St. Landry Parish Council took the first step Wednesday toward removing a Confederate monument from the grounds of the Opelousas Parish Courthouse.
Members of the council’s administrative and financial committee voted unanimously to remove the Confederate monument and find a new statue or monument for the space. No council member has commented on the statue or its proposed removal.
St. Landry Parish President Jessie Bellard said the removal of the statue would be subject to a council vote at its March 16 meeting.
The statue was erected in February 1920 by the Louisiana Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Gordon Chapter, and is intended to honor named and unnamed veterans of the Confederate Army who fought in the Civil War. It stands on the northeast corner of Courthouse Square near the intersection of Bellevue and Court streets.
Former St. Landry Parish District Attorney Charles Cravins said the monument was erected during the Jim Crow period of intimidation and discrimination against black people in America, when the United Daughters and other groups advanced the ideology of the lost cause and integrated white supremacist ideas into their efforts.
The monument was erected nearly 55 years after the end of the Civil War, unlike other local memorials erected soon after the events and the deceased they honor, such as the one honoring the victims of 9/11, a he declared.
While on the surface it was seen as a memorial, Cravins argued that it served to intimidate black residents in an attempt to disenfranchise them.
“I understand that some people believe that these monuments are part of history. And they certainly are. But just because they’re part of the story doesn’t mean they’re good,” he said.
Cravins led the request to have the statue removed, with support from retired Opelousas City Court Judge Vanessa Harris.
Cravins took over as district attorney in February 2020 following the retirement of longtime district attorney Earl Taylor, but lost the seat to Chad Pitre in November 2020.
Harris served as a judge of the Opelousas Municipal Court from 2009 to 2020 and was appointed judge pro tempore of the Lafayette Municipal Court until an election in November to replace Michelle Odinet, who resigned from her position after a video of ‘Odinet using a racial slur surfaced in December.
Harris and Cravins were the first blacks to hold their respective positions.
Cravins, a Catholic, wore ashes on his forehead from Ash Wednesday Mass while addressing the council. He noted that the group did not commission the statue or oversee its placement, but asked the council not to abdicate their duty to act now to right the situation, referring to the religious idea of committing sin of omission.
“We are all equal in the eyes of God and we should all be equal in the eyes of our government. And having this monument in our courthouse plaza is an indication that our government doesn’t see us the same way,” he said.
Harris said his grandfather Edward Harris Sr. was not allowed into the courthouse as a young man because of his race, and his father, attorney Aaron Harris, was initially denied admission to the local bar because he was black.
A reminder of this discrimination should not stand outside the courthouse, she said.
“To us, that’s racist and it doesn’t belong here. This isn’t Confederate turf, it’s our turf. The people of St. Landry Parish,” Harris said.
A similar monument, a statue of Confederate General Alfred Mouton, stood at the intersection of Lee Avenue and Jefferson Street in Lafayette until July 17, when it was torn down by the Lafayette Consolidated Government after a protracted trial and a public campaign to remove the statue.
The background of the statue is similar to that of the Opelousas monument. It was unveiled in 1922 as a gift from the Mouton Chapter of the United Daughters of Confederacy to the city of Lafayette.
Mouton’s statue was moved to the Camp Moore Museum and Cemetery in the parish town of Tangipahoa in Kentwood after it was removed. Camp Moore was one of the largest Confederate initiation centers and training camps in Louisiana.
Cravins said he doesn’t care where the courthouse monument is moved as long as it leaves government property. A possible replacement could be a statue of Saint-Landry, the parish’s namesake, he said.
Bellard said he wanted to put a plan in place if the full parish council approved the removal of the statue on March 16. ‘t discuss these options until a firm agreement is in place.
The parish president said he wanted to act quickly once the council made its decision.
“I don’t want it sitting there and people thinking we’re just playing with it. If they act, it will be on me and it won’t stay on my desk,” Bellard said.
He said at the monument plaza that he would like to erect a heroes’ corner to honor local first responders like police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel who serve on the front lines in the community, setting a tone similar to the St. Landry Parish Veterans Memorial on La. 182 near Opelousas.