Feb. 1, 2016 11:48 AM

AMID A NATIONAL CONVERSATION ON CONFEDERATE ICONOGRAPHY, WHAT, IF ANYTHING, SHOULD LAFAYETTE DO ABOUT OUR OWN MEMORIAL TO JIM CROW?


Photo by Robin May

Let's talk about the general. Jean Jacques Alfred Alexandre Mouton — Alfred, as he was known by contemporaries.

He has stood as a sentinel at one of Downtown Lafayette’s gateways — in a triangular plaza at the intersection of Jefferson Street and Lee Avenue — for 94 years. Most residents in Lafayette for whom Downtown is a faraway place have probably never laid eyes on him outside of photos.

From the ceremony marking his residency in the plaza in April 1922 until some time in the late 1930s, when a new City Hall was built 20 yards away, Alfred faced slightly northeast — his marble arms crossed defiantly and his visage resolute as he stood, swathed in the uniform of a Confederate general, gazing in the direction from which came the Union armies. After City Hall was built he was turned 180 or so degrees. Secondary statuary, that look in old photos like pedestals awaiting future Confederate figures, were removed.

Most of us in his daily proximity Downtown, especially the melanin-deficient, pay Alfred little accord. But not everyone.

“What makes our country great is our ability to evolve,” says Greg Davis, the longtime director of the Cajundome and a public education activist. “This Confederate monument further inhibits our ability to reconcile the past.”

In January, Davis, who is black and whose parents lived through the toxic dregs of Jim Crow in rural southeast Louisiana, sent a letter to the chairman of the City-Parish Council requesting a public discussion on Feb. 23 — three quarters into Black History Month — about Alfred. It’s a topic that, before the murders of nine black parishioners in Charleston, S.C., and the roiling self-examination of Confederate iconography across the South that followed, was a non-starter: Move the general. Not destroying him. Not banishing him to the moldering shadows of a warehouse. Simply moving him three blocks away to the grounds of the Lafayette Museum, also known as the Mouton House — the home of Alfred’s father, former Louisiana Gov. Alexandre Mouton, himself the son of Jean Mouton, the founder of Lafayette (née Vermilionville). (Jean Mouton came to Louisiana with the original Acadians expelled by the British from Canada in the mid-1700s; the Mouton name is as deeply and genuinely Cajun as they get.)

“I remember the pervasiveness of Jim Crow in every segment of ordinary life that drilled in me and my siblings the concept of white supremacy and therefore black inferiority,” Davis writes in his letter to the council. “I was conditioned to hate myself simply because of the color of my skin. I actually thought that people like me were less than human. Racism is that sick.”

PLACE-MAKING
Photo by Robin May

The discussion on Alfred really commenced in Lafayette in December when the Downtown Development Authority, whose office is in the old City Hall behind the Gen. Mouton monument, held a public meeting in Alfred’s shadow concerning plans to renovate what DDA has dubbed Place Mouton.

Davis attended that meeting, as did about 70 others, most of them with concerns about pulling up the grass in the plaza and covering it with a hard surface. Also present were representatives of a Facebook group called Why Alfred, which is advocating for moving the monument.

“We can find a better symbol to represent our community, such as a statue of Alfred’s grandfather, Jean Mouton, the actual founder of the city,” writes Why Alfred representative Frank Crocco in his own letter to the council. “I am not suggesting that the General Alfred Mouton Monument be destroyed, merely that it be moved to a more appropriate location.”

Davis and Crocco met with the DDA board in early January to ask that the agency not commence renovations on the plaza until the disposition of the monument is settled. DDA Marketing Director Kate Durio says the agency has no official position on the monument but that, regardless, work on the site wouldn’t commence until well after the Feb. 23 council meeting.

“Since the beginning of that planning process, there have been no plans to move the statute, but the design accommodates keeping the statute or replacing it with another statute, a water feature, a piece of art or anything else decided,” Durio says.

BIO...DEGRADABLE

To the extent there was leisure in the 19th century, Alfred was a son of it. Born in Opelousas in 1829, he was educated at St. Charles College in Grand Coteau, then the premier center of learning in what we now call Acadiana. His family’s plantation wealth and connections got him into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point where he graduated 38th among 44 cadets in 1850, a relatively poor performance likely due more to his imperfect command of English than to his study habits. His father, Alexandre, operated one of the largest sugar plantations in Louisiana — Île Copal, located where LeRosen Elementary stands today at the Pinhook-Evangeline Thruway intersection. Thousands of acres of sugar cane spread out to the northwest over what is now the Freetown-Port Rico neighborhood. Slaves, hundreds of them, worked the fields.

A 1925 aerial photo of the General Mouton memorial Downtown shows secondary statuary at the site, possibly pedestals for more Confederate figures, although no one seems to recall what they were. The photo obviously predates construction of Lafayette City Hall and the now-former federal courthouse, both of which stand today on the block. A well-worn path from the memorial site to the long-ago razed Central School suggests the monument served as an assembly or commons area for the school. Close examination of the photo shows that the statue of Mouton originally faced northeast but was later turned 180 degrees, likely when City Hall was built in the late 1930s.

After West Point, Mouton worked for a time as an engineer for the railroad and as an officer in the state militia. He also led the Lafayette Parish Police Jury, overseeing an aggressive expansion of the Code Noir, or Black Code, that governed and severely limited the movement and assembly of blacks. In addition to operating his own slave-labored plantation adjacent to his father’s, Mouton led an armed, roving cavalry of vigilantes that exacted rough “justice” on anyone, black or white, deemed unlawful or undesirable.

