A newly re-elected member of the Calhoun County Commission has openly asked the city of New Orleans to give the county a Confederate statute the city pulled down in 2017.
Commissioner Eli Henderson last week sent a letter to New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell, saying he has a “tremendous interest” in acquiring the Robert E. Lee statue that once stood on a pedestal in the city’s Lee Circle. He said he wants the statute for Janney Furnace Park, the Confederate-themed park he helped create in Ohatchee.
“When I was growing up, Robert E. Lee was one of our heroes,” said Henderson, 82, in an interview Thursday.
The New Orleans statue, depicting the Confederate general standing with crossed arms, stood for more than a century above the streets of the city. After the killing in 2015 of nine worshipers at an African American church in Charleston, by a gunman whose social media posts showed an affinity for Confederate symbols, critics of Confederate statues in Southern cities gained new allies. Alabama’s then-Gov. Robert Bentley ordered four Confederate flags removed from a memorial on the grounds of the state Capitol in Montgomery the week after the shootings.
New Orleans officials began working to remove the Lee monument in 2015, and – after a court battle with statue supporters – removed it in 2017. Henderson, a longtime fixture in Calhoun County politics, said on the campaign trail earlier this year that he would try to bring the statue to Calhoun County. His Nov. 30 letter, written on Calhoun County Commission letterhead, is his first official attempt to bring it here.
Henderson said he was confident the move would get the support of his fellow commissioners, including Commission Chairman Fred Wilson, the only African American on the commission.
“They wouldn’t have a problem with it at all,” Henderson said. “Even Fred wouldn’t mind.”
Wilson on Thursday said he hadn’t spoken with Henderson about the statue proposal.
“I don’t object to it,” said Wilson, who noted that Janney Furnace isn’t in his district.
“It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I’m sure it doesn’t bother my constituents. It’s history.”
The move isn’t likely to surprise longtime watchers of Henderson, who served multiple terms on the commission before leaving to become circuit clerk a few years ago. His re-election to the commission last month made him both the newest and one of the longest-serving members of the commission.
In his earlier commission career, Henderson was an advocate of Janney Furnace, a park that includes a museum of Native American and Civil War history and a monument with the names of local men who served in the Confederate army. A Confederate battle flag usually flies over the park.
Henderson claimed Thursday that erecting the statue wouldn’t cost the county anything. He said he could convince Tuscaloosa businessman Paul Bryant Jr. to foot the bill. Attempts to reach Bryant for comment were unsuccessful.
“Anybody who knows Eli, knows Eli will find someone to pay for it,” said fellow Commissioner J.D. Hess.
Hess described the Lee statue as “a great idea” though he said he might change his mind if the cost was too high. Hess said he wasn’t worried about controversy the effort might generate.
“I’ve supported everything for the bus museum,” he said. “I support that, and I’m going to support this other.”
Federal officials are currently developing a Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, to honor activists who were attacked by Klansmen while working to integrate interstate buses.
There’s also the not-so-small matter of getting New Orleans to hand the general over.
Attempts to reach officials in the mayor’s office for comment were not successful Friday. According to accounts in the New Orleans Times Picayune, the city earlier this year considered moving the statue to a nearby cemetery.
Not everyone on the Calhoun County Commission is decided on Henderson’s plan, either. Commissioner Tim Hodges said Henderson hadn’t discussed the issue with him.
“I really don’t know enough about it to even comment,” he said.
Attempts to reach Commissioner Lee Patterson for comment were unsuccessful.