BAYHAM: Who Should Take Robert E. Lee’s Place On That Pillar?

There’s soon going to be a vacancy in one of the most prominent spots in the 504 area code when the 18 feet tall, 7,000 pound Alexander Doyle sculpture of General Robert E. Lee is removed from its pillar.

An acrimonious debate waged for many months about whether Lee and memorials dedicated to his fellow confederates should be bowdlerized from the New Orleans landscape where they have stood for over a century.

With the federal courts essentially resolving the question of whether these historic landmarks could legally be removed by the city, two even more combative debates are about to commence: where will the monuments be relocated on a permanent basis and which notables should replace these heroes of the Old South on their pedestals.

The latter issue could especially contentious amongst competing advocates due to the prominent real estate the statues occupied, especially in the case of the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee Circle isn’t just a spot on a map; it marks the boundary between Uptown and Downtown.  It’s a major route utilized by commuter traffic, streetcars packed with tourists, and Mardi Gras parades. It also near the city’s crown jewel of cultural tourism, the National World War II Museum.

In fact you could argue that Lee’s monument is the city’s second most important statue only after the equestrian monument of Andrew Jackson, which along with the St. Louis Cathedral, is the de facto symbol of New Orleans.

Hence you can’t just stick a statue of anyone atop the 90 feet haft of Tennessee marble lest it serves as an everlasting punctuation mark on the absurdity of this whole ordeal.

There is the reality that there aren’t any local figures who haven’t already been memorialized on a grand scale worthy of the honor.

Jazz icon Louis Armstrong has a few statues in addition to a large urban park that bears his name.  Furthermore, the city’s primary airport was renamed in his honor.  There’s no need to pile on more Satchmo.

After Armstrong the list of parochial notables gets thin.  While the still alive Fats Domino and the late Chef Paul Prudhomme ought to be memorialized in some fashion, Lee Circle would be an unnatural fit for entertainment and culinary figures.

And judging by the conversations I’ve had with Chef Prudhomme on politics, I don’t think he would have been happy about his name and likeness being used to facilitate the political correcting of a local landmark.

The design and layout of the circle lends to a majestic atmosphere and the site needs to be complemented with a person that exudes greatness.

Two presidents with a local connection fit the bill.  Thomas Jefferson was responsible for the Louisiana Purchase that made the city a part of America and almost doubled the size of the United States in the process.  Going forward with the controversial real estate transaction was one of the most important milestones in American history.  However, as Jefferson owned slaves, it’s unlikely the city would go along with replacing Lee with the lead author of the Declaration of Independence, even though the third president would merit such an honor.

And then there is the man who is considered America’s greatest president.  Abraham Lincoln visited New Orleans while working on a flatboat and his journey to the Crescent City made an indelible impression on him regarding slavery that would change the country.  Currently there is not a statue of the Great Emancipator in New Orleans and the idea of swapping a Confederate general out with the man who aggressively waged war against the Confederacy has to be appealing to politicians and social activists refighting the Civil War.  That nobody has even pushed the idea of a Lincoln monument in New Orleans over the years is both odd and possibly indicative there won’t be one anytime soon.

Perhaps the least controversial person who could be considered for the monument is another famous visitor to New Orleans: Pope John Paul II.

The Holy Father’s trip to New Orleans was one of the biggest events in the history of the city, perhaps the most noteworthy drop in since the Marquis de Lafayette made Nola a part of his grand tour of America.   Installing a monument to the beloved pontiff would take some of the sting out of a process that has been marked with vandalism, character assassination, and hard feelings.

A monument to the Polish pope could spur additional religious tourism to south Louisiana.

If not the newly canonized saint, the man responsible for bringing the pope to New Orleans could be considered: Archbishop Philip Hannan.

Hannan ministered to New Orleanians of all faiths for a period stretching from Hurricane Betsy in 1965 through Hurricane Katrina thirty years later.  Hannan was one of the city’s most popular religious figures, perhaps the most widely respected clergyman since Pere Antoine.  A potential Hannan monument would be only two blocks away from the museum that chronicles the very war the future archbishop had served in as a chaplain for the 82nd Airborne.

Finally, there is the oil man whose office was located at Lee Circle, the late Pat Taylor.  A native of Texas, Taylor made his fortune in Louisiana and invested his considerable resources in promoting access to higher education through the Taylor Plan.  Taylor was personally one of the most generous benefactors in the New Orleans area, donating millions to projects ranging from improving public school facilities to securing body armor for area police.

Ironically, Taylor, who had a tremendous interest in history, paid for the renovation of the very monuments that will soon be taken down.   As he died 13 years ago, Taylor might be a relatively obscure person to honor with such a grand monument, however the education proponent and philanthropist would not be undeserving.

The entire monument removal endeavor has cast a pall over the upcoming tricentennial celebration of New Orleans.  City political leaders would be wise not to engage in political triumphalism by filling the vacancies with monuments to personal political favorites but should instead choose figures with very broad appeal whose legacies transcend generational lines so they will be appreciated many years to come.

Otherwise the city pols would be merely swapping out one bygone generation’s heroes for those of another generation, that could likewise be removed by a later less appreciative generation.

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