On December 17, 2015, the New Orleans City Council voted to remove four monuments to white supremacy. Several depict slave-owners, including Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The ongoing removal of the monuments—done at night by city workers in bulletproof vests following threats of violence—has largely been credited to the city’s mayor, Mitch Landrieu. But his decision is the result of work by grassroots activists who have pushed for decades to have those and several other statues taken down.
The most recent effort comes from a coalition called Take Em Down NOLA, primarily founded by three black educators: adjunct college professor Malcolm Suber, K-8 principal Angela Kinlaw, and myself. I’m a librarian and poetry teacher. New Orleans is a city that has ranked among the lowest in education for years and is still reeling from the post-traumatic stresses of slavery and the subsequent systemic inequities. So it’s no small wonder that it would take three teachers, pushed to the limits of what we were able to accomplish in a school building, to take our pedagogy to the streets to effect change.
This past Thursday morning, just a few hours after the Jefferson Davis monument was taken from its 106-year-old perch, I showed the news footage to my third graders. I asked them if they could make a connection between the man in the statue and the discussions that we had been having all year. “Yeah, that’s them people who wanted to keep slavery,” they said. “That’s right,” I told them. “And what do you think our city is trying to tell us when they make people like that monuments and put ’em way up in the sky?” “That they over us, like our parents,” said one student. “That they have power,” said another. Ahh…the mouths of babes. I told them that they’d just spoken a truth that even their great-grandparents may have not been able to freely articulate.
I’ve been living in New Orleans since I was 12 years old. I left behind my native Brooklyn where my childhood was inundated with images of red, black, and green leather medallions with Africa imprinted on them, “X” caps flooding the streets after neighborhood hero Spike Lee put out the Malcolm X biopic, and sounds of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blasting from the cars driving by.
Then I came to New Orleans. The number one record label at the time was an embryonic startup named Cash Money Records. One of their hit songs was called “Heroin,” by flagship group Partners-N-Crime. Both the city’s murder and incarceration rate were the highest in the world. Schools ranked amongst the worst in the nation and presumably then, as now, one out of two black children lived in poverty and one out of two black men were unemployed. My mom, a native of New Orleans’s infamous 9th ward, used to say, “Half these negroes ain’t moved 12 blocks since slavery.” It would take me a decade or two before I would fully understand her words, before I would realize that the plight of so many black folks in New Orleans is indeed by design.
It was a couple decades later in 2010 when I met Malcolm Suber. I heard him speak at the public library alongside his comrade, revolutionary scholar Leon Waters. On a projector screen, they presented a series of black and white maps along with digitized archaic documents that delineated the history of New Orleans in ways that no Social Studies class I’d been in had ever attempted to. And just like that, there it was: all the evidence I needed. If “Negroes” hadn’t moved 12 blocks since slavery, it certainly was no coincidence. The city was literally gridded in the likeness of their once—and ostensibly still—masters. A vast amount of public schools, institutions, and streets were named after former slave owners.
And then there were the monuments. There was the Liberty Monument, erected in 1891 to commemorate militia Crescent City White League’s killing of 11 black and white police officers in a rebellion against the Reconstruction-era government in 1874. Outside of the State Supreme Court Building, there was the statue of E.D. White, a former state senator, son of a slaveowner, Supreme Court Chief Justice and member of the Crescent City White League. (The White League was also responsible for the Colfax Riot of 1873, where approximately 150 black people were massacred in Colfax, Louisiana, as well as a massacre in Thibodaux that killed some 300 black people. During the brief Reconstruction era, the White League was responsible for the deaths of over 3,000 black people.)
The list went on to include the French Quarter’s Jackson Square and its prominent statue of Andrew Jackson, architect of the Trail of Tears and the lesser-known Fort Negro Massacre; Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard and his mounted horse statue in front of the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park; and Confederate President Jefferson Davis a few blocks away on a major street bearing his namesake. Lastly was Robert E. Lee, the near-literal phantom of the Confederacy, who never set foot in New Orleans, but yet stands atop its highest perch, as a 16-foot statue atop a 68-foot column in a circle named after him in the heart of the city.
Every Mardi Gras season, children from high schools around the city invariably march around Lee Circle, the dramatic epicenter of most parade routes. The other day, New Orleans comedian Mario P told me that when he attended John McDonogh High School, his band director would never let the band play more than a solitary drum beat when they marched under the gaze of Lee. Apparently, similar acts of resistance also inspired elders who have fought against symbols of white supremacy for decades now.
Elder activist Carl Galmon was the first to tell me the story of the Founder’s Day protest. It was once a tradition to have black students wait in the hot sun behind white students before they laid wreaths at the foot of a monument to McDonogh, likely Louisiana’s largest slave owner who, upon dying childless, donated his fortune to public schools. A protest organized by black activists in 1950s put an end to all that.
It was this history of resistance that inspired Malcolm Suber’s entry into the struggle. It was his that inspired mine and Angela’s. And hopefully, some of what just happened last Thursday will continue to happen through our students. There are over 100 monuments and markers to white supremacists still standing in New Orleans.