CJ Hunt’s powerful new documentary The Neutral Ground chronicles the sound and the fