Lately we’ve been seeing what I suppose are well intentioned efforts to erase problematic bits of the historic record – but I think they’re seriously misguided.
Back in May New Orleans won a fight to remove Confederate monuments honoring Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis – both prominent leaders of the Confederacy, a war to break the union and maintain the odious institution of slavery. They lost their war but not their place in American history, a history which is grand to be sure, but also shameful at some points.
In a speech on May 23 to mark the removal of these monuments, Mayor Landrieu of New Orleans asked why there were no “prominent markers on public lands” to recall the lynchings, or slave blocks where the incredible pain of black men and their families was writ so large. The omission of this history in New Orleans is what the mayor calls “historical malfeasance, a lie by omission.”
And on this I agree with the mayor. I’d like to see him enable his city to construct not only memorials to the evil in its history but to the healing we all strive for. Our national history is pockmarked with failures – and perhaps none is greater than the institution of slavery.
I’ve seen the slave blocks in Africa where Africans sold other Africans to Europeans to become slaves. I’ve seen the holding cell in Elmina, Ghana - a United Nations historical site - where captured Africans were held before being shipped to the west. There were two doors in the cell: one leading in and one leading out to the ships. The horror of the place is burned into my consciousness but I’m grateful the cellblock had not been torn down because I learned from being there.
I suggest to Mayor Landrieu of New Orleans that he look north to Richmond, Virginia, former capital of the Confederacy, where a more honest history flourishes. On Monument Avenue there are, yes, statues of Lee and Davis; but just down the street there’s one of black tennis star Arthur Ashe surrounded by children, with Ashe holding a tennis racquet in one hand and books in the other. Nearby is a Slavery Reconciliation Statue at Shockhoe Bottom, a former slave market.
The city of New Orleans, like Richmond, is full of extraordinary American history. Banishing statues should not be part of it.