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Obelisk ignites the latest battle of New Orleans : Monument marks a Reconstruction melee. Move to return it to a tourist site is met with shame and pride.

December 07, 1992|GARRY BOULARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW ORLEANS — A 20-foot-tall granite monument commemorating a historic battle has become the object of heat and controversy here.

Erected in 1891, only to be hauled away to a suburban warehouse a century later, the Liberty Monument will almost certainly be returned to public view by early 1993, city officials say.

But those same officials claim they'd be just as happy if somehow the monument just disappeared. "That statue has been nothing but trouble for all of us for years now," said Al Stokes, executive assistant to Mayor Sidney Barthelemy. "If I had my way about it, I'd like to keep it in a dark warehouse forever."

Shirley Porter, director of the New Orleans chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, agrees: "We've been hoping that it would never be put up again. . . . It's really a very offensive monument."

What bothers civil rights activists about the Liberty Monument isn't really the stone obelisk itself but what it commemorates: a bloody and violent battle on Sept. 14, 1874, between police and some of the city's leading citizens.

Chafing under what they charged was an oppressive and illegitimate Reconstruction government propped up by the federal militia, several former Confederate soldiers formed the White League, a militaristic group dedicated to the end of Reconstruction and the return of white majority rule.

Even though the battle itself lasted only one afternoon, 27 men were killed and another 105 were wounded.

Under orders from President Ulysses S. Grant, federal troops several days later poured into the city, forcing the White Leaguers to surrender property seized during the brief skirmish. The insurrectionists, however, claimed an ultimate victory when Reconstruction abruptly ended as part of a deal to win Louisiana's electoral votes in the 1876 presidential election.

Yet what became known as the Battle of Liberty Place soon earned a symbolism far out of proportion to the actual event.

"For years people celebrated and remembered the battle, so it was only natural that eventually a statue would be erected in honor of what went on there," said John Wilkinson, a New Orleans attorney whose grandfather picked up a firearm and ran to join the battle. "It had nothing to do with race. It had everything to do with an angry people trying to take their rightful government back from an ignorant and corrupt Administration."

Many historians, however, including William Ivy Hair of Georgia College, Lawrence Powell of Tulane University and Eric Foner, author of a 1988 book on Reconstruction, say the White League was a virulently racist organization. The league, wrote Foner, was "openly dedicated to the violent restoration of white supremacy."

Also offensive to many is a plaque that was added to the monument in the 1930s that notes ". . . the national election in November, 1876 recognized white supremacy and gave us our state."

In 1989, when street improvements were needed in the area, Barthelemy ordered the removal of the obelisk from the foot of Canal Street. Since then, the city has negotiated with state and federal preservation officials, angling to keep the monument in hiding or display it in a museum.

Preservationists, however, say the monument is a legitimate historical landmark and should be returned to the battle site.

Former Ku Klux Klan wizard and Republican presidential candidate David Duke called the monument a "part of our heritage and history."

"There are extremists on both sides of this controversy," said Samuel Wilson Jr., an architectural historian. "But that still doesn't take away from one basic fact: This is a legitimate monument representing an important part of our history. Whether we like what happened then or not is beside the point."

Although the city has recently promised that the monument will be returned to its site, some people worry about the prominence of the location.

Not only is it the dock for Mississippi River ferries, it is home to the Aquarium of the Americas, the World Trade Center--with more than two dozen consulates--and the future Grand Palais casino, expected to attract 5 million visitors a year.

"What a great spectacle this is going to be for all of the thousands of tourists who come here," Stokes said. "Here we're trying to push this city into the next century, and right in front of our visitors' faces will be this reminder of an ugly past."

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