On September 14, 1874, over 5,000 heavily armed members of the White League, a white supremacist paramilitary organization, mobilized to overthrow the Reconstruction government of Louisiana. Under the guidance of John McEnery, a Democrat upset at his recent loss for governorship, they stormed Canal Street to initiate the coup. There they clashed with the Metropolitan Police, a majority African-American force, and the state militia, comprised of ex-Confederates and Union soldiers, Irish and Italian immigrants, and African-Americans. The total force of those defending the city was an estimated 3,500. They were outmanned and outgunned.
James Longstreet, former Confederate general and head of the state militia, attempted to negotiate with the White League. He was shot, dragged off his horse, and taken prisoner. The White League relentlessly charged at the police and militia. Canal Street morphed into an urban battlefield. The Battle of Liberty Place resulted in over a hundred causalities, the majority of which were freedpeople fighting for the Metropolitan Police. Lifeless bodies of black men were left untouched to quell any potential resistance. It was a decisive victory for the group known for using terror, even more so than their Ku Klux Klan counterparts, to evoke change in favor of white supremacy.
The initial coup was a success. The new leadership exercised control over New Orleans for three days; the legitimate governor was replaced by McEnery. It was not until President Ulysses S. Grant sent federal troops to instill order that the White League retreated. Although The Battle of Liberty Place did not achieve the desired results for the White League and Democrats, it sent shockwaves throughout the region. The Metropolitan Police and state militias were disrupted beyond repair. The Republican government maintained power through force by federal troops, but tangible authority was almost nonexistent in rural Louisiana. Meanwhile, the White League increased its influence.
By 1876, Bourbon Democrats gained control of the state legislature. In the same year, Democrat Francis T. Nicholls won governorship. The majority of the White League morphed into the new state militia and the National Guard. Supporters of Nicholls ousted the Supreme Court Justices and allowed Nicholls to appoint justices that would appease white supremacists. Nationally, the disputed 1876 U.S. presidential election was settled through an agreement that federal troops would be removed from the South if the South conceded to a victory for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. The Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction in the South.
Once in power, they solidified white dominance by catering to the cultural and political Lost Cause movement, which minimized the role of slavery in the Civil War, portrayed the Confederacy cause as noble and heroic, and emphasized the recent victory over the external imposition of civil rights protections. Place du Tivoli became “Lee Place.” Although Robert E. Lee never stepped foot in Louisiana, he became a figurehead to those who sympathized with the Confederacy.
The Democratic establishment also drafted a new constitution to replace the Constitution of 1868, arguably the most progressive constitution in the South. The new Constitution of 1879 restricted voting rights of freedpeople, intensified segregation, and moved the capital from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. It helped establish a precedent for Jim Crow.
On February 22, 1884, a 90-foot marble column topped with a Bronze statue of General Lee was unveiled. General P.G.T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis, and thousands of Confederate veterans were in attendance. In 1891, the “Battle of Liberty Place” monument was completed at the foot of Canal Street to commemorate the insurrection.
By 1890, harsh economic conditions of the Bourbon Era impacted both poor blacks and poor whites. One Catholic Bishop complained the economic conditions amounted to a “new form of slavery for both white and colored people.” The improvements Bourbon Democrats promised to poor whites in exchange for votes failed to materialize. Louisiana faced its demise from the national spotlight during the Bourbon Era. New Orleans disappeared from the top ten most populated cities in the U.S. while other urban populations exploded.
The rise of populism addressed these insufferable economic conditions and exposed the divisive tactics of Bourbon Democrats. Lower class Republicans and Democrats formed alliances much to the dismay of those in power. In 1892, biracial unions consisting of over 3,000 workers went on strike throughout New Orleans to obtain a 10 hour work day with overtime pay. Despite appeals to racial hatred to divide the strikers, they stood in solidarity and won almost all demands. Similar episodes became more prominent and frightened the elite. Bourbon Democrats faced the realization that their voter base was dwindling.
In the election of 1896, Bourbon Democrats rigged the election to win. If the issue went unaddressed, the power structure in Louisiana would sway. They convened a new constitution to address their crisis and restrict suffrage. The Constitution of 1898 banned voting for illiterates, issued a poll tax, and required grandfather clauses. The black voting bloc declined from 130,000 to a mere 1,342; the white voting bloc declined from 164,000 to 92,000. By 1910, the number of eligible black voters dropped to 730, less than 0.5 percent of eligible black men. The political voice of the poor was silenced.
In 1911, as the city government took measures to further segregate the city, a 25-foot statue bronze statue of Jefferson Davis was unveiled at the intersection of Canal Street and Hagan Avenue. A band paraded down the street and attendees waved Confederate battle flags. Hagan Avenue was renamed Jefferson Davis Parkway.
Four years later, an equestrian statue of P.G.T. Beauregard was unveiled at the main entrance of City Park. Beauregard was born into a wealthy slave owning family on the Contreras sugarcane plantation in lower St. Bernard Parish. He was instrumental during the Civil War. He fired its first shots at the Battle of Fort Sumter, won the First Battle of Bull Run, and fought in some of the War’s most intense battles. After the war, Beauregard returned to New Orleans and fought against Republican rule during Reconstruction. Although a Democrat, he favored civil rights for freedpeople in hopes to form alliances between African-Americans and Democrats to oust the Reconstruction government.
In 1932, an inscription to the Battle of Liberty Place monument was added to commemorate “the overthrow of carpetbag government” and the election of 1876, which “recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.” The Civil Rights Movement sparked reconsideration of race relations within the city. In 1974, a new marker was added:
“Although the ‘Battle of Liberty Place’ and this monument are important parts of the New Orleans history, the sentiments in favor of white supremacy expressed thereon are contrary to the philosophy and beliefs of present-day New Orleans.”
In 1989, the statue was temporarily removed for construction purposes. The city debated on whether the monument should be restored. In 1993, the City Council voted 6 to 1 to declare the monument a nuisance. However, local officials agreed to relocate the statue between the One Canal Place parking garage and a floodwall, a much less traveled corridor. A new marker listing the names of those killed replaced its predecessors.
David Duke, former KKK Grand Wizard and former state representative, organized a rededication rally for the monument in its new location. State representative Avery Alexander, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, organized a protest. During a scuffle with police, Alexander was roughed up and four protestors were arrested. In 2004, Duke desired another rally at the Liberty Place monument, but abandoned plans as the monument was vandalized the night before.
The Charleston church shooting reignited a debate on how the South memorializes the Confederacy. In New Orleans, conversations on the fate of these statues were no longer relegated to certain circles. On December 17, 2015, the City Council voted 6-1 to remove the statues. The same day, four organizations filed suit to halt their removal.
As the dialogue continues, it’s important to understand the history associated with these statues, most notably who erected them and why. The remnants of the racialized policies generated by Bourbon Democrats and their successors continue to negatively impact our city, and those statues were fashioned to symbolize such efforts.
This information comes from a multitude of different sources. If you have any questions regarding specifics, ask away. For more information on the Bourbon Era of Louisiana, I suggest Bourbonism and Agrarian Protest: Louisiana Politics, 1877-1900 by William Ivy Hair.