Arts and Culture

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave a speech in 2017 following the removal of four of his city’s remaining Confederate monuments: statues of Robert E Lee, Jefferson Davis and Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, and a monument honoring the Reconstruction-era racial militants called the White League.

In his speech, which was transcribed and printed in the New York Times, Landrieu said: “There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.”

This week, Landrieu will sit down for a discussion with Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer as part of “Lean Into Louisville,” a series of events designed to “explore and confront the history of and legacy of all forms of discrimination and inequality.”

This discussion between the two leaders comes as the city of Louisville struggles with what to do with its own controversial statue: a monument in Cherokee Park honoring John Breckenridge Castleman. Some argue that the statue honors Castleman’s work in developing Louisville’s park system, while others say it is a reminder of Castleman’s service in the Confederacy. 

Fischer and Landrieu will hold a public talk on Wednesday, April 3 at the main library at 6:30 p.m. Here’s a look at how fights over Confederate monuments have played out in the respective cities, and where both leaders have stood on the issue.

Mitch Landrieu, Mayor Of New Orleans

Landrieu initially called for Confederate statues in New Orleans, namely the city’s statue of Robert E. Lee, to be removed in June 2015.

According to a Nola.com article, Landrieu was moved by a conversation he had with a black woman who had to explain to her daughter why there was a monument of a man “who fought on the side of those who wanted to keep slavery around.”

“Right now, I can’t answer that question as a dad,” Landrieu said in 2015. “I think today is the day to start having a discussion about what we are going to put there to celebrate [New Orleans’] 300th anniversary.”

Wikimedia Commons | Paul Scrawl

Robert E. Lee Monument in New Orleans

Following a 60-day period for public input, two city commissions called for the removal of four Confederate monuments. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal immediately opposed the removals, but on December 17, 2015, the New Orleans City Council voted to relocate those four statues from public display.

A period of legal and public controversy followed. Several lawsuits were filed at the local and state level to bar removal, and contractor after contractor backed out of actually carrying out the removal of the statues.

In an op-ed in The Guardian, Landrieu described the scene:

“When I put out a bid for contractors to take the statues down, a few responded. But they were immediately attacked on social media, got threatening calls at work and at home, and were, in general, harassed. Afraid, most naturally backed away.

“One contractor stayed with us – but then his car was firebombed. From that moment on, I couldn’t find anyone willing to take the statues down.

“In the end, we got a crane. But even then, opponents at one point found their way to one of our machines and poured sand in the gas tank. Other protesters flew drones at the contractors to thwart their work. But we kept plodding through. We were successful, but only because we took extraordinary security measures to safeguard equipment and workers, and we agreed to conceal their identities.”

The four statues were finally removed on the following dates:

Battle of Liberty Place Monument (White League Monument) — April 24, 2017

Monument to Jefferson Davis — May 11, 2017

Monument to P.G.T. Beauregard — May 17, 2017

Monument to Robert E. Lee — May 17, 2018

 

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer

In April 2016, University of Louisville Pan-African Studies Department chair Dr. Ricky Jones wrote an op-ed in the Courier Journal calling for the removal of a Confederate monument that stood on the university’s campus.

The monument stood 70-feet-tall, and had initially been a gift from from the Kentucky Woman’s Monument Association to commemorate the Kentuckians who fought and died for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Shortly after Jones’ article, Fischer announced the statue would be removed. But a group led by the Sons of Confederate Veterans said the monument was protected as a designated historical object.

The group challenged the removal in court, and Jefferson Circuit Judge Judith McDonald-Burkman signed a temporary restraining order in May 2016 forbidding removal.

In June 2016, after an investigation showed that the city of Louisville was the owner of the monument and actively insured it, Judge McDonald-Burkman ruled that the city could legally remove the monument.

In November 2016, the statue was moved to Brandenburg, Kentucky, where it is on-display at a historic Civil War site.

Nearly a year later, in August 2017, the statue of John Breckinridge Castleman became a topic of public debate when it was vandalized with orange paint shortly after a violent white supremacist protest erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia.

This incident led Mayor Fischer to call for the city to re-evaluate its public art, determining whether any of the pieces honored “bigotry, racism and/or slavery.”

Some argued the Castleman statue honored slavery, referencing his service in the Confederate army and his wishes for his casket to be draped with both the American and Confederate flags.

Erica Peterson | wfpl.org

February 2018 vandalism.

But some said that wasn’t what the statue was about, as Castleman is depicted in plain clothes and is situated at the entrance to Cherokee Park, which could be interpreted as a reference to his work improving the city’s parks system.

Ultimately, the city opted to restore the statue while deliberations were being made, at a cost of $8,200; the statue has been vandalized three times since.

In December 2017, Fischer announced the formation of the Public Art and Monument Advisory Committee, a group charged with developing a set of principles for evaluating Louisville’s more than 400 existing public art and monuments.

In June 2018, following months of meetings and public input, the Committee released its findings, as well as a letter urging Fischer to swiftly deal with the Castleman statue. The committee wrote:

As a Committee we did not address in our report the current controversy surrounding the John Breckinridge Castleman Monument as we believe the purpose of the Committee’s work is to develop principles and criteria that apply to today’s controversies as well as those we have not yet encountered. With this report we have provided a foundation and as a Committee we encourage and support the Mayor in making a timely response regarding monuments that are the focus of community concern.

In August 2018, Fischer announced the city would, in fact, remove the Castleman statue.

“We cannot ignore that Castleman fought to continue the horrific and brutal slavery of men, women and children; heralded that part of his life in his autobiography; and had his coffin draped with both a U.S. and Confederate flag,” Fischer tweeted.

In December 2018, the city filed for a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Cherokee Triangle Architectural Review Committee — since the Castleman statue is located within the  historic preservation district, the city needed the Committee’s approval before removing the statue.

But in January 2019, Fischer’s plans for removal hit a snag.

The Cherokee Triangle ARC voted 3 to 3 on a motion to remove the statue; without a majority vote, the statue would stay in place.

In an emailed statement following the vote, city spokesperson Jean Porter said the city was disappointed in the committee’s decision.

“We were aware of the process beforehand but believed it would be approved. We are disappointed it was not,” Porter wrote.

The city has since filed an appeal with the Landmarks Commission, but recently-proposed amendments to the Landmarks Ordinance leave further questions about removal.

Under the proposed ordinance amendment, 200 people from the community could file a petition for the committee to recognize any man-made structure as a landmark in order to protect a structure from removal. The commission would then have the responsibility to investigate and determine whether the structure meets the guidelines of being “architecturally, historically or culturally significant.”

Hypothetically, a group of citizens could file a petition requesting the Landmarks Commission consider the Castleman statue be recognized as a landmark, resulting in further delays to determining the statue’s ultimate fate.