The Battle of Liberty Place: A Matter of Historical Perception
Editor’s Note: When this article appeared in the Spring 1994 edition of Louisiana Cultural Vistas, contentious debate surrounded the reinstallation of the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place, a Reconstruction-era skirmish in 1874 that precipitated the end of Union occupation of New Orleans and the rise of white supremacy in government and the social hierarchy. The monument was dismantled in 1989 during a road improvement project. A lawsuit in 1992 led to its being rebuilt at an obscure site behind a parking structure one block from its original location. In 2015 New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu once again called for the controversial memorial to be removed in an effort to rid the city of prominent statuary honoring Confederate leaders. The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities hosted a historians’ forum on the subject on June 23, 2015. Nearly two years later, on April 24, 2017, the Battle of Liberty Place monument was the first of four monuments to white supremacy and the Confederacy to be removed by the City of New Orleans.
Historical truth is many things—what actually happened in the past, how events are perceived when they occur, how people choose to remember them, and how historians interpret events. The last—how historians interpret events—depends as much on when the historian is writing as on the period being written about. It is no accident, for example, that in our time, when blacks and women are demanding equal rights, we have had a outpouring of work on African American history and women’s history. Therefore, past events can be interpreted from a variety of perspectives; the events surrounding what came to be called the Battle of Liberty Place are no exception.
With penetrating insight, 19th-century New Orleans writer Grace King once said, “Reconstruction was also the war.”
The Battle of Liberty Place was the name later bestowed on the brief skirmish between Republicans and Democrats near the foot of Canal Street on the afternoon of September 14, 1874. Twelve years earlier, the city of New Orleans had surrendered to Union forces without firing a shot. As one New Orleans guidebook states: “The shooting did not start in New Orleans until after the Civil War was over.”
Union General Benjamin Butler arrived to take command of the city of New Orleans in 1862. “Beast” Butler’s name still inspires hatred in New Orleans. Part of the reason was that he represented the northern conqueror; another was the result of his unattractive appearance, which was not only corpulent, but contemporaries tell us that one of his eyes did not track with the other. And by the time of his departure from the city there was more than a faint odor of corruption that hung about his office. The real reason why he was so vilified though was not just his policies but that he treated the proud citizens of New Orleans as a conquered people who would have welcomed anything—including a plague—to get rid of the Union army. The pastor of St. Patrick Church is said to have replied to a complaint that he had refused to allow a funeral from his church for a Union soldier: “Sir, I would gladly bury the entire Union army.” No doubt he was voicing the sentiments of many of his parishioners.
The Civil War was extremely costly in terms of human loss for Louisiana. The state had provided 56,000 men for the Confederacy, and over half of these either died of wounds or disease or were maimed to some degree. While we do not have the figures, thousands of Louisiana blacks fought for the Union, and suffered the same fate. Certainly the loss of so large a number of men of productive age of both races shrank the labor force, and the loss of future leadership is impossible to calculate. The late historian Joe Gray Taylor said that a lack of leadership resulting from losses in the war, black and white, was to plague the state for two generations. The war was extremely financially costly, too. The state was thrown into economic chaos at the end of the war as Confederate money, the only legal currency in New Orleans, became worthless. Millions of dollars in capital invested in slaves evaporated, land prices plummeted, and the social system, underpinned by a complex and delicate system of racial etiquette, collapsed.
White Louisiana’s folk memory of Reconstruction, the period between the fall of New Orleans and the departure of the last federal troops from the state in 1877, is infinitely more harrowing than the memory of the Civil War itself. It is unfortunate that much of this perception was formed by the Democratic politicians who came to power after Reconstruction was over, and who manipulated the memory of Reconstruction to keep themselves in power. There is no doubt that the Reconstruction government was corrupt, even in a state that seems always to have had a high tolerance for official corruption. George Washington Cable called the period “that hideous carnival of political profligacy.” The exaggeration of fraud and corruption served to make the politicians who took office after Reconstruction—and with a few exceptions they were quite capable of vice and graft themselves—by making themselves look virtuous by comparison.
