The Monuments Men – McGraw’s Mission To Maintain All Of New Orleans’ Monuments
You see them all over town – when you drive around Lee Circle, spend a day at City Park, hang out in Mid-City or take a leisurely stroll through the Garden District or the French Quarter.
According to Pierre McGraw, founder and president of the Monumental Task Committee, there are 150 true monuments and markers placed around New Orleans, and about 100 additional commemorative plaques and state historical markers that can also be found.
His all-volunteer, 501(c)3 nonprofit Louisiana corporation wants to care for and preserve them all.
“To repair, restore and forever maintain all monuments in the city,” McGraw said. “And we’ve been pretty true to that mission.”
For 26 years McGraw and his MTC have been locating, documenting, cleaning and restoring monuments – the same statues and works of art that seem to fade into the fabric of our daily, busy lives.
But that all changed on Wednesday, June 17, 2015. It’s when the citizens of New Orleans were told to start looking at the city’s monuments in black and white.
As the nation came to grips with confessed shooter 21-year-old Dylann Roof’s massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, an historic black church in Charleston, SC, many Southern political leaders told their citizens to look to their city’s symbols for the answer why.
Less than a month after the event was being investigated as a hate crime, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu told the New Orleans City Council, “Our history before and after the Civil War should not be neglected, nor our identity defined by the Confederacy – our identity is much broader and richer than these symbols. As we look to our city’s Tricentennial celebration in 2018, we should be a city where symbols inspire and include, not divide; and, a place where we celebrate life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, not death, war and slavery. Supremacy may be a part of our past, but it should not be part of our future.”
Landrieu asked the City Council to begin the legal process, outlined in City Code Section 146-611 which governs the procedure for removal of public property structures that are deemed to be a nuisance, to remove and replace 4 Confederacy-related monuments: the Gen. Robert E. Lee monument at Lee Circle, the Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard equestrian statue at the entrance to City Park, the Confederate President Jefferson Davis monument at Jefferson Davis Parkway at Canal Street and the Battle of Liberty Place monument on Iberville Street.
Mayor Landrieu told the Council, “We should not erase or uproot our past, and we should remember these important historical figures and moments in the right context. But, for example, I don’t believe Gen. Robert E. Lee’s place in the history of New Orleans should be revered. It would be better for all our children, black and white, to see symbols in prominent places in our city that make them feel proud of their city and inspire them to greatness. We should do our part to remove these symbols of supremacy from places of reverence that no longer, if ever, reflect who we are.”
As part of the legal procedure the city is required to solicit public comments and receive recommendations from the Human Relations Commission, the Historic District Landmarks Commission, the chief administrative officer, the City attorney, the superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department and the director of the Department of Property Management.
Following the required hearings and receipt of recommendations, the City Council may, by ordinance, declare a monument or structure a nuisance and provide for its removal.
In response, McGraw’s MTC came up with a 3-point plan to keep all monuments intact. They want the Mayor and the city’s citizens to show tolerance and respect for all monuments in the city. They also want to mount interpretive plaques around existing monuments to provide an historic context as to what the monuments are about, who put them up and why. And, to address the perceived imbalance of topics in monuments, the MTC wants to help neighborhood groups erect additional monuments for new or forgotten heroes.
“The Monumental Task Committee has taken the lead in this, and we have identified many choice sites around New Orleans that have intersections with high visibility where you can put a monument,” McGraw said. “And we’ve also found several areas that we’ve identified that would make great traffic circles. So there’s no need to just have Lee Circle. You can have other circles in other parts of the city and have monuments placed in them.”
Over the last 26 years, McGraw said they have received tax deductible donations from more than a 1,000 contributors and have hundreds of volunteers who have cleaned stone bases, repaired foundations, regrouted joints, repainted bronze, removed graffiti and even trimmed trees and landscaped around the monuments.
“We’ve learned a lot about the do’s and don’ts with monuments, and that’s a key part of what we do,” McGraw said. “It’s easy for someone to go out there with a high pressure washer and do a lot of damage on a monument, and it’s easy to see that there are lot of people who want to help but are clueless on the proper methods.”
McGraw said his group’s restorations are carried out with the guidance of experienced conservators, and they follow the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for the treatment of historic properties. They’ve sought and received valuable assistance from the Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, PA, which has the only monument cleaning and restoration shop for national parks, and they benefited from in-kind local services from Boh Brothers and Abry Brothers.
“It would be a real tragedy if we lost these monuments because of what appears to be politically motivated goals,” McGraw said. “If you think of New Orleans, we’ve all heard it called the great melting pot. As far as North America goes it’s probably more so than any other city, and that’s because there’s great diversity in the city. If you start removing icons that represent different heritages in the city you’re going to be less diverse and less New Orleans, and it would be a shame to lose anything like that.”
Mayor Landrieu asked that the city’s Welcome Table New Orleans help facilitate discussions on the divisive statues.
In April 2014, Mayor Landrieu announced a multi-year initiative focused on race, reconciliation and community-building. Welcome Table New Orleans is supported by a 3-year $1.2 million grant funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, that’s supposed to bring residents of different racial groups and backgrounds together to build relationships that will lead to improvements throughout the city.
But what some politicians are calling racial reconciliation, others are calling it revisionist history.
All three Republicans in Louisiana's race for governor say they disagree with Mayor Landrieu when it comes to removing certain monuments.
In a press release Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle said, “I can't believe that we are now at a point where we are trying to rewrite history to appease a few and do good for none. This insults the intelligence of most Louisianans."
Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne said, in an Associated Press telephone interview, "I don't think we ought to be tearing down monuments that are part of the landscape of New Orleans.”
And, in a letter to the Mayor last month, U.S. Senator David Vitter wrote, “For goodness sake, focus on murders, not monuments.”
Closer to home, it looks like the removal of the monuments has City Council support.
District "D" New Orleans City Councilmember Jared C. Brossett said, “It is time we look to symbols of unity and advancement, not division and stagnation. In that vein, and in the spirit of healing the racial tensions that continue to exist, it is time we take steps to remove monuments to the Confederacy. I am not under the delusion that replacing a statue or renaming a circle will instantaneously create harmony and equality. But it is a meaningful step. Symbols matter.”
“For 26 years we’ve been taking care of all the city monuments and battling the elements of nature, vandalism and neglect,” MTC’s McGraw said. “Now we find ourselves in the dubious position of protecting the city’s monuments from the city. It’s a shame this is happening because the monuments are a real draw in the tourism industry. The value of the monuments is really hard to determine, especially the older ones. And in this city we have some extremely fine quality monuments that go back to the last century, and they’re basically priceless.”
McGraw said his group understands that every monument may have different meanings to different people, but they hope everyone will exercise tolerance and think about the city’s citizens of the past who expressed a real interest in honoring somebody or something and wanted to send a message to the future. McGraw said everyone should honor the fact that past citizens thought it was so important to honor a person or an an event that they chose to immortalize it in stone and bronze.
“It is clear that our duty as citizens is to care for these monuments and pass them on to future generations,” he said. “A lot of the monuments may be difficult for some people to understand, but it’s not fair to look at monuments with 21st century lenses.”
The MTC is actively seeking donations, welcoming new volunteers and collecting signatures on 3 petitions they hope will stop the city’s momentum for removing monuments.
He said they’ve joined the Save Our Circle petition drive, which has collected more than 25,000 signatures from citizens opposed to the city’s initiative to take down the the Robert E. Lee statue in Lee Circle, started a petition to present to the City Council and started a petition to send to Gov. Bobby Jindal. They want Jindal to call a special session of the Louisiana Legislature to come up with some kind of protection for the 4 monuments considered for removal in New Orleans, and protection for all monuments and significant artifacts found throughout the State.
McGraw’s MTC has worked on restoring multiple monuments including the 9th Ward Victory Arch in the Bywater, the three statues in Lafayette Square including the one of Benjamin Franklin, monuments for Henry Clay, Margaret Haughery, Samuel Lowenberg, John McDonough, A.P. Tureaud, Sr., the Women’s Army Corps, and the bronze statue of civil rights leader, The Rev. Avery Alexander, by sculptor Sheleen Jones, which the MTC completely restored, set on a new pedestal and placed in front of the new University Medical Center.
The group’s successful MM@M “Meet Me At The Monument” events engage whole neighborhood communities who are committed to keeping their monuments, plaques and busts intact for future generations to see. From scout troops to service men, everyone gets the chance to get their hands dirty to help with non-technical cleaning, maintenance, landscape improvements and trash pick-up.
The MTC is even conducting a professional survey of 25 monuments to prioritize for restoration efforts for the Tricentennial funded in part by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Last week, Mayor Landrieu announced an anonymous donor offered to pay $144,000 to remove the 4 Confederacy-related monuments under consideration for removal by the City Council. But, according to the MTC’s analysis, it would cost $1.1 million to disassemble and store all four monuments for just one month.
McGraw said stopping this movement now is important because he’s heard of other groups trying to organize for the removal of the iconic Andrew Jackson statue in Jackson Square.
“New Orleans has a great history participating in all these wars that goes back to Andrew Jackson’s famous epic battle, and his monument in Jackson Square is probably the most iconic monument we have in the city,” he said. “Can you imagine New Orleans without Andrew Jackson’s monument? If it wasn’t for Jackson and his epic victory we’d all be English subjects right now. So I think whatever else he did in life is a distant second. It’s crazy. And then there’s a group I’ve heard of that’s complaining about Bienville, our founder, because of his treatment of the Native Americans. Are we going to go into our Tricentennial without our founder? It shows how absurd this all is.”
But there seems to be a silver lining for the MTC amongst all the controversy. The sudden spotlight on the issue has helped the small nonprofit to grow.
“What we’re dealing with is not only the Mayor’s proposal, which is obscene, but we’re also dealing with growth because we had so many people join up with us and we’re trying to find places to put them,” McGraw said. “And I’m talking about some real talented people who want to bring something to the Monumental Task Committee. So we’re real happy about that, and our purses are getting heavy, so that’s good. I think this will take us into the future, and we’ll be a lot stronger as an organization.”