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Former New Orleans mayor calls for honest dialogue on race

By Katja Timm Capital News Service | 3/22/2019, 6 a.m.
If Civil War history is to be displayed across the American South, it must be portrayed fairly and accurately, with ...

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.

Mitch Landrieu, who two years ago helped speed the removal of four Confederate statues from New Orleans during his tenure as mayor, and Richmond Mayor Levar M. 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.

Mayor Stoney, who is African-American, and Mr. 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 (Hurricane) Katrina hit it,” Mr. 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, Mr. Landrieu inherited a city that had been struck by Hurricane Katrina five years earlier and was dealing with a major BP oil spill that had started the previous month. Amid the city’s restoration process, he was faced with the unseemly racial past of the South, as well as the question of what part of history to preserve and what to lay to rest.

“The vestiges of slavery remain to this day,” said Mr. Landrieu, who served as mayor until 2018. “We talk about slavery, but we don’t do it well.”

In May 2017, Mr. Landrieu delivered a public 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,” Mr. 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, Mr. Landrieu agreed with Mayor 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,” Mr. Landrieu said in 2017.

As a part of his E Pluribus Unum initiative, Mr. 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.”

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.