Dwelling on the horrors of Reconstruction was also one way of not having to deal with real social, economic and, above all, racial issues of the post-Reconstruction period.
It is ironic that white New Orleanians who were on the losing side of the Civil War remember the war as a glorious struggle, but see Reconstruction, which they won, as a tragic time in their history. The WPA Guide to New Orleans, written in the 1930s, calls the years between 1865 and 1877 “the blackest in the history of New Orleans.” As late as 1967, historian Ella Lonn wrote: “By January 1, 1869, Louisiana had suffered the throes of reconstruction for seven weary years, but the hostile fates had decreed for her more than another seven before she should be able to wrench herself from the grasp of her colored and carpet-bag despots.” These are examples of historical interpretation of Reconstruction in Louisiana which prevailed until rather recently.
Reconstruction is still a controversial period, and events in Louisiana are certainly as controversial as in any other state. Some historians, such as Lonn, see Reconstruction as a period of vengeance taken by a vindictive North on a conquered and devastated South. Others see the policies of the federal government as having fallen captive to the Republican party, which prolonged and manipulated Reconstruction to keep itself in power. For some it was a “carnival of corruption” made possible by giving political power to uneducated and inexperienced black people barely removed from slavery. Understandably whites viewed political equality for former slaves as an intolerable dislocation of southern society. New views see Reconstruction as a real but failed effort to secure the political and civil rights of black people and to establish a new society based on equality for and between the races. In truth, all of these interpretations have some validity, and are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
A Cosmopolitan City
Let us look at some of the events that followed the fall of New Orleans to the Union navy in 1862. At the time of the surrender, New Orleans was composed of approximately 170,000 persons, almost 11,000 of whom were free people of color, and approximately 14,500 were slaves. The city contained people of various national and ethnic origins, but racially there was a three-level system unique in America. At the bottom were the slaves, who made up most of the city’s domestic labor force—they were the housekeepers, baby nurses, carriage drivers and cooks. In the middle, racially, economically, and symbolically, were the free people of color, mostly light-skinned, educated artisans who monopolized several of the city’s most skilled trades, such as plastering, iron work and furniture making. The gens de couleur libre had close ties, both of blood and commerce, to the white community. They tended to look down on the darker skinned slaves, but, as we will see, their special status was precarious.
At the top were the whites of New Orleans, whose social and economic solidarity was extremely fragile. Composed of Creoles, Americans, and immigrants from Germany, Ireland, France, Spain and Italy, among others, the white community was united by their common race and control of the social, economic, and political power of the city, as white men were the only ones with full civil and political rights. The white community, however, was composed of people as diverse as Irish immigrants who were day laborers to wealthy Creole and American merchants and planters. Militant white solidarity would only emerge after the Civil War, when white control of the city became threatened, and it only lasted until white control of city government was firmly reestablished.
On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in areas under Union control, went into effect. The result in New Orleans became apparent only gradually. Since forced labor was the essence of slavery, many freed slaves believed that freedom meant they were also free from the necessity to labor. They deserted their former owners in droves and hung about the city, idle and sometimes rowdy. To make matters worse, thousands of ex-slaves from the surrounding parishes deserted their plantations for New Orleans, increasing the number of idle and unemployed in the city. Ex-slaves expected and demanded instant equality with whites in matters of education, voting and holding office. Since a belief in black inferiority was an important justification for slavery, whites reacted with horror to these demands.
Free people of color, for the most part were also dismayed by emancipation. They immediately grasped, and quite correctly, that their special status would be lost; if all blacks were free, they would be lumped with the ex-slaves by defensive whites. Both former slaves and those blacks who had been free before the war were soon to see that equality and civil rights were not going to materialize just because the South lost the war or even as an automatic result of the occupation of New Orleans by Union troops.
New Orleans Under Northern Rule
The military occupation of New Orleans began in 1862. President Lincoln was anxious for Reconstruction to proceed, and for the seceded states to rejoin the Union as soon as possible. One of the requirements for readmission was the writing of a new state constitution, and in 1864, General Nathaniel Banks, who had replaced the hated Butler, called for the election of delegates to a constitutional convention. Because Union forces held only the southern portions of the state, the convention was dominated by New Orleanians. The delegates elected were as opposed to civil and political rights for blacks as any other such gathering in Louisiana history. They especially rejected Negro suffrage, although Banks succeeded in persuading them to put in a provision that the legislature might later expand the franchise to include blacks. This was “safe” as long as only whites elected the members of the legislature.
