Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
They took down the statue. Now activists are asking themselves: What kind of replacement can actually honor the spirit of that fight?
For well over a century the Gen. Robert E. Lee monument that stood 90-feet tall over what was once called Lee Circle in New Orleans was subject to a variety of interpretations, many of them favorable to the Confederate military leader of the Lost Cause. People projected their own thoughts and beliefs onto the monument: to some it was a consolation prize for the losers of the Civil War, or a symbol of Lee’s supposed kindliness and military brilliance, or an avatar for free speech, or states’ rights, a historical artifact, or a matter of “Southern heritage.” To many Italian-Americans, it is the site where 11 Italian immigrants were unjustly lynched under a wave of nativist extremism not unlike what’s seen today. For many African Americans, it was merely a symbol of white supremacy and oppression.
But that was all before the statue of Lee was yanked down from its pedestal in May, the result of decades of grassroots pressure on the city. All that remains standing in what’s now informally called “Free Circle,” or by its original name, “Tivoli Circle,” is the column and marble base the Lee statue was perched on. The space is now completely subject to reinterpretation. Another Lee has taken over the circle—the New Orleans-based architect Bryan Lee, founder of the design-justice nonprofit Colloqate Design—along with a gang of artists, activists, and historians determined to rinse the city of all white supremacist symbols.
This weekend Lee and project partner Sue Mobley will launch an event called “Projecting History” at the circle, where a team of volunteers will project a digital light slideshow of racial justice images onto the former monument’s column and base. It will be a reprisal of a similar digital projection project Lee and activists conducted two years ago, when the Lee statue was still standing. This weekend, they will project images of icons of resistance against racial oppression that could be sculpted into a monument to take the Lee statue’s place.
“Projecting History,” is the jumpoff for a broader campaign called “Paper Monuments,” for which Lee’s team will solicit input from New Orleans residents for creating a new wave of monuments across the city. It’s modeled after Philadelphia’s Monuments Lab, but designed to confront New Orleanians with the question: If the display of Confederate monuments in the public commons is inappropriate, then what would constitute an appropriate display of monuments in the city?
“We started thinking about what it looks like when there is a vacuum in these spaces where Confederate monuments were,” says Lee. “If we don't actively put the same amount of organizing into what is replacing these pieces then we will get something that still doesn't reflect the people of the city in a legitimate way.”
At the Projecting History site this weekend, people will be provided utensils for drawing or writing up their own ideas for new memorials and monuments. The next stage of the Paper Monuments campaign will entail having local historians and artists illustrate moments of historical significance on postcards and posters. Lee then plans to have a street team hang those illustrations on various walls around New Orleans, sort of like the “Post No Bills” fliers left around New York City in the 90s. The posters will serve as “coming attractions” signals for city residents, to provoke more discussion about who or what deserves a monument.
Lee’s team is currently working with the city to establish themselves as the official organizing arm responsible for determining what will replace the monuments. This project emerges at a time when numerous cities and states are now reconsidering the Confederate symbols exhibited across their landscape. Baltimore acted swiftly in taking a few of its Confederate monuments down after the city’s Mayor Catherine Pugh consulted with New Orleans’ Mayor Mitch Landrieu. But the next step is figuring out whether the monuments are replaced or if the plinths, columns, and planks just sit blank.
For New Orleans, at the former Lee Circle, Bryan Lee says there doesn’t need to be a monument there at all. He said there are talks of converting the roundabout into a park, which they could still use as a staging ground for symbols of New Orleans’ racial justice history—whatever the people decide.
“It’s not about a singular story,” says Lee. “The hope is that we will diffuse multiple stories back into the community in a real way, not just lionizing one story.”