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Herb Rothschild Jr.: What the statues really said

The one-year anniversary of the clash in Charlottesville brought to mind two statues I knew as a boy — “The Good Darky of Louisiana” in Natchitoches (Nak-i-tosh), a small city in northwest Louisiana, and Robert E. Lee perched atop a 60-foot column in New Orleans. They have been removed since, the former in 1969, the latter last year. Both commemorated an un-Reconstructed South, both were meant to perpetuate its power relationships, and both are now part of a history no longer being written exclusively by white men.

But the two statues differed in interesting ways. The Natchitoches statue, I think, was the only one of a black person publicly displayed in Louisiana before the Civil Rights movement. When Jackson Lee Bryant, a successful planter, decided to commission and erect it at personal expense to honor a servant of his parents named Uncle Jack, his brother warned him that white citizens wouldn’t allow its display. Bryant proceeded anyway, and in 1927 it was prominently placed. His brother’s fears proved unfounded. It quickly became a favorite with the town and its visitors.

No wonder. The statue depicted a neatly dressed old man with slightly bowed head and hat in hand. This was indeed the white image of the good darky — clean-living, humble, and grateful to his master. Doubtless, Bryant was sincere in his intention to honor Uncle Jack, and probably the town’s whites believed they were expressing gratitude to black folks. But the town’s blacks didn’t share their obtuseness. They knew what message “The Good Darky” was meant to convey and the consequences of defying it.

So, removal of the statue became a focus of civil rights agitation. It took repeated vandalism to convince the town leaders to remove it. After a few years in storage, Bryant’s daughter agreed to lend it to the LSU Rural Life Museum. It has remained in Baton Rouge since. Museums are appropriate places to preserve history, especially its shameful episodes.

When then-New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu explained why he and the City Council had ordered the removal from public display of Robert E. Lee’s statue as well as three other Confederate memorials, he distinguished between remembering and extolling. After pointing out that New Orleans was the nation’s largest slave port, that there had been 540 lynchings in Louisiana, that Freedom Riders coming to the city were beaten bloody, he said, “When people say to me that the monuments in question are history ... [I ask] why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame. ... [T]hose self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments ... are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission.”

Landrieu rightly asserted that when Lee’s statue was erected in 1884, it was intended “to celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for. ... After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.”

Germans now work at remembering their Nazi past. They don’t do it by erecting statues to Erwin Rommel.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.