When the war ended, new elections held in 1865 returned a strong majority of white men who had been Confederate soldiers or supporters during the war to the state legislature. Lincoln’s assassination threw Reconstruction policy into confusion, although Louisiana was allowed to retain this government unmolested until 1867. Free people of color and former slaves saw this as a disappointing return to the racial status quo. Even worse, the actions of this legislature engendered despair among blacks and stirred up anger in the North as Louisiana lawmakers attempted to regain control over their former slaves’ labor and reestablish the system of racial relations which existed before the war.
They attempted to accomplish this in two ways: the first and most obvious was by passing new “Black Codes,” a version of the old slave codes which restricted black’s freedom of movement, required them to labor, and punished “insubordinate” behavior. Under the new codes, blacks were required to hire themselves out for year-long terms at fixed prices; after signing labor contracts they were not free to leave the person who hired them, nor were they free to contract for however high a price their labor might bring. To force blacks to sign these contracts, there was a vagrancy provision, which levied a fine for idleness, and then provided that if the vagrant could not pay the fine, his labor could be sold for a fixed term to whomever could pay it. Under the new “Black Codes,” African Americans were also required to be respectful in their behavior to whites. “Insulting a white person,” a crime before the war that could only be committed by persons of African origin, was retained as a crime in the new code. There was no corresponding crime of insulting a black person. Other southern states passed similar codes. These codes caused the freedmen to fear that slavery was effectually being reestablished.
The other mechanism to control blacks passed by this legislature was the institution of the convict-lease system. Louisiana was the first state to inaugurate such a program. In the convict lease system, a person desiring the use of convict labor could buy the services of a convict for a year’s term, remove him from the penitentiary entirely, and use his labor for the term. The overwhelming majority of convicts leased before the system was ended early in the 20th century were black males accused of mostly minor offenses. Many historians feel that it was much worse than slavery, because the lessee had no financial investment in the convict, and the courts kept providing steady supplies of new convicts. In one year for which records exist, 149 died out of 700. As one lessee said in his diary, “If one dies, get another.”
The period following the Civil War also saw a wave of violence against blacks. Ex-slaves, who had been protected to some extent from violence before the Civil War simply by their value, now lost that protection, and murder of blacks became commonplace. In 1866 a bloody race riot broke out in New Orleans that outraged the North and resulted in congressional action that for the first time focused on the status of freedmen in the South. By 1866 the free people of color, ex-slaves and a growing number of northern opportunists began to realize that without an extension of the franchise, they would never win office in Louisiana. This group, now organized as the Republican Party of the state, issued a call to reopen the constitutional convention of 1864 to consider Negro suffrage. Before the convention got under way, a parade of freedmen marched into the convention hall. A scuffle ensued, and the police began firing into the mostly unarmed crowd. When the smoke cleared three whites and 34 blacks were dead, 17 whites and 119 blacks wounded.
Reversing the Franchise
The New Orleans riot convinced Congress that blacks in the South needed protection. Although they considered sending more federal troops to accomplish this aim, congressional leaders decided that maintaining large armies in Louisiana indefinitely would have been prohibitively expensive. National Republican leaders concluded that the best solution was to extend the franchise to black men in order that they might defend themselves.
The race riot of 1866 and other acts of southern violence engendered the Reconstruction Act of 1867. This act of Congress divided the South into five military districts, the Louisiana district to be governed by the much hated General Philip Sheridan.
Under the Reconstruction Act, Sheridan was empowered to register all adult males, black and white, to vote, providing they would take an oath that they had never voluntarily aided the Confederacy. This effectively disenfranchised most white males in Louisiana. An election based on this voter registration sent delegates to the constitutional convention of 1868.
