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May We Become Better At Judging History

Except perhaps for during Mardi Gras we hope the city never again experiences an evening when masked men are lurking about around midnight; worst yet they are city employees and one is the Fire Chief.

We believe firmly in the notion that all men are created equally. We also argue that not all historical characters are equal in stature nor should they be equal in statues. Somewhere between there needs to be rational decision making.

As the city approaches its Tricentennial, a year dedicated to the exploration of history, it leaves 2017 as a year of botched history. This was the year that Civil War-related monuments were removed. Three disappeared in the dark of night. We do not mean to re-open the debate about the relative merits of the statues that were removed; we do maintain that taking away the Beauregard statue was a mistake. Herein lies the interpretive question for the future. Yes, Beauregard fought for the Confederacy in a war that began on the slavery issue, but that is not what his life was about. By most accounts after the war he was a model citizen and even encouraged integration of schools. He was also local and, like much of the city’s history, of French heritage. Like most men of the time, loyalty was given to their state before the nation. The Civil War, and particularly Lincoln’s Gettysburg address would change that perception, but the moment had not yet come.

With a new year of historic exploration on the horizon, we need to appreciate that, like the voyages of the explorers themselves, sometimes there are jagged rocks and ill winds along the way, but the mission should be judged by the destination. Not all people for whom statues stand were totally saintly, not even the saints, but most represented some historic episode that should be remembered.

New Orleans was founded by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. He and his brother Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville were tough characters who navigated along the Atlantic coast to the Gulf of Mexico. Their father, Charles LeMoyne, was an historic figure in Canada of the late 1600s as a furrier, Indian fighter and land baron, plus he also owned slaves during a pre-industrial era when slavery was an inevitability. Bienville’s decision to build a city at the site of the big bend in the Mississippi river may have been due to a strategic geographic judgment or it may have been influenced by his being given land in the area. He was probably part hero and part rogue, nevertheless it is to him that we owe the construction of the city and its location.   

Near that great bend stands a statue of Andrew Jackson; a hero of the Battle of New Orleans. As President his reputation is tarnished because of the displacement of Indians located throughout the South, yet he is also remembered as a populist who opened government to the people and who took on the big banks. Overall he was regarded as a good president though popular opinion, because of one issue, sees him otherwise.

There is no shortage of people worthy of memorialization in New Orleans. We have advocated a monument to Allan Toussaint and we expect there to be one for Fats Domino one day. But musicians get an easier pass from history being spared the sticky social and political issues that generals and politicians faced. In this year of paying homage to the past it would be a grand gesture not to dismiss those from the past on one issue and to better understand the complexities of their times.

 


 

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