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Story Publication logo July 8, 2022

The Past and the Future, a Photojournalist’s Visual Journey Revisits the Removal of Confederate Monuments

photo collage

A photojournalist aims to show the dismantling of the celebration of white supremacy while...

Left: A statue of a  man on an obelisk outside of a large brick home. Right: A flower pot where this man once stood.
(Left) A Confederate statue stands near the city of Plaquemine's courthouse on June 17, 2020, in Plaquemine, Louisiana. Image by Hilary Scheinuk/The Advocate. (Right) The Iberville Parish Council unanimously voted in June 2020 to remove the Confederate monument in front of Plaquemine’s old courthouse. Six months later, in January 2021, it was taken down and placed in storage. The monument, which was put up in 1912 by the Daughters of the Confederacy, was engraved with the words: “Confederate Heroes” on one side and “Let the principles for which they fought live eternally” on the other. Only the plinth still remains, which is now topped with a flower pot. Image by Melissa Lyttle. United States, 2022.

For decades, Confederate monuments have stood in front of our courthouses, watched us from our city centers and lain in our graveyards. Most of these monuments didn’t go up immediately following the Civil War, instead their time frame coincides with segregation in the South—the 1890s to 1950s—as a reminder of who was in charge.

“These monuments were also built in an effort to reinforce white supremacy at a time when Black communities were being terrorized and Black social and political mobility impeded,” writes journalist and author Clint Smith in his new book How the Word is Passed.

(Left) A statue of General Alfred Mouton (1829-1864) is shown in Lafayette, Louisiana. The Confederate brigadier general from Lafayette was killed in Mansfield, Louisiana, while leading the Confederacy to its most important military victory west of the Mississippi. (Physical rights are retained by the State Library of Louisiana. Copyright is retained in accordance with U.S. copyright laws.) (Right) The statue of Mouton has stood at the intersection of Lee Avenue and Jefferson Street since 1922, when the United Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned the statue and donated it to the city 58 years after his death, during the Jim Crow era. Mouton was born in 1829 in Opelousas and was the son of former Louisiana Gov. Alexandre Mouton. He, along with his father, trained a “Vigilante Committee,” which whipped and lynched Black people in Lafayette Parish, said the local newspaper “The Daily Advertiser." He was also a known slave owner who died while fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. In January 2021, a passer-by noticed that the Mouton’s nose was gone. There is no video surveillance in the area, so police are unsure whether it was an act of vandalism or just weathered from age. Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory has been pushing for its removal since the summer of 2020, but a court order obtained by the United Daughters of the Confederacy prevents it from being moved. Image by Melissa Lyttle. United States, 2021.

Across the South and far beyond, they have been powerful symbols of racism, our nation’s original sin. Now time is catching up with them.

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The Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2020 "Whose Heritage?" report, which tracks public symbols of the Confederacy across the United States, found that 168 Confederate symbols were renamed or removed from public spaces in 2020. Ninety-four of those symbols were Confederate monuments.

“2020 was a transformative year for the Confederate symbols movement. Over the course of seven months, more symbols of hate were removed from public property than in the preceding four years combined,” said the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Chief of Staff Lecia Brooks.

By comparison, 58 Confederate monuments were removed between 2015 and 2019.

More than 2,100 Confederate symbols are still on display in the U.S. They include streets, parks, counties, cities, schools, military bases, and government buildings named after those associated with the Confederacy; 704 of those 2,100 symbols are monuments.

But the reckoning has begun. Fueled by episodes of police violence and institutional racism, many Americans are truly seeing these monuments for the first time, not as benign relics but as part of a campaign to dehumanize Black citizens long after the Civil War had ended. Cities, counties, churches, and universities are awakening to the bitter significance of these symbols and covering them up, tearing them down, or dismantling them entirely. Where elected officials have been slow to act, ordinary people have taken matters into their own hands.

Protestors in dozens of states have pulled down or vandalized the likenesses of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, and others who fought to enslave people. Others have been removed by local officials under the cover of night, either to protect the statue or on the grounds that it was a public nuisance.

(Left)The John McDonogh Statue in Lafayette Square in New Orleans, Louisiana, was created by Hiram Powers and donated by New Orleans schoolchildren from 1892 to 1898. Found in an attic, M A. Seeds (Seed Dry Plate Co.) and Hammer Dry Plates (Ludwig F. Hammer of St. Louis). via (Right) A statue of McDonogh, located in New Orleans’ Lafayette Square in front of Gallier Hall, was found knocked off its pedestal on July 10, 2020. In June, a group of protestors tore down another bust of McDonogh, the one in Duncan Plaza, and using a skateboard rolled it into the Mississippi River. McDonogh, a controversial figure in New Orleans, was a wealthy slave owner who allowed several of his enslaved people to buy their freedom back but not to stay in the United States. Instead, he supported the American Colonization Society, which wanted to send freed slaves to Liberia. Some of the money he left behind was dogeared for education, and went onto fund segregated schools that advanced the ideas of white supremacy. Image by Melissa Lyttle. United States, 2021.

“The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered,” said former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu.

Last fall, I began to document the Confederate monuments that have been taken down since George Floyd’s death. And in April 2021, I started a 5-week, 7,300-mile road trip through the South to continue this work. My goal is to create a record of an unraveling—this moment in time when long-held narratives about Southern pride and memorialization of Civil War leaders are literally being knocked off their pedestals. I’m photographing the spaces where the monuments once stood, as well as where they’ve ended up. And I’m pairing those photos with archival images of the monuments, commemorated on postcards, and in state and university archives, or in the Library of Congress.

Some government officials were proud of their city’s actions, saying off the record that “it’s about time.” Others allowed me access to where their monument is being stored, while they wrestle with the question of what, if anything, should be done with them now.

Louisiana officials were neither proud, nor forthcoming.

In June 2020, a 12-member Iberville Parish Council voted unanimously to remove a statue of a Confederate soldier, which was erected in 1912 on the front lawn of what was then the Iberville Courthouse. It was removed about seven months later. Multiple people in Plaquemine’s parish government told me if I wanted to photograph it now in storage, I’d have to go through Iberville Parish President Mitch Ourso, who promptly hung up on me, after hearing why I was calling.

The Calcasieu Parish Police Jury voted 10-4 on August 13, 2020, to let the South’s Defenders Monument remain where it stood on the grounds of a courthouse in Lake Charles. Two weeks later, Mother Nature had other ideas, when Hurricane Laura blew through town and knocked the statue off its base, breaking it into pieces. A PIO at the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury told me that, “Unfortunately the part of the monument that came down in the hurricane is in storage and not accessible. You are welcome to photograph the pedestal which remains on the courthouse lawn.”

(Left) In 1915, citizens of Lake Charles, Louisiana, gathered for the dedication and erection of the Confederate Memorial Statue in front of the Parish Courthouse. This courthouse was rebuilt in 1911, after the fire of 1910. (Copyright: The Maude Reid Scrapbooks, Book 1, Page 179, Archives and Special Collections Department, Frazar Memorial Library, McNeese State University.) (Right) After some public debate and calls for the removal of the “South’s Defenders” statue, Calcasieu Parish officials voted 10-4 (largely down racial lines, with only one white jury member voting for its removal) on August 13, 2020, to keep it up. Two weeks later, Hurricane Laura had other plans, and blew the Confederate soldier off his pedestal. Only the base remains. Image by Melissa Lyttle. United States, 2022.

Jamie Angelle, Chief Communications Officer for the Lafayette Consolidated Government, told me that the statue of Alfred Mouton still remains in its original location, in front of the Old City Hall, at the intersection of Jefferson Street and Lee Avenue. Albeit, with his nose chiseled off now. “We are still waiting for the court hearing to take place but unfortunately it keeps getting postponed for one reason or another. The statue remains damaged, and we (Lafayette Consolidated Government) have no intentions to make any repairs to the statue. It will have to stay just as it is until the courts decide what to do with it."

The press secretary for the mayor of New Orleans, LaTonya Norton, emailed to say, “We respectfully decline at this time.” David Simmons, also in the mayor’s communications office, said, “Unfortunately we're not granting access at this time” and would not answer questions about whether or not their statues were still in the city lot at the “Police Car Graveyard" at Alvar and Chickasaw, as earlier news stories noted.

But, on my road trip, I saw first hand how other cities have handled this question.

Cities in Alabama and North Carolina have moved their monuments to the Confederate dead to Confederate graveyards. Cities in Georgia and Florida have moved some of their monuments out of the public eye and onto private property. Clinton, N.C., displayed their town’s statue with some context in a war exhibit in the Sampson County History Museum.

At the behest of their mayor, the Houston Museum of African American Culture was the first African American cultural asset in the country to be the recipient of a Confederate monument.

The HMAAC’s CEO, John Guess, Jr., said taking the monument in was an effort to reclaim the narrative and to “have an honest discussion about race here in Houston.”

Other cities have hidden theirs away in shipping containers, warehouses, storage sheds, public works facilities, city impound lots, a prison maintenance yard, and other “secure disclosed locations.”

And others that were vandalized or spray painted with graffiti have not been cleaned up and whitewashed.

Chris Haugh, Community Relations & Preservation Manager at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, Maryland, told me he’d like to see the ones that were torn down in protest make their way to a museum someday. “It’s history,” he said. But so is the spray paint and other damage, so he didn’t clean it up or try to fix it. “That’s history too,” he said.

With that comment, Haugh captured the story I want to tell. It’s about the moment we began to reject the cruelty and white supremacy of once-revered men. And about what comes next, what’s worth preserving, and why.


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