The Constitution of 1868 was ratified at the same time that new elections swept Republican officeholders into office. Henry Clay Warmouth, a Union army officer and Oscar J. Dunn, an African American from Louisiana who fought for the North, were respectively elected governor and lieutenant governor. Although Warmouth was a man of enormous charm, and although he shared the southern white’s view of black inferiority and certainly had no sympathy with the civil-rights ambitions of the freedmen—he later claimed he had prevented what he called the “Africanization” of the state—the presence of a Union soldier presiding over state government with a Negro as lieutenant governor was anathema to most whites.
To make matters worse from whites’ viewpoint, northern immigrants gradually gained control of the Republican Party, which had originally been dominated by native Louisiana white unionists and educated black men (the former free people of color).
Called carpetbaggers, these northern Republicans established an integrated public school system, integrated such public accommodations as theaters and restaurants, and changed the Louisiana civil code not only to delete the articles concerning slavery, but to allow interracial marriages. These actions helped to satisfy the aspirations of the freedmen but were viewed with a mixture of disgust and fear by the mostly disenfranchised whites. It became clear that the party of the disenfranchised, the Democrats, could only regain control of city and state government if blacks could be persuaded either to vote Democratic or could be kept away from the polls altogether. The Knights of the White Camellia, an organization modeled on the KKK, rapidly spread over the state, intimidating black voters with terror tactics.
In retaliation, the Republicans passed a new election law, which provided that a specially appointed “Returning Board” would make the final tabulation of votes in elections. Louisiana already had a long tradition of voting people long dead or never born, but the elections between 1868 and 1878 were characterized by so much fraud, skullduggery and intimidation that we will never know who would have really won if an honest election had been held.
For the African American population, which was a majority of the state (364,000 blacks, 362,000 whites) the Reconstruction government was welcomed as a symbol of their recently found liberty and a guarantee of their newly acquired civil and political rights. The political power of the black population was enhanced by the disenfranchisement of ex-Confederates, and the failure of many whites who could have registered to vote to do so. Politics became racially polarized in all of the states of the former Confederacy during Reconstruction, but nowhere more than in Louisiana. Although Louisiana was never governed primarily by former slaves—both Warmouth arid his successor, carpetbagger Governor William Pitt Kellogg, were white, both men owed their elections to the votes of the newly freed and, as yet, mostly illiterate black majority. As the Reconstruction period went on with no relief for those who had once been in power, whites came increasingly to view the Republicans who occupied the statehouse as oppressive usurpers who were without legitimacy and should be replaced.
White Louisiana natives were more unified during the latter part of Reconstruction than ever before and possibly since. Neither secession nor the Confederate government ever possessed the support of the white community as the White League, a new organization founded in 1874. The commander of the White League in New Orleans gave a fiery speech on September 2, 1874, in which he referred to “the union of white people, a union cemented by suffering and pain.” Another speaker described the political situation in the eyes of whites: “The negroes have been poisoned by the carpetbaggers until they are almost as bad—until the integrity of the white race is threatened … we are united—united for the first time in ten years—all the white people of the state.” This unity was the result of several factors, the most important one of which was racial solidarity. The Daily Picayune warned in editorials of the danger that the whole state was becoming “Africanized.”
The fact that the Reconstruction government was corrupt even by Louisiana standards made whites even more determined to oust the Republicans. Official corruption aside, the Reconstruction government faced a daunting task—to provide the newly freed and propertyless ex-slaves with the social services they demanded, especially in education—the Reconstruction government turned to property taxes, which mainly affected whites. These taxes were far in excess of those before the war, and fell heavily on those who had lost everything but their property —their cash when Confederate money became worthless and their slaves through emancipation.
