Here, we live amid "just between us" monuments to the Confederacy. These include towering statues of President Jefferson Davis and Gens. Robert E. Lee and P. G. T. Beauregard, as well as an obelisk celebrating the white militia that in 1874 rioted against integrated police forces.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who is white, has been working to remove these four monuments. He hails from a local political dynasty that includes his sister, former Senator Mary Landrieu, and his father, another mayor, Moon Landrieu. In "just between us" conversations, the Landrieu name remains toxic as a result of Moon Landrieu's leadership in integrating City Hall in the early 1970s.
A white friend told me that she stopped taking her son on door-to-door campaign walks while campaigning during Mary Landrieu's last Senate race, because of the racial epithets being hurled against Moon Landrieu, whose tenure as mayor ended almost 40 years ago.
Those wishing the monuments to remain in place mounted numerous political and legal campaigns, all of which failed, and the obelisk honoring the white militia has already been taken down. Now, they resort to berating - or threatening - the current Mayor Landrieu and others who support removal of the remaining three sculptures.
One of the milder online responses to the well-reasoned columns of Jarvis DeBerry, deputy opinions editor for The Times-Picayune, who happens to be African-American, might bear a salutation such as "Hey, race baiter." In our other newspaper, The Advocate, a recent two-page advertisement began with the headline "Dear Mitch - Shame on You!"
Even the people and companies responsible for the actual removal have been threatened. For this reason, the city has said the dates of the remaining monument removals won't be announced in advance. Mayor Landrieu insists the subterfuge is necessary for public safety.
Yet activists who have long worked for the monuments' removal oppose this shadowy procedure, which robs them of the type of celebrations that greeted the fall of the Berlin Wall. This past weekend, an organization called Take 'Em Down NOLA responded with a protest extending from Congo Square, once the site of dances for enslaved New Orleanians, to (Robert E.) Lee Circle.
At the same time, the surprise nighttime monument removals are creating strange spectacles, even for a city that relishes strange spectacles. Recently, rumors of the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue spread across social media, like a rumor of a celebrity sighting. A little after midnight, I went to the site.
A few physical skirmishes and arrests had already occurred, although one monument supporter, infamous for openly brandishing an assault rifle (Louisiana is an open-carry state), was no longer around. Police officers had surrounded the statue with parade barricades. A few shouting matches were still underway, but they were drowned out by a passing party bus. After a while, word went out that no statue would be removed that night, and most of the news cameras were packed away as the crowd dwindled.
Gathering there, friends and I talked about witnessing history; we'd hoped to see something we didn't like about ourselves taken down and carted off. But that would let the city and us off too easily.
New Orleans is one of our great diverse cities, having spun its rich culture into glorious art and music, again and again. Yet a drive on these streets also reveals a landscape of "just between us" markers that are not limited to the four monuments. In New Orleans, you can drive on what's familiarly called Jeff Davis Parkway, and from there turn onto a street named for the slavery champion John C. Calhoun.
My son's school is racially diverse, but it still bears the last name of Robert Mills Lusher, a fierce segregationist who championed education as a means for maintaining white dominance. I enjoy art markets and crawfish boils at a park named for Benjamin Palmer, a Presbyterian minister who on Thanksgiving in 1860 preached that it was the South's holy duty to protect and extend slavery.
Over time, these tributes to white supremacy become just part of the landscape. "I never even notice them," white friends have told me, and often I could say the same. As I drive these streets, I am reminded of the observations of Chuck Berry, who celebrated the city in his songs but shrewdly wrote in his autobiography that in New Orleans "segregation was practiced in a more polite manner, with some strategy."
Monuments are coming down as they must. But breaking the "just between us" contract will require its own strategy of turning down the offer however and whenever it is made. I greatly regret not going back to the drugstore to throw my copy of the white supremacist newspaper back on the counter. Instead, I still have it, in a box with other souvenirs of my adopted home, a reminder of this lesson still being learned.