NEW ORLEANS – For more than 130 years, a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee has towered over the Crescent City from atop a 60-foot marble column. His days there appear to be numbered.
The statue, unveiled in 1884 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991, is one of several historic statues with a Confederate connection that the city council has voted to remove. A lawsuit filed in federal court here by the Monumental Task Committee, Louisiana Landmarks Society, Foundation for Historical Louisiana, and Beauregard Camp, No. 130, a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, has put those plans on hold for the moment. A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 14.
The action mirrors discussions and efforts throughout the South, including Atlanta, aimed at dispensing with Confederate imagery.
In July 2015, the month after the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal in Charleston that killed nine black worshipers, the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP called for the Confederate engraving to be sandblasted off the side of Stone Mountain.
“It is time for Georgia and other Southern states to end the glorification of slavery and white supremacy paid for and maintained with the taxes of all its citizens,” the chapter said in a statement at the time. “NAACP Atlanta chapter is calling for the immediate removal of all Confederate Memorial Monuments maintained by the state of Georgia using taxpayer money.”
That proposal didn’t gain much traction.
Elsewhere, efforts to scrub the South of its Confederate heritage include a proposal to remove “Silent Sam,” a bronze statue on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, placed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1913. It honors the memory of UNC alumni who fought and died during the Civil War.
Already, Confederate flags have been moved from Lee Chapel on the campus of Washington and Lee University.
The New Orleans move was pushed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
“This is the right thing to do and now is the time to do it,” he said in a statement. “Moving the location of these monuments — from prominent public places in our city where they are revered to a place where they can be remembered — changes only their geography, not our history. These monuments will be preserved until an appropriate place to permanently display them, such as a museum or a park, is determined.
“Now we will have the opportunity to join together as a community and select new unifying symbols that truly reflect who we are today. It is our intention to engage a diverse group, and I look forward to thoughtful and robust public discussion process.”
The ACLU strongly supported the move.
“With this vote, New Orleans will no longer glorify the worst of our history, and can move forward on the path toward meaningful unity,” the ACLU of Louisiana said in a statement.
The action brought swift legal action. The federal lawsuit claims the statues are protected from removal by state and federal law, and says the city does not own the land upon which three of the objects stand. It also notes the historic nature of the imperiled statues.
“Foundation for Historical Louisiana was founded in Baton Rouge in 1963 to foster an appreciation of Louisiana’s rich cultural heritage, and to preserve and protect historic buildings, sites and other structures threatened by neglect, abandonment and development,” the lawsuit states in part.
Tuesday afternoon found a handful of New Orleans residents sitting at the Lee statue, enjoying the sunshine.Anthony Johnson, who has family in Atlanta, looked up at Lee and shrugged.
“It’s not bothering me,” said Johnson, who is black. “That man is up there chillin.”
He didn’t feel strongly about the efforts to remove it.
“I’m not going to miss it. Then again, I might miss it,” he said. “I like coming up here to sit up here sometimes.”
A woodworking artist who goes by Sunny Day thinks the monument should stay put for historical and aesthetic purposes and to acknowledge the South’s regional pride despite its defeat by Union forces.
“Losing the statue, it’s like the North is still winning,” said Day, who is white.
Two men in uniforms bearing the names of well-known French Quarter restaurants gave their names only as Willand Red, as they might not technically have been authorized to take the midday break. Both are black, and both said they cared not a whit about the statue staying or leaving.
“I don’t give a (bleep) about that statue,” Red said. “I understand the history behind it but that statue isn’t messing with me.”
Adding Will: “It can come down. It can stay up. It’s not bothering me. It’s been up since before I was born.”