The Panic of 1873
When a nationwide depression hit in 1873, falling prices for agricultural produce made property taxes even more onerous. Whites living on the edge became more interested in their own survival than in furthering racial equality or harmony. The financial panic in 1873 deepened an aura of gloom that hung over the white community of New Orleans. Reports of lynchings and vigilante executions of blacks from all parts of the state increased during July and August of 1874. As no white jury would convict a fellow white of murder, no matter how conclusive the evidence, blacks found themselves essentially without any protection of law. Despite this escalation of violence, the Daily Picayune stated in an editorial in August 1874: “Nothing could be more utterly false than to say that any animosity or aggression has been shown the negro as a race.” A speaker at a White League rally admonished blacks to accept the “protection” of whites: ”You know that before the emancipation of the colored race we occupied towards them a patriarchal relation. The negroes should still receive the protecting care of th0se who were formerly his masters. I tell you, my countrymen, the truest and best friends the negro ever had, or ever will have, were once their masters and owners … it has weighted upon me a heavy sense of responsibility: it is to Christianize and civilize this negro race. Left to himself, he will become a savage and an idolater. God in his providence had entrusted his elevation to you.”
The White League
As a sense of crisis in both the black and white communities deepened in the city, a group of prominent New Orleanians, black and white, including ex-Confederate generals James Longstreet and P.G.T. Beauregard sought political and racial peace by advocating an equal division of public offices between the two races and full protection of civil rights, including voting rights, for all. Called the Unification Movement, this plan was rejected by Republicans and Democrats. Whites were still unwilling to grant equal rights to those who had so recently been their slaves, Republican carpetbaggers were not interested in sharing power— and its perquisites—with Democrats, and blacks were afraid to trust those that had so recently been their masters. Although the reluctance from all camps to form such a government is understandable and even predictable, the failure of the Unification Movement was a lost opportunity to establish a foundation for harmonious race relations for the city of New Orleans.
In 1874 a new organization, the White League, a quasi-military arm of white Democrats, came into being. The League maintained that the only real issue was whether blacks or whites should dominate state and city politics. The platform of the League leaves no doubt about its purpose: “Therefore we enter into and found this league for the protection of our own race against the daily increasing encroachment of the negro, and we are determined to use our best efforts to purge our legislative, judicial, and minsterial offices from such a horde of miscreants as now assume to lord it over us.” A July 18 editorial of the Picayune stated: “It is plain to our mind … that the white man’s party as now developed is the party we have been seeking, lo! these many years.”
The White League began by conducting a low intensity guerrilla war in the rural areas of the state. Their most effective tactic was simply to ride into the parish seat in broad daylight carrying hangman’s nooses in plain view. Usually this unspoken threat “persuaded” Republican officials to resign. By September 1874 the Republican government was essentially isolated in New Orleans, having lost the countryside to the White League. Only the presence of about 4,000 troops in New Orleans, mostly composed of the mainly white Metropolitan police and the mostly black state militia, commanded by former Confederate General James Longstreet kept the carpetbag governor and the Republican administration of the city of New Orleans in power. When Longstreet heard that a large shipment of weapons destined for the White League had arrived on a steamboat at the foot of Canal Street, he decided to make a stand. The Metropolitan Police and the state militia took up a position barring the way to the waterfront. The White League of New Orleans, commanded by former Confederate General Frederick N. Ogden, decided to force an an armed confrontation to secure the weapons.
On September 13, the Daily Picayune printed a call for a mass meeting at the Clay Statue (a statue of Henry Clay located in a small traffic circle at the intersection of St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street. This statue is now in Lafayette Square). The notice in the Picayune, signed by over thirty New Orleanians, was specific: “Citizens of New Orleans: For nearly two years you have been the silent but indignant sufferers of outrage after outrage heaped upon you by an usurping government. One by one your dearest rights have been trampled upon … We, therefore, call on you on MONDAY MORNING, the 14th day of September 1874, to close your places of business, without a single exception, and at 11 o’clock A.M. to assemble at the CLAY STATUE, on Canal Street, and, in tones, loud enough to be heard throughout the length and breadth of this land, DECLARE THAT YOU ARE, OF RIGHT OUGHT TO BE, AND MEAN TO BE FREE.”
