By Jeremy Arnold
On an unseasonably warm Saturday last November, while the New Orleans City Council debated the removal of four well-known monuments celebrating leaders of the Confederate States of America, including Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, over a hundred artists and craftsmen sold their various wares out of booths crisscrossing Palmer Park in the city’s affluent Carrollton section. Price tags on bright abstract paintings and welded steel sculptures read as high as one thousand dollars (with nothing less than twenty thousand). A tattooed young woman selling mismatched stud earrings looked up from her iPhone annoyed. “They’re supposed to be mixed up,” she said, “That’s the style.” When asked in passing if she knew who the park was named after, her reply was a curt “No.”
One hundred thirteen years before it voted to topple the stone likenesses of Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Jefferson Davis from their respective perches (the fourth monument slated for removal commemorates an 1874 rebellion orchestrated by the Crescent City White League), the council passed an ordinance renaming Hamilton Square in honor of Reverend Benjamin Morgan Palmer, the Presbyterian minister whose 1860 Thanksgiving sermon is often credited with galvanizing Louisiana’s white Christians in favor of secession from the Union. In this famous sermon, Palmer described the South’s “providential trust” as a fight “to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing.”
According to the Times-Picayune, Palmer Park is one of an astounding thirty-three monuments, spaces, and streets in New Orleans that honor influential figures of the Confederacy. From the block-long General Early Drive in the crime-plagued Desire neighborhood to the statue of Edward Douglas White (a Confederate veteran and White League founder who, in 1910, became Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court) in the heart of the city’s historic French Quarter, the monuments span both the short-lived Confederacy’s political hierarchy and the geographic divisions which today separate New Orleans’s “haves” from its many “have-nots.” Sometime last year, in response to demands from the Black Lives Matter and Take ‘Em Down Nola movements that echoed many made since the 1870s, enough “haves”—mayor Mitch Landrieu chief among them—decided at last to use their immense power to place a dent in the Confederate armor.
Proceedings since then have been less than smooth. A Baton Rouge contractor hired by the city backed out of its commitment to remove the four monuments after the owner received death threats, as well as threats from his neighbors to boycott his business. Anti-removal activists took the city to federal court and lost, but not before they staged a demonstration in City Park, where they encircled the Beauregard statue in demonstration of protective devotion. The “stars and bars” flag, recently removed from a handful of Southern statehouses and college campuses, continues to occasionally appear around town, most recently in the form of beaded “throws” tossed from passing floats into the hands of unsuspecting black children during the Krewe of Carrollton’s annual Mardi Gras parades.
Though neither the council nor the mayor’s office has announced a timetable for dismantling the four notorious monuments, it is unlikely they will remain long after the end of Lent in March; the political capital that lawmakers expended makes a drawn out process virtually unthinkable, even in a city whose government is notoriously inefficient when it comes to carrying out its public duties. Political expedience and concern for public safety suggest the statues will shortly be uprooted and trucked off in the middle of the night.
There are no official plans to rename Palmer Park or, for that matter, any of the other twenty-eight Confederate monuments scattered across New Orleans. The streetcar, the city’s idiosyncratic mode of public transport, killed Benjamin Palmer in 1902, and it is, in a way, fitting that its most famous line, which runs from Canal Street up St. Charles and Carrollton Avenue to Claiborne, begins and ends its journey at the north-east corner of his namesake park. Soon, as it crosses the Central Business District and winds its way through the restored Tivoli Circle, riders will look out their windows to see the place where the likeness of Robert E. Lee used to stand.