Stories of New Orleans: As Monuments Go Down, Family Histories Emerge

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His name was Madison. He was only 11 years old when he was stolen from his mother and his father and brought here to New Orleans by Francis E. Rives, who went on to become a U.S. congressman from the state of Virginia. On his bill of sale, it says that he is a griffe, a person of African and Native American descent.


A document referring to Cherice Harrison-Nelson’s great-great-grandfather Madison Briscoe, who was sold into slavery on May 8, 1820, at age 11. Credit William Widmer for The New York Times

Last year, I honored him with my suit. I honor him because, despite all of the atrocities perpetuated against this child, he lived to be an elder. Because of that, I am here.

When the crane lifted Lee off his pedestal, I exhaled. I thought: “It’s about time. It’s about time.” You know, he was standing there with his arms folded as if he was surveying all that was his. But that statue was such a lie. Eight thousand pounds of a lie.

I came to the Lee statue straight from the iPhone store, where I got my new phone so that I could tape the statue coming down. Because it was important for me to have pictures that were mine. Though it was a collective moment for all of New Orleans, I felt like it was also my moment.


Bertram Hayes-Davis Credit William Widmer for The New York Times

Bertram Hayes-Davis, 68. Mr. Hayes-Davis is a great-great-grandson of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, whose statue was the second of four removed in New Orleans.

He was a very complex person. As I go around the country having the opportunity to educate Americans about this most misunderstood historical figure, what I hear is: Why don’t we know this about him? My answer is, you know, he lost. He’s to blame. He’s the one that was shouldered with this.

I think the statue itself is indicative of the problem of America, in that we’re reducing history to one sentence and then we add connotations onto it: Jefferson Davis created slavery. Oh really? Or, Jefferson Davis created the Confederacy. The problem we have in America is we don’t have a lens to understand history through. We have to look at a lens from that period of time, and we also have to have to look at the lens that the person had at that period of time.

You can’t change history. If we eliminate history we’re bound to repeat it. You just can’t eliminate it, you have to understand it and teach it.


Family photos, including a portrait of Jefferson Davis, bottom right, in Mr. Hayes-Davis’s home. Credit William Widmer for The New York Times

On the protests for and against removal:

I don’t take either one of those as personal. What I reflect on is that everyone needs to have a complete understanding of the facts related to the individual, and let them make up their mind. I don’t believe either side probably had that.

I was there the week before. I walked down the street and stood there for a while. They had barricaded it and I knew they were going to do it, but there weren’t people around it at the time. People just came and went.

Once the decision was made, it was not my position to do any protesting. It was: How do we get them to understand the man? If we do that, perhaps someday, somebody will come back and say we made a mistake here.

Khris Royal, 30. Last year, Mr. Royal learned that his ancestors were among 272 slaves that Georgetown University sold to planters in Louisiana in 1838 as a way to pay off debts. Last summer, he visited the site of the plantation where his ancestors were enslaved and saw the grave of his great-great grandfather, Wiley Hawkins Sr.

I’m a musician so we travel all the time. For some reason I always stopped at this gas station because I thought it was pretty, with a bayou right there. My great-great-grandfather is buried a half-mile from that gas station. I’d been stopping here for years and this is where my family’s from, they were brought from Maryland to this spot. They got there in 1839 till the end of slavery, and then they were still working there after slavery.

First thing I did was look out there and visualize it full of cotton, and my family out there singing and picking cotton and working the fields. Working every day, being forced to do that. In the heat; it was June when we were out there. It was hot. What about in August, when they were still out there? Even though I know I can’t comprehend how horrible it must have been, just thinking about it kind of made me sick.

It changes everything. It’s definitely more personal. I have names, my family, it’s in my blood. It’s not just a story, its part of my life. I live right here, I don’t want to go by and see Jefferson Davis, someone who fought to keep my family as slaves.


Rev. Hy McEnery Credit William Widmer for The New York Times

Rev. Hy McEnery, 66. Mr. McEnery’s great-grandfather John McEnery, a Confederate officer who became a Democratic politician in Louisiana, contended after the election of 1872 that the governorship had been stolen from him by Reconstruction-era Republicans. On his behalf, thousands belonging to the paramilitary White League descended on New Orleans in 1874, defeating the state militia and the Metropolitan Police and occupying state government offices for several days. A monument to this battle was the first to be taken down, early on the morning of April 24.

We got the word that Jefferson Davis was coming down so we all assembled at Jefferson Davis. While we were there, we had lookouts placed at other monuments. We got the word they were forming at the foot of Canal Street. I got there around 3 and they had just begun taking it down.

The name of that war, the most accurate name was the War of Northern Aggression, of the Northeastern establishment slave trader robber barons.

When you attack a person’s family member it’s very personal. My ancestors are being reviled as evil and bad people, and they are good people. We’re condemned because we fought the federal government, right? What about the Native Americans? They waged war also and they also owned slaves. Are we going to tear down their monuments?


A photograph of John McEnery, a Democratic politician in Louisiana who contended after the election of 1872 that the governorship had been stolen from him by Reconstruction-era Republicans. Credit William Widmer for The New York Times

This monument is a monument to greatness and nobility and the sublime purpose of the human race, and they vilified it through a massive lying campaign. I can assure you that everybody who has ancestors and knows this story is very upset about it.

Because I’m a student of history and I know how things work, I know that when you are going to conquer a people, subjugate a people, it’s very important to remove their cultural foundations because their strength comes from that. The bad guys know that, which means they have to destroy our culture, our history. And when they do that, they destroy your identity, they destroy your soul. They come back and they replace it with the personality and the soul of a slave or a serf.


Topsy Chapman Credit William Widmer for The New York Times

Topsy Chapman, 69. The Chapman family history, told over generations, tells of a slave named Andeline who in 1852, as a young teenager, gave birth to Chapman’s great-grandmother, Ann Davis. In recent years the oral history learned by Ms. Chapman, a singer in New Orleans, has been corroborated by her nephew Keith Moore, who said his archival research showed they were on a plantation owned by Jefferson Davis.

Up until a few years ago, my mother wouldn’t talk about what she had heard about her grandmother’s life on the plantation. My mother was born in 1904 and so you couldn’t just talk about white people in those days.

I passed those New Orleans monuments all the time for most of my adult life. It never dawned on me that those statues were really honoring those people. But that point was made clear to me by the people who fought to keep the monuments there.

We know it’s a part of history. It happened. That’s the way things were in those days. But why do you want to hold on to something so evil?

To me, it’s like a never-ending story. My people are religious. They’re Baptists. When I was a little girl, the white Baptist church hired my father, who was a brick mason, to build a pretty brick building for them. But our church was wooden and it was raggedy. So I remember asking him: “Why don’t we just shut down our church and go to church with them? Because God loves everybody, right?”

He told me, “We can’t do that, baby. That’s just the way the world is.”

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