Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Circle Game

Tivoli Circle (via Wikimedia)

The fallout from the racially motivated shootings in Charleston has traveled to New Orleans and reignited a discussion among its citizens about statues and buildings named for heroes of the Confederacy or for former slave owners. This thorny point was addressed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who announced this week that he is now in favor of removing several statues erected to Confederate heroes, including the famous statue of General Robert E. Lee at Lee Circle.  During the Reconstruction era and before the statue of the Confederate general was erected in 1884, New Orleans citizens referred to the intersection of the upriver and downriver sections of town at present-day Howard Avenue and St. Charles Avenue as Tivoli Circle or Tivoli Gardens. This was because of the popular Tivoli Carousel that was there.

With the capture of New Orleans in April of 1862, the Confederacy lost its most valuable port and the longest Union occupation of any city began. While some merchants cheered the arrival of the Federal forces, others did not. New Orleans was made the seat of government for the state. Tempers ran high during the remainder of the war and the institution of a Reconstruction government became a sore point among business leaders. This antipathy came to a head most especially during the disputed gubernatorial election of 1872. The Democrats had claimed victory for John McEnery, while the Republicans held that William Kellogg had been elected.

An attempt to put a new, Democrat-backed government into power was put down by federal and New Orleans Metropolitan Police forces at the Battle of Liberty Place in 1873. After four days of insurrection, the Reconstruction government was put back into place and not one of the 5,000 Crescent City White League members was charged or put on trial for the attempted coup. Union forces only departed under a presidential order in 1877.

It was a decade later and five generations ago, my first family member  - my maternal great-great-grandmother -  fleeing oppression and seeking a better life, arrived in New Orleans. Sometime prior to her arrival, city fathers had erected the monolithic column topped with the former Confederate general at Tivoli Circle as a sign of defiance to the former Reconstruction government. The citizens had dubbed it Lee Circle. Neither my great-great-grandmother nor her daughter or son-in-law and their family had anything to do with the Civil War, nor slavery. They sought refuge in a city that was not always welcoming to them either. My family found strength and comfort in living in what was then the largest Jewish segment of town located near the Dryades Street commerce corridor. My great-grandfather was a barber and all of the family members lived together. Indeed, my grandfather's original drugstore was eventually located just two blocks away from Lee Circle, adjacent to the Jerusalem Temple of the Shriners.

Other than the biblical references to slavery, my family has endured nothing of the savagery of slavery, although it is probable they were persecuted as Jews to varying degrees in the series of pogroms that characterized life in Eastern Europe and the Russias. While my family has been the victim of anti-Semitism in this country, it no doubt falls far short of the organized pattern of discrimination and racism endured by African-Americans, many of whom died for taking their stands against the forces in power.

I am not insensitive to the feeling that runs through the African-American community when dealing with the issue of slavery and the glorification of the Old South.  Jews, too, have been targeted by rebel flag waving hate groups - some in white robes and some in custom-made suits - for a number of generations.

But I recognize that the principles of tolerance and understanding will not generate with the destruction of monuments or the renaming of buildings. The changes that we all seek for acceptance and equal opportunity will not come from without, but from within each of us. The power to forgive the shooter who was so full of hate came rapidly from the members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in the face of inconsolable loss. That was the lesson of love that surmounted all of the death and destruction sought by the murderer.

It is an important issue to recognize that reminders of slavery and the War Between the States still exist today and that they still give rise to negative feelings for many of our citizens. However, it is just as important to recognize that even if we were to erase every Civil War vestige and reference or place them in mothballs via museums, we would still have to confront the larger question of how do
we accept each other without prejudice and hate in our hearts?

That will take soul searching, open discussions and, I am afraid, much more than enraged committees and wrecking balls.

1 comment:

whalechaser said...

As always, your blog content is well written and thought provoking. It was good to hear from you and while I may not be in the pink...I would say raspberry is more my color. Always a little something going on to provide challenge in my life, but all in all, no complaints.
To change up a Rick Steves quote...keep on bloggin'.