We don’t know if he was noble, outside of his station as a member of a patrician planter family. But Alfred Mouton was most certainly brave. He resigned his West Point commission at the outbreak of the Civil War, led the 18th Louisiana Infantry as a colonel into battle at Shiloh where he was wounded, convalesced in New Orleans, was promoted to brigadier general and died in battle at Mansfield in 1864, picked off by a Union sniper. He was 35 years old. Ten years after his death, his remains were moved from Mansfield in North Louisiana to St. John Cemetery behind the cathedral in Lafayette. A Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter in Opelousas is named for him. It has a monument to Alfred, too.

SINS OF THE FATHER

Photo by Robin May

In ginning up support for moving Alfred from the plaza to his ancestral home — and out of a place of public reverence — some, like the Why Alfred group on Facebook, often point to his slave ownership, his command in the Confederacy and his association with antebellum vigilantism, a phenomenon that after the war would evolve into groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

That’s well and good, but even progressiveminded folks like musician-activist-cultural preservationist Zachary Richard have misgivings about this approach.

“It’s difficult for me to accept the imposition of a social point of view on a different time period,” Richard says. “I can’t pretend to judge the motivations of the people who actually erected the statue.”

Richard, who holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Tulane, has advocated for addition rather than subtraction, calling for the placement of a monument to zydeco trailblazer Clifton Chenier in Downtown Lafayette.

“If we’re going to address the real problem, it’s not about removing a statue, it’s about trying to eradicate racism,” Richard continues. “So, what I would respectfully suggest, rather than spending a dollar on moving a statue that probably has little significance for a majority of the people, I would much prefer that we devote the same amount of energy and resources to programs which would help under-privileged children in Lafayette, for example; or do something to address the problems of racism that persist in our society.”

Can we do both? Can we place Alfred in proper context, either by moving his memorial or providing context at the current location, and still work toward tangible improvements in the wealth and health of our black neighborhoods?

LAST GASP OF THE LOST CAUSE

Some will never be swayed; they greet any suggestion that Alfred — or any Confederate iconography for that matter — be cast from the public sphere with disdain, often a disdain cloaked in the robes of a scholar.

John François, a Navy veteran and author of historical novels about Cajun Confederates, sniffs at the prospect of removing Confederate monuments from public spaces. He’s even given the phenomenon a name — Latter-day Reconstruction Fever — and argues it’s the by-product of historical ignorance and political correctness.

“There are those who firmly — and ignorantly — believe that the South fought a terribly devastating war for four long years, losing hundreds of thousands of their best and brightest, all in order to maintain the institution of slavery,” François says. “Rather, this war, this Cause, was fought by the South because armed invaders were sent by an oppressive, northern-controlled government which denied the right of sovereign states to peacefully break away and form their own government, just as the 13 original colonies did.”

And there you have it, folks: the Lost Cause in 100 words or less. (The Lost Cause is a term given by historians to the myth-making that swept the Deep South in the decades after the Civil War in which white Southerners downplayed slavery’s role in the war, reframing the conflict as a noble struggle for sovereignty — expressed in hundreds of public monuments to Confederate figures.)

François hits most of the points — “their best and brightest,” “Cause” with a capital C, “armed invaders,” “oppressive, northern-controlled government,” “sovereign states,” equating the Confederacy with the Founding Fathers.

In the secession statements filed by the 13 state legislatures that would comprise the Confederacy, slavery — or the states’ right to maintain it — is almost universally cited as the compelling reason for dissolving the Union. Mississippi’s begins, after a short preamble, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” Texas’ emphasizes the importance of “maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery.” Georgia’s statement makes reference to “the political and social inequality of the African race.” And so on and so forth.

As LSU history Professor Gaines Foster wrote in 2013: “The refusal to confront the evil of slavery or acknowledge any role for it in the conflict contributed to making the cause more honorable. By claiming that the South did not fight to preserve slavery, white southerners also tried to deny the Confederacy’s defeat any role in justifying racial change. Indeed, the Lost Cause served an opposite function: it helped preserve white supremacy. Most scholars who have studied the white South’s memory of the Civil War or the Old South conclude that both portrayed a past society in which whites were in charge and blacks faithful and subservient. Here, as in so many ways, the vision of the past served as a model for the present and future.”

Which brings us to April 1922. Why Alfred indeed? What is the context for the United Daughters of the Confederacy celebrating Gen. Alfred Mouton with a monument in what was a prominent intersection in Lafayette nearly 60 years after his death?

John François and many others have their own ideas, but the words of a “Mrs. Youree” of the UDC, as quoted by The Daily Advertiser in a day-after report on the unveiling, are telling: “In honoring General Mouton we are honoring ourselves, for we are today perpetuating the very best that has been achieved by our great and truly noble Southern race.”

It is impossible to imagine black folks in that spring of Jim Crow being present at the unveiling, much less believing those words were in any way directed at them.

The more we peel away the layers, who Alfred Mouton was matters less. What is important is the context in which the monument came to exist. It isn’t hard to separate the man and his monument from the myth, but that was never the point: The monument is the myth. Like all the other memorials that were erected across the Old South in the five or so decades after the Civil War, overlapping the lives of the war’s veterans who would have been in their mid 70s by the 1920s, the Mouton monument gave expression to this mythology of the Lost Cause and its white supremacist underpinnings. His memorial came late to the place-making of Southern mythology, a phenomenon that mostly petered out by the Great Depression. Our marble Alfred in this context is a last gasp of the Lost Cause.

Let’s retire it to his father’s house.

Click here to see more images of the monument.

Click here for a Mouton's perspective.

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