By Jason Berry | The New Orleans Advocate
As the city council embraces Take ‘Em Down NOLA’s call for changing the names of streets and spaces linked to slaveholders and White supremacy, a larger question looms: how do we reimagine New Orleans as a social mosaic?
The debate, long overdue, comes amid America’s worst crisis since World War II. The COVID-19 pandemic with its surging death toll will have a staggering economic impact. Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter rightly raises the issue of historic brutality and injustice.
As a state strapped for funding struggles against viral spread, Gov. John Bel Edwards, Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Dr. Jennifer Avegno have shown principled leadership.
The city council commission on historic names needs a broad base of people, particularly writers and artists, in socially-distanced groups or virtual meetings, to furnish a report on the monuments.
Changing street names is not expensive. Erecting monuments is. Philanthropy will have to play a funding role to construct new spaces and fill those where the Jefferson Davis, General P.G.T. Beauregard and Robert E. Lee statues stood.
New Orleans has so few statues of women, which make a difference for young girls to see. I think of Mother Catherine Seal, the great 1920s faith healer, Sister Gertrude Morgan the artist, and Rep. Lindy Boggs, to name but three.
After many years researching the impact of slavery and black cultural memory, I drive past the circle absent Lee, wondering how it might reflect the city where jazz began.
New Orleans Style, the ensemble jazz idiom that arose in the early 1900s, is a metaphor of democracy. Different instrumental voices, playing improvisational roles, find resolution in the melody. Early jazz spread to Sicilians and other white players because it got people up and dancing.
I doubt that a one-size-fits-all formula for changing names will work. We need different voices to find that melody.
Changing Jefferson Davis Parkway to Norman Francis’s name is absolutely right. Davis led a failed war against America,. Francis was a visionary who rebuilt Xavier University post-Katrina.
How about Claude Tremé, namesake of the neighborhood fabled for its music? Tremé went to jail for killing a slave. Upon release, he married a planter’s daughter. They sold off early 19th-century land tracts to people, including free Black people, who settled the neighborhood. The meaning of some names can change over time. What is the memory of today’s residents, their idea of Tremé? A cultural place, not a man.
St. Claude Avenue is also named for Tremé, after his patron saint, Claude, a custom of early street naming. St. Charles Avenue memorializes Carlos III, a French name signifying the king whose coffers rebuilt the fire-ravaged city, then a Spanish colonial property, in the 1790s.
Many African Americans merit a street name or statue. Danny Barker, Fats Domino, Ellis Marsalis come to mind. Add Dr. John, and Pete Fountain, among white artists.
High on any list should be Moon Landrieu, the mayor in the 1970s who forged economic openings for blacks and helped put up the Superdome.
We should go deeper into the past to memorialize Captain Andre Cailloux. He died leading Louisiana Native Guard troops in the Civil War at Port Hudson. Cailloux’s 1863 funeral was the first great procession for a Black person in New Orleans.
Another forgotten name: George Washington Cable, the city’s renowned late 19th-century novelist, author of “Old Creole Days” and “The Grandissimes,” literary classics. His articles and speeches urged racial reconciliation and economic justice for blacks.
Born 1844 into a slaveholding family, Cable’s life is a parable of change. Wounded as a teenage soldier for the Confederacy, he began reading after the war, wondering what he had fought for, the secession. Why had the South set up “a doctrine [to] waste three hundred thousand young men’s lives in its defense?” He found only one answer: “to protect slaveholding.”
Cable’s journalism and speeches championed African American rights and integrated schools. His Century Magazine essays on Congo Square and slave songs are seminal works on New Orleans history. By the 1880s white hostility to Cable so disillusioned him that he moved to New England, literally an exile.
Cable’s place in popular memory was erased by the Lost Cause movement that erected the white supremacist monuments now dismantled. George Washington Cable was a prophet; he deserves a statue as one of the great lights this city has produced
Jason Berry is the author of “City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300,” the subject of a documentary film he is finishing.