Years ago, shortly after I finished college and settled back in Alexandria, Louisiana, a family friend of mine told me of a proposed project that he believed would be a game-changer for the local economy.

“We’re sitting on a gold mine,” he said. “Right across the river, we have the last remaining untold story of the American Civil War.”

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He had a compelling sales pitch: Two adjacent and long-forgotten Civil War forts, Fort Randolph and Fort Buhlow, could be reconstructed and rediscovered. Because most of the land hadn’t even been touched since 1865, it was possible, he said, that Civil War buffs, archeologists, and historians from all over the country would make pilgrimages to this place. There would be more than 40,000 tourists every year, I was told. (And while that may not seem like much for most folks, Alexandria has a population of less than 50,000; Pineville has less than 25,000).

But my friend wasn’t asking me for money. He was asking me to believe in the idea. The project, you see, had already been funded.

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Three years ago, after taxpayers spent more than $4.4 million, the State of Louisiana officially opened Fort Randolph and Fort Buhlow to the public. A few months before its grand opening, Governor Bobby Jindal approved additional funding for the newly-reconstructed Confederate Civil War forts.

At the same time, however, Jindal also vetoed funding for projects and programs that primarily serve poor, at-risk minorities in Central Louisiana, and he decimated funding for the state’s first and the region’s only museum of African-American history.

No one, myself included, seemed to understand the irony: While Jindal was rebuilding Confederate Civil War forts- forts that were originally built by slaves, he was simultaneously slashing social programs and institutions that served African-Americans.

To be sure, I doubt even Jindal realized this, because his funding decisions have never been based on principle. Since the very beginning of his tenure, Jindal has used his pen to exact revenge on any and all politicians who dare to defy him. In 2010, for example, when he cut hundreds of thousands of dollars from programs and social services in Central Louisiana, Bobby Jindal didn’t consider the people who were actually affected. His decisions weren’t based on an evaluation of the merits; after all, he funded identical programs in other parishes all across the state. He, for whatever misguided and terribly cynical reason, believed that his punitive retribution against a community represented by Democrats would somehow encourage that community to support Republicans. Or, at the very least, he hoped to depress Democratic support.

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Racism is, more often than not, perpetuated by omission, not commission.

Disenfranchisement, sometimes, is subtle.

For example, we fund multi-million dollar state parks commemorating the Confederacy while slashing funding for a small but hugely important museum, right across the river, that celebrates one of the most prominent African-American writers in our country’s history.

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Meanwhile, more recently, Governor Jindal approved spending $2 million on renovating the third floor of a civic building in Franklin, Louisiana in order to house the archives of his former boss, Governor Mike Foster.

Wealthy and middle-class white, conservative, and predominately rural Republicans are rewarded for their loyalty in the ballot box with infrastructure projects and new state parks and additional grant funding for their preferred non-profits, while poor and working-class communities, comprised, primarily, of African-American Democrats, are neglected. Desperately-needed road repairs and streetscape projects are placed in purgatory; community service and health care clinics are told to do more with less; inner-city schools, historic institutions that serve as pillars for entire neighborhoods, sit helpless as their funding is funneled over to fly-by-night private school profiteers and as their credibility is assaulted by a well-financed group of DC-based political consultants hired to sell “school choice.”

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Fort Randolph and Fort Buhlow haven’t proven to be a “gold mine” or a “game-changer” for Central Louisiana. They don’t tell any untold stories, and they will never attract tens of thousands of tourists every year. Unfortunately, they have been proven to be historically and archeologically insignificant.

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The simple truth is this: It was an epic, embarrassing waste of public money, nothing more than excuse to spend taxpayer dollars in order to line the pockets of a handful of contractors and campaign contributors. It was a project championed, not by the community or even by local historians, but by self-interested architects and self-anointed planners, people who saw an opportunity to make money by transforming a few dozen acres of vacant, practically worthless land into an elaborately landscaped, Confederate-themed nature trail.

Central Louisiana is the setting of the two most important, influential, and best-selling books of 19th century America, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is a fictionalized account of life on a plantation in Cloutierville, and Twelve Years a Slave, which is primarily set on the shores of Bayou Boeuf.  Yet, there is not a single place in all of Central Louisiana that properly acknowledges and adequately commemorates the history and the legacy of American slavery.