Over 5,000 men attended the meeting, which assembled in an orderly group around the Clay Statue and in front of the Crescent Billiard Hall at the comer of St. Charles and Canal. The meeting adopted several resolutions including ones affirming the political rights of blacks, asserting that the Republican governor, William Pitt Kellogg, was a usurper, and demanding his resignation. One of the speakers summarized the grievances of those assembled:”Day by day taxation has been increased, with costs and penalties amounting to confiscation of your property; your substance squandered, your credit ruined, resulting in the failure and bankruptcy of your valued institutions. The right of suffrage is virtually taken away from you by the enactment of skilfully devised election and registration laws … to these may be added a vicious and corrupt legislature … a metropolitan police paid by the city, under the control of the usurper, quartered upon you to overawe you and keep you in subjection.” The last speaker told the crowd to go home, arm themselves, and return at 2:30 p.m. “prepared to hold the city against Kellogg and his “hirelings.” The crowd dispersed, chanting “Hang Kellogg.”
General Ogden and the military arm of the White League did not attend the meeting. Ogden had about 8,400 troops, which included whites of every socio-economic strata. Although the Metropolitan Police were better armed, they were outnumbered two to one. About four in the afternoon of September 14, the two sides faced each other.
The Battle is Joined
Longstreet’s militia, about 3,000 strong, and the Metropolitan Police, which numbered about 600, lined up in front and on the side of the Customs House, which was federal property. Ogden’s forces advanced, and the fighting was brief. The mostly white Metropolitan Police, who caught the main force of the attack, fell back. This demoralized the mostly black state militia under Longstreet, and they fled into the Vieux Carré. As thousands of spectators watched, Ogden’s men drove to the river, and the militia and the Metropolitans retreated to the police station and the arsenal on Jackson Square. Ogden’s men never attacked the Customs House, where Governor Kellogg had gone into hiding, because it was federal property. The combined losses of the Metropolitans and the militia was 11 dead and 60 wounded; seven of the 11 dead were white. Ogden’s forces lost 21 killed and 19 wounded. The next day the Picayune outdid itself in florid prose by prematurely announcing: “So ends the Kellogg regime. Big, inflated, insolent, and overbearing, it collapsed at one touch of honest indignation and gallant onslaught.”
The results of the incidents of September 14 only gradually became apparent. For three days the White League controlled the entire city (except the Customs House), including the State House, located at that time in the St. Louis Hotel (a site now occupied by the Royal Orleans Hotel). White League leaders continued to assert that black rights would be safe under the new regime, and indeed, after the skirmish, there was no violence against blacks. An editorial in the Picayune stated: ”Nothing can be more false than to claim it [the victory] as … a race victory. It was simply an uprising of the people against an intolerable oppression and flagrant usurpation … under it the state would have been Africanized. Nothing could have been darker, bleaker, and more hopeless than the prospect of Louisiana under such a government.”
But the initial victory was short lived. Governor Kellogg, still hiding in the Customs House, telegraphed President Ulysses Grant for help, and within a short time federal troops poured into Louisiana and six U.S. warships arrived and anchored at the foot of Canal Street. The White League, determined to avoid a confrontation with federal troops, handed over all the property they had just won, and Kellogg regained his authority as governor.
Despite this reversal, the events of September 14 and the days that followed signaled the beginning of the end of Reconstruction in Louisiana. As Grace King observed: “The citizens … had proven their point, the carpetbag government could be kept in power by the United States soldiery, and in no other way whatever.” In less than three years the last federal troops left the state and the government of the city and the state were firmly in Democratic (white) control.
The tragedy of the end of Reconstruction in Louisiana, as elsewhere in the South, was that the resurgent whites lost an opportunity to establish a new bi-racial order. In ridding themselves of the carpetbag Reconstruction governments foisted upon them by a vengeful North, they failed to implement their own rhetoric concerning the black majority population in the state, to whom they had promised in a “Proclamation to the Colored People”: “there is no class of people who will derive more advantage from the success of the movement … than the colored people…. every right would be defended … the negroes would now enjoy a security which they had not had for years — that of the friendship, sympathy, and good will of our honest white people.” However, reality was otherwise. Rather than make any attempt to form a government including blacks, or to guarantee the ex-slaves their rights, subsequent Democratic governments passed laws to segregate and disenfrancl1ise those of African ancestry. If the White League had acted on their stated guarantee to uphold the rights of the city’s African Americans, the Battle of Liberty Place might be seen as the beginning of racial harmony in New Orleans, rather than the beginning of nearly 100 years of powerlessness, segregation, and discrimination for blacks. Blacks in New Orleans became politically powerlessness after 1876; they were completely disenfranchised by 1898.
The Legacy of Reconstruction
Perhaps the worst effect of Reconstruction was the legacy of hatred that it left behind. The horrors of Reconstruction became the stock in trade for Democratic politicians for more than a generation. Constant reiteration made the memory more and more horrible in the minds of people who were not even born until after Reconstruction ended. Racism grew in the entire country, until it became socially impossible to even speak out even for simple justice for African Americans. Segregation was a symptom of the increasing bitterness between the races. Eventually, the North became converted to the southern version of this period of American history, and race relations were poisoned there as well.
On November 15, 1882, the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance designating the portion of the Canal Street neutral ground near the river “Liberty Place,” and authorized the erection of a monument “in honor of those who fell in defense of liberty and home rule in that heroic struggle of the 14th of September, 1874.” The monument was completed in 1891, and each year thereafter on September 14, a parade commemorating the event marched to the site for wreath-laying ceremonies. On the original structure was inscribed the names of those members of the White League who died during the incident.
Whether the White Leaguers were sincere in their insistence that they were only ridding the city of carpetbag rule and were not attempting to reestablish white supremacy, blacks understandably see the Battle of Liberty Place as an event making the beginning of a long period of disenfranchisement, segregation, and racial bitterness. This impression seemed to be confirmed in the black community following the added inscriptions of 1932: “United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers, but the national election November 1876 recognized white supremacy and gave us our state.” Although parades and wreath-laying ceremonies ceased during the 1950s, David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan have made the monument a rallying place in more recent times.
The German philosopher and historian Georg Wilhelm Friedrick Hegel stated: ‘What history and experience teach is this — that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” Or what experience teaches us is that people do not learn from experience. Historians sometimes say to each other in jest, “Only historians can change the past.” But history is much more than a simple recitation of events past. History is also as much what historians choose to record and what people choose to believe as it is about what actually occurred. It is clear that there is no community consensus regarding the Liberty Monument because it has become a symbol with very different meanings and conflicting memories to different constituencies. The 1930s white supremacy additions have already been removed, which I think is historically correct. I believe that current pressure to reerect the monument comes, for the most part, from a sincere belief that society should never forget its past, that a part of the past lost is a history lesson forgotten, and therefore unlearned. Pressures to stop its reerection are a statement about the reality of race relations in 1992, not in 1874. Herein lies the dilelmma. To destroy the monument would be an act of intellectual and historical dishonesty. But to restore it in its historically correct place, at or near the foot of Canal Street, would be perceived as an insult to the black majority population of New Orleans. It is understandable that the addition of the white supremacist language, and the use of the Liberty Monument by David Duke has made the monument unacceptable to the African-American community. The removal of the racist inscriptions and the addition of a marker listing the names of the dead, white and black, who fought against the White League may make the monument less offensive to the black community. Better still, it should be removed to a museum, where curators can preserve and explain it. Having the monument on display in a public space outdoors implies a celebration of the events of September 14, 1874.
Blacks and whites have lived side by side in the city of New Orleans for three centuries. Perhaps a new interpretation of the Battle of Liberty Place, seen from the perspectives of both the winners and the losers, in a space more appropriate than a public square, could form a new consensus which could lay the basis for racial harmony in New Orleans. Some compromise must be reached. It is important that this issue not become yet another lost opportunity to lay a foundation for better race relations in New Orleans. A failure by blacks and whites to understand and accept the meaning of the events of September 14, 1874 could polarize and poison race relations in the city for yet another hundred years.
Judith Kelleher Schafer, Ph.D., served as associate director of the Murphy Institute of Political Economy at Tulane University and former president of the Louisiana Historical Association. She died in 2014. Her books include Becoming Free, Manumission and Enslavement in Antebellum New Orleans; Slavery, the Civil Law and the Supreme Court of Louisiana and Brothels, Depravity and Abandoned Women: Illegal Sex in Antebellum New Orleans.