Ever since I moved to Mid-City fifteen years ago, I’ve passed by the statue of old Jefferson Davis as part of my daily routine.
On September 11, 2003, as I rode home from work, I saw an older couple standing on the sidewalk, gaping at the monument. It was freshly defaced, with the words “racist” and “facist” [sic] spray-painted on the sides. The couple practically flagged me down. They wanted to talk to someone about it. So I stopped.
The man was barely able to articulate his outrage. “Ugly! Ugly!” He sputtered and pointed.
“What,” I asked, “the statue or the graffiti?”
I told them I had mixed feelings about the statue. Of course, Davis was an important historical figure, and he did die in New Orleans. But he symbolizes slavery, and in a city with such harsh social and economic disparities, which so often fall along racial lines, the statue would always be a target of abuse.
I told the couple that I wanted to see a statue of a local civil rights leader erected on the other side of Canal Street, facing Jefferson Davis. That would help bring us into the 21st century reality.
The couple conceded that they had not looked at it that way before. The man said, “Sounds like you need to write a letter to the editor.”
Maybe I should have, but I never got around to it.
In late May of 2004, I noticed someone had tagged J.D. with the words “SLAVE OWNER.” I took a photo, which I posted online. It’s been featured on Wikipedia and Breitbart. New Orleans Historical has cited this as “one of the first documented protest vandalisms of the Jefferson Davis Monument.” (link)
That graffito was cleaned up in a day or two. But the vandals returned the next week and sprayed the exact same message in the exact same location. They also splashed the statue with a generous helping of paint, Pepto-Bismol pink in color. This got cleaned up the same day. It was fascinating to see this back-and-forth battle playing out. I theorized that all this activity was related to the big celebration for the return of the streetcar to Canal Street, when many eyes would be passing by that part of Mid-City.
Property is theft
The following year, I shot a little video in front of the statue, a segment for Rox episode #92, “Property Is Theft, Part II.” I used the personage of Jefferson Davis as a way of making a point about shifting ideas on property.
Shot in 2005 at the Jefferson Davis Monument in Mid-City New Orleans, this is a segment from ROX #92. Watch the full episode at https://rox.com/episodes/92/ Some people might think this idea that ‘property is theft’ sounds a little kooky, radical, outside the mainstream.
Some people might think this idea that ‘property is theft’ sounds a little kooky, radical, outside the mainstream. But that’s really because this modern system of property ownership is all most of us have ever known. It hasn’t always been this way, and it needn’t always be this way. Ideas about property change. Take this guy, for example — Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. He fought for a system where people could be property… Today that seems totally outrageous, but in his time, a lot of people thought it was just fine and dandy. So who’s to say what’s next? Our children’s children might look back at us and our ideas about property and wonder: What were they thinking?
A thought experiment
Then there was the time when I was riding my bicycle with my daughter, on the way home from a meeting, and I heard her exclaim, “Look at that black man!”
I was a bit startled. What? Since when does my little girl (at the tender age of two) identify people on the basis of race? Then I saw that she was pointing to a statue. Yeah, you know the one. It’s made of bronze, but it’s tarnished, and the metal does indeed look black.
It struck me as a funny thing to say about Jefferson Davis.
Then I got to wondering why it was funny. I got to wondering if I could explain the humor of this little moment to my daughter, some day in the future when she was all grown up.
Indulge me, if you will, in the following flight of fancy.
You see, back in 2010, we divided people into groups in many different ways, and one of the biggest ways was according to race. There’s no genetic or biological basis for this, but our culture constructed things that way, and these racial groupings were a pretty big fact of life back in the day.
Two of the biggest racial groups were “black” and “white,” which is kind of silly since these terms were based on skin colors more accurately described as “brown” and “pink.” That kind of conveys the heart of the problem, how these labels denied our essential common humanity and exaggerated differences. There are many wonderful things to celebrate in the rich diversity of humankind, but this has also been the basis for much pain.
It may seem hard to believe, but a lot of blood was shed over these groupings. Our nation was built in part on the principle of one racial group exploiting and enslaving others. It almost ripped the nation apart. We lived in the part of the nation which fought, among other things, to maintain this system of racial slavery.
Even after the war, we were still living with the legacy of those issues, and we maintained a social system that kept black and white apart and maintained the supremacy or one group over the other. In fact, I worked at a university that was founded to give black people an education because they weren’t allowed to go to white schools. The laws were changed eventually, but even in the early 21st century, harsh inequalities remained. Racial separation remained. The pain remained. It was still a big issue for us and a cause of much consternation.
So I had a little twinge of anxiety when I heard you say, “Look at that black man!” I didn’t feel it was proper to call someone out by their race like that. And I felt a bit of relief when I saw it was just a statue. And the fact that the statue was of Jefferson Davis, well, that was just icing on the cake. Jefferson Davis was president of the faction that fought for slavery. His statue was erected as a symbol of white supremacy, and the notion that anyone would call him a “black man” was humorous. It was humor born of pain, but then so is most humor.
I find this an interesting thought experiment.
Will we ever get to a point where such explanations are actually necessary? Sadly enough, it’s hard to imagine that such a future is anywhere near to hand. But it’s my conviction that we have to keep working for it.
Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband, a father and a resident of Mid-City. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Greenway, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle. More at BartEverson.com.