In Central Louisiana, we’re scrubbing all remnants of slavery from our built environment while rebuilding and reopening Confederate forts. Alexandria, a city in which more than 56% of the population are African-Americans, has only two structures that honor African-American history: The small Arna Bontemps Museum, which has been barely kept afloat after Jindal’s draconian cuts, and a small unprotected (and frankly unremarkable) mural on Lee Street, a mural that routinely attracts vandalism.

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And it may be difficult, if not impossible, for most white people in Central Louisiana to appreciate how insulting and myopic and absurd this all truly is, the ways in which the political establishment and the powers-that-be have continually diminished the relevancy of African-American history, how projects like Fort Randolph and Fort Buhlow demonstrate our misplaced priorities, the naiveté of privilege and our insensitivity, as a community and as a State, toward our African-American brothers and sisters. To be sure, Fort Buhlow and Fort Randolph are not only funded by the State of Louisiana; they also heavily rely on public subsidization from the Red River Waterway Commission, an appointed board comprised entirely of middle-aged white men.

Last week, I wrote about the need for Louisiana to “own up” to its complicity in the worst institutionalized atrocity in our nation’s history.

We cannot possibly do that when white men who represent and serve majority-minority communities believe, for whatever reason, that it is fiscally prudent to spend millions of public dollars on reconstructing and re-imagining the Confederacy. We cannot honor or validate the families who carry the legacy and the scars of slavery by celebrating the very institutions that were designed and operated to perpetuate oppression. Central Louisiana was the setting for many terrible, inhumane crimes against countless African-Americans; Alexandria was burned to the ground by the Union during the Civil War. But recognizing this- teaching and re-telling these stories- does not require us to become some sort of macabre theme park; we don’t need to chase after the tourism dollars spent by Civil War aficionados.

There is, after all, another side to this: If it were not for the stories told by African-American slaves who lived and worked and died on the cotton fields of Central Louisiana, then our nation may have never fully understood the brutalities and injustices of slavery. And, so, in many ways, slaves in Central Louisiana not only helped to justify a righteous battle for equality and ensure the end of an atrocity, they also, in so doing, provided all of us with a better nation, a more perfect union.

I’m not sure what the proper tribute would be.

I don’t know if we even require a new building or a landscaped trail to tell this story. Louisiana, after all, is a poor state, and right now, it’d probably be better to spend money on the things that really affect and empower the everyday lives of its people: Hospitals and clinics, libraries, schools, public transit and roads, drainage projects and the digital divide.

But, either way, I do know this: I’m not buying a ticket to anyone’s fake Confederate theme park.

12 thoughts

  1. Spending on the things that can help change lives today would be a great beginning. Our state used to have support systems, but these have slowly been dismantled and sold to the highest bidder for profit. I don’t know how we will be able to recover as a state, from the destruction wrought by this governor. By the time he finishes, the damage done will have sentenced an entire generation to trying to clean up his mess. The sad part is that most people in this state still have not caught on, or don’t care about those less fortunate than themselves. It is so easy to place blame on them for their unfortunate situations. Yet they go to their churches on Sunday and profess their belief in Christian principles. We forget those principles though, the other days of the week. You know, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers…”
    Thanks for being brave enough to speak on this issue.

  2. Very interesting and informative article on my home state. .Jindal may try to pretend that slavery was no big deal in Louisiana, but History cannot be rewritten to suit his or any others needs..Slavery in Louisiana/USA is just another one of those inconvenient truths for America. Louisiana can try to run from the truth, but It’s not gonna work. Just look at all those caramel colored people with the curly hair that resides here..This was no oversight by Jindal, every evil thing he dose is calculated, ; but he needs to know that evil never wins over good, and that’s why is “HOUSE OF CARDS ARE TUMBLING DOWN AS I TYPE”

  3. As a child in the ’40s and ’50 I played on the earthworks of Fort Buhlow and enjoyed occasional picnics on the grounds adjacent to the lake. Cleaning up, restoring and creating the park area around these structures seems a worthwhile expenditure. Retelling the story of Bailey’s Dam and the burning of Alexandria can spark interest in the area among the young, newcomers and lifetime residents who are ignorant of their home’s history. All of this could form the basis of removing the blindfold that shields the South from an abhorrent past, an evil born of ignorance, racism and economic greed. That doesn’t mean we can ignore the more praiseworthy aspects of being Southern, the pride of place that has developed since our cleansing of the sin of slavery began in that most brutal war this nation has experienced.Louisiana is poor in many ways, but rich in history and culture. Let’s celebrate that. It’s unfortunate that we continue to have political and social leaders who would rather immerse themselves in the blind and greedy self interest that harkens back to what once lead to ruin. I pray that even Louisianians will one day reject the kind of leadership that Jindal and his minions have imposed on this state. Honesty, perspective and truth-telling can help that day arrive. So, keep up the good work.

  4. Not that I don’t agree with the overall thesis of the article, but really… “the two most important, influential, and best-selling books of 19th century America, Uncle Tom’s Cabin…and Twelve Years a Slave.” Really? No Huckleberry Finn? Certainly both of these books are vitally important, but I don’t think you can honestly say they’re THE MOST important.

    1. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was the best-selling American novel in the 19th century; in fact, only the Bible sold more copies. “12 Years a Slave,” published the next year, also sold tens of thousands of copies. “Huckleberry Finn” and “Moby Dick” (my personal favorite work of 19th century American fiction) may be considered better literature (and I don’t question their influence), but they didn’t really change the course of American history like these seminal slave narratives.

      1. I’m not arguing the importance of either of your choices – they definitely had enormous impact, certainly boosting the abolitionist cause and pushing the country into war. But Twelve Years a Slave sold roughly 40,000 copies in the entire 19th Century, almost all before the war, after which it was almost forgotten for a long time. Huckleberry Finn sold more than 55,000 in the first five months after its publication, and continued to sell well long afterwards, being translated into a multitude of other languages before the century’s end, including German, Danish, Dutch, French, Russian, Polish, Swedish, and Czechoslovakian. Twelve Years a Slave may well have been more important than Huckleberry Finn, but it was adamantly not one of the two best-selling books of 19th century America. Perhaps it should have been.

  5. I seriously doubt that Jindal even thinks about slavery and its history in Louisiana. He is focused on himself and his wealthy donors. He has very little if any interest in what is best for the state of Louisiana and is committed to governing according to the principles of Dollaracracy.

  6. Thank you for this blog. I feel heartened to see comments written by thoughtful concerned citizens. But I have to disagree that most racist acts are committed by omission rather than commission . . . at least in Jindal’s case. He knows good and well what he’s doing; by committing 4.4m to restore two Confederate forts and millions more to build a library to Buddy Foster — these are acts that by definition are racist in a state that incarcerates more African Americans than any other while denying them and many poor white folks medical care, affordable housing and a decent education. By giving away gobs of money to Big Oil and Hollywood among others, Jindal and his cronies commit assault on the poor people of this state every single day.

  7. Ok my brilliant young firebrand!This story is much longer and more complicated than you can imagine or be commented on here. When the opportunity to share in full , it might temper some your viewpoint.There needs to be a venue to address the whole slavery issue historically and honestly as a permanent display. That might be the place and some African – American citizens have already thought about that.

    1. Dear Thaddeous–

      “This story is much longer and more complicated than you can imagine or be commented on here.”

      Really? The Internet has run out of space? Human minds (or at least Lamar’s?) have no ability to fathom what you know and understand?

      If I may be so bold to request: please, would you attempt to help a pleb such as Lamar (and I presume, myself) comprehend this much longer and more complicated story.

      Thank you for your time and consideration.

  8. For a teaser , the Forts were an after thought when Joe Mac sued the Red River Authority for not funding parks and recreation areas and the “Forts” were a part of a larger parks and trails area to encompass the lauching area behind Buhlow and parts of ” Central”. The “study” was intially funded as donation from Mrs . Peggy Bolton the last person who would be a Confederate revanchist. It is a development story which crosses decades with new personalities and new motivations.. The Forts never saw the first use and only casualty a poor bloke firing a cannon in practice. The museum excellent display of 1864 military campaign. Any one seeing 12 years a Slave knows the awful history of slavery never fully honestly addressed. Ask any current German citizen about Nazis and WW II and see how they react. They respond that’s all you Americans seem to know about German history !I think the Museum at the Forts a perfect place to create the first permanent exhibit on slavery in Cenla in all its terrible statistics and impact.Nothing ever happened at the ” Forts” certainly not a Confederate victory. And once the new bridge finished , that will be a huge recreation area available to the public regardless its history.

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