All across the South, cities — including Louisville — have been grappling with finding appropriate ways to deal with monuments to the Confederacy.
On Wednesday night, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer spoke with former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu at the Main Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library on the topic; but the conversation moved towards discussing what cities should do post-monument removal, ranging from creating new, inclusive artwork to beginning to recognize other, more subtle structures that represent institutional racism.
During his time as mayor, Landrieu removed four monuments to the Confederacy, including a prominent statue of Robert E. Lee.
In 2016, Fischer removed a 70-foot monument to fallen Confederate soldiers, which was located on the University of Louisville’s campus.
But Fischer is now in the midst of an appeal process with the city’s Landmarks Commission as he seeks to remove a controversial statue of John Breckinridge Castleman, who served in the Confederate army.
And, Fischer said he hopes that within a few months — following final deliberations — there will be an empty pedestal where the Castleman statue now stands in the Cherokee Triangle.
“With the approval of Cave Hill Cemetery we’ll drag him to Cave Hill and he’ll be by the family plot,” Fischer said. “Not destroying, just removing.”
But according to Landrieu, leaving empty spaces isn’t enough. Cities need to move toward telling more complete, complex histories of the people who live and have lived there.
“When you take that monument down, we say we’ve still got to preserve that space for history — what then could you put up?” Landrieu said. “Think about whether or not you could put something up that is unifying rather than one that was dividing you.”
This is a discussion that is ongoing in Louisville.
In December 2017, following several public meetings to discuss the Castleman statue, Fischer announced a two-part plan to deal with the city’s public art. The first part was establishing the Public Art and Monuments Advisory Committee, which created new recommendations for the city’s entire canon of nearly 400 pieces of public art; the second was proposed funding for local artists to create new monuments that focus on the untold stories of Louisville’s history.
This is important in a city like Louisville where the most prominent statue of a person of color in Louisville — of which there are only a few — is of York, the enslaved man who traveled with explorers Lewis and Clark.
Until 2015 there were no statues of women.
Other cities like Philadelphia have already gone through experimental processes of erecting temporary monumental art that tells previously untold stories through initiatives like Monument Lab.
In addition to creating a more equitable artscape, both mayors acknowledged the need to take a harder look at structures other than statues that serve as demarcations of segregation.
“So when you go to a city, they say, ‘What’s on the other side of the tracks? Or on the other side of Martin Luther King Boulevard? Or west of 9th Street?” Fischer said. “These are intentional city design practices intended to keep people segregated.”
And Landrieu said white citizens need to also examine legal and economic systems that take advantage of disenfranchised communities.
“It’s called a criminal justice system that is not structured the right way, it’s called a bonding system,” Landrieu said. “It’s called redlining.”
This conversation comes just hours after a panel of local religious leaders urged Louisvillians to look at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as a symbol of white oppression.