Our histories are both rooted in French adventurism, but no one would ever confuse Kansas City with New Orleans. First of all, we here generally live above the level of our river, not below. And one glance at the French Quarter — or a single bite at its tables — confirms a vast difference.
Hard to imagine Kansas Citians torn by the removal of monuments to Confederate leaders, such as is today making headlines and headaches in the Big Easy.
Because we really don’t have any.
One has to travel down the Missouri to two tiny towns in the old “Slavery Belt,” Keytesville and Waverly. Both communities are proud of their city parks, overlooked by hometown rebel generals Sterling Price and Jo Shelby, key players in the 1864 Battle of Westport. Shelby’s likeness was put up just in 2009.
In the Civil War, New Orleans was one of the world’s great ports, by far the largest city of the Deep South. Kansas City was, well, bigger than Westport.
The city quickly recaptured by the U.S. Navy, New Orleans’ whites got an early start on building a full head of steaming resentment against Yankees. Missouri, too, was immediately handcuffed to the Union by aggressive Federals, who controlled the towns if not the countryside. Missouri escaped post-war Reconstruction. Louisiana did not.
Nor had our farmers held in bondage anything like the multitudes on Louisiana plantations. A result: Today about 60 percent of New Orleans proper is African-American; Kansas City, about half that.
Confederate army veterans led the effort to get Robert E. Lee’s monument up in 1884 in New Orleans; that of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was dedicated in 1911; Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard’s in 1915.
The inscription on the Battle of Liberty Place obelisk, placed in 1891, “recognized white supremacy in the South. It stemmed from an ugly 1874 uprising of the Crescent City White League, largely Democrats angry at GOP corruption, but infuriated by a biracial police force. Three dozen died; no one was charged. The same malignancy had risen again in Grant Parrish, with perhaps 150 freedmen protecting their courthouse massacred.
Removing monuments erases history, some argue, similar to leveling the Great Pyramids because they were built by slaves. (Actually, they weren’t.) But no one is advocating tearing down the White House. Many an old edifice represents a nation’s glories, even if the heavy lifting fell to the peasants.
Confederate monuments, however, seem part of a past-tense, parallel universe where losers in a morality struggle are resurrected, cleaned of sin and put on pedestals.
One finds this parsing of the “Lost Cause” on the long-debated stone in Forest Park of St. Louis. Below the imposing “Angel of the Spirit of the Confederacy,” the chiselers somehow skipped over the “S” word. Two years ago, however, “Black Lives Matter” was spray-painted on it.
The Daughters of the Confederacy left their white-gloved touch here, too. At 55th Street and Ward Parkway, a marble monument says: “In loving memory of the loyal women of the Old South.” (The Federals were harsher on ours here than on the belles of New Orleans.) The CSA flags on the back were more noticeable when at Mill Creek Park in 1934. It made way, thankfully, for the J.C. Nichols Fountain in 1958.
The Daughters also raised the tall pillar in Forest Hills Cemetery with its Confederate soldier gazing toward Westport. Shelby dozes in its shadow. Such quiet tributes among the graves, like those of the Confederate Memorial Cemetery outside Higginsville, are one thing. No one is forced to go there, after all.
It’s another to dedicate busy civic squares to those who championed, in Lincoln’s words, the wringing of one’s bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.
Add to that the Jim Crow years — segregation, political suppression, enforced poverty, fear of beatings, false imprisonment or lynching. Calls to retain these old remembrances to white dominance simply rub all that in the face of black America.
Darryl Levings is a former national editor of The Star and author of the Civil War novel “Saddle the Pale Horse.”