By Katja Timm/ Capital News Service
If Civil War history is to be displayed across the American South, it must be portrayed fairly and accurately with an open dialogue about racial disparities in the region, the former mayor of New Orleans told Richmond’s mayor Tuesday.
Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney discussed the symbolism of monuments honoring Confederate figures at a forum attended by several dozen people at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.
Stoney, who is African-American, and Landrieu, who is white, said it’s important for local leaders to tackle social issues such as racism and to chart a path toward dismantling inequities.
“I don’t want to put [New Orleans] back the way it was, because it wasn’t great the night before Katrina hit it,” Landrieu said. “I don’t want to create something new that nobody recognizes, because our history is important, but what I want to do is put it back like it was if we had gotten it right the first time.”
When he became mayor of New Orleans in 2010, Landrieu inherited a city that had been struck by Hurricane Katrina five years earlier and was dealing with the BP oil spill, which started the previous month. Amid the city’s restoration process, he was faced with the unseemly racial past of the South, and the question of what part of history to preserve and what to lay to rest.
“The vestiges of slavery remain to this day,” said Landrieu, who served as mayor until 2018. “We talk about slavery, but we don’t do it well.”
In May 2017, Landrieu delivered a speech on the removal of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans.
“These statues are not just stone and metal, they’re not just innocent remembrances of a benign history,” Landrieu said. “These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy: ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for.”
In his speech two years ago and at Tuesday’s forum, Landrieu agreed with Stoney that the Confederate monuments send the wrong message and ignore the other side of the history of the South.
“It immediately begs the question — why are there 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 of the pain, of sacrifice, of shame — all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans,” Landrieu said in 2017.
As a part of his E Pluribus Unum initiative, Landrieu visited Richmond in hopes of “bringing people together across the American South around issues of race, equity and economic opportunity,” according to Richmond city officials. The Latin phrase “e pluribus unum” means “out of many, one” and appears on the Great Seal of the United States.
In recent years, Richmond residents and officials have had an ongoing, polarized debate about whether to remove Confederate monuments in the city that was once the Confederate capital.
Stoney, who previously favored leaving the monuments in place with additional context, said keeping reminders of the Confederacy only increases the economic and racial inequities that exist in Richmond.
“You see some people living paycheck to paycheck, and others are living like they’re on TV,” Stoney said. “There’s a Richmond. Then there’s an RVA.”
Stoney said a wide wealth disparity exists in the city. Booming areas like Carytown and the Fan District are generally more affluent, while families in neighborhoods like Jackson Ward struggle to make rent.
“We all have a different idea of what quality of life is, but we don’t see it across the border,” Stoney said.
Landrieu called the wealth and racial gap in Richmond “a block away, but a world apart.”
As Richmond’s shameful racial history seems to bleed into the present, Stoney said Confederate monuments do not help in bringing an already-divided Richmond together.
“These monuments say, ‘Look who’s still in charge, we are this high and you’re this low,’” Stoney said. “That’s not the Richmond that we are.”
Stoney and Landrieu said they both agree that the way to advance is to create an open and honest dialogue and to represent the South’s history accurately and inclusively.
“If you’re going to curate our history, curate all of it, and curate it honestly,” Landrieu said.
Stoney said political participation is a crucial part of paving the road to dismantling racial and social inequities.
“I think we have more of an opportunity to participate than just voting. That’s a passive way,” Stoney said. “Democracy, to me, is you put good in, you get good out. If you put bad in, you get bad out.”