research Center:
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. . . [W]hat I think as a historian is necessary is a reinterpretation of the monument space which may involve versions of leaving parts or all of the statues there and adding other things to them. My own plan for reinterpretation actually is about adding things to the site.
- From Justin Nystrom, professor at Loyola University where he teaches courses on the Civil War and Reconstruction, the New South, New Orleans history and an interdisciplinary first-year seminar. He is also the founding director of the Documentary and Oral History Studio at Loyola, the author of New Orleans After the Civil War: Race, Politics and a New Birth of Freedom, and was recently asked to join the National Park Service’s board for their observance of the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction:
There’s so much more that we need to commemorate as we’ve discussed. Everybody’s children should be able to go and look, kind of like what does that mean and not feel oppressed by it certainly. . . . These are teaching moments. We didn’t learn this in school. Well, maybe we can learn something in the public space.
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The Louisiana Landmarks Society is an historic preservation organization, formed in 1950 with members in New Orleans and throughout Louisiana, whose stated objectives are to focus attention on Louisiana's historic landmarks as living remains of our history and physical reminders of the rich heritage bequeathed us by our forebears, to promote their preservation, and to arouse public opinion when their loss or destruction is threatened. Our organization has also been a longstanding advocate of historic preservation laws, including the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 in which Congress declared that "the historical and cultural foundations of this Nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life and development in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people."
Landmarks appreciates the opportunity to present you with these thoughts, and we encourage further public comment and discussion. Thank you.