A friend of mine wrote a thesis about a public park in New Orleans that still bears the name of an ardent 18th century racist—a reverend who claimed God created slavery for the welfare of African Americans. Through an online forum, he polled readers to suggest new names for the park and start a dialogue about the importance of addressing society’s ignorance of—or worse, complacency with—contentious symbols. The majority of the respondents who opposed any change did so because they simply disliked the idea of changing the name of a park they were so familiar with. Others argued that the tactic was revisionist and severed the people of New Orleans from their historical memory (even though very few people knew the park’s namesake before anyway.) The Jefferson Davis Monument was erected around the time that the park was named, and the sentiments that colored the response to the park’s name change are mirrored in current disputes over the removal of Confederate memorials. Earlier this month, the Vieux Carre voted to remove the Battle of Liberty Place Monument—hilariously known as the Liberty Monument—which commemorates an attempt by the Crescent City White League in New Orleans to overthrow the Reconstructionist government shortly after the Civil War. The different responses to this effort are revealing of the separate experiences of white and black landscapes throughout New Orleans’ history, and the values that are imbued in the separate heritages that arose from these landscapes. Perhaps for most of white New Orleans today, these symbols may represent a pride or nostalgia for southern heritage that is mentally and emotionally divorced from slavery, but ultimately they have made polite a period of history that is ugly and should be remembered as such. For African Americans, the monuments represent the white supremacy evident from the Lost Cause movement up to the civil rights era, and they serve as a continued public endorsement of the systemic inequality that still exists, manifest in economic inequality and lack of opportunity for minorities.
The monuments—sites of memory, as Nora would say—are a part of New Orleans’ cultural heritage, but they are not static embodiments of the culture that created them. If culture is a political process that creates and recreates heritage, then the people of New Orleans can imbue the monuments with new meaning in a new context. The acknowledgement that culture is a social construction—not a collection of things—allows for an expression and maintenance of heritage that goes beyond the in-situ preservation of offensive sculptures. As Lowenthal says, every act of preservation is also an act of interpretation. By preserving these statues in their glorified, commanding positions high above the city streets, we limit our ability to control that interpretation—and that inability to deliberately and carefully interpret is an interpretation in itself. On the other hand, removing these monuments from their places of prominence and placing them in a single park could more effectively merge history, memory, and the cultural values of various groups. Here an interpretive panel can speak collectively to the monuments’ place in history, their changing symbolism, and the decision to remove them. If the preservation of an object is a window to the values of a society and its heritage, let those values and that heritage be sensitive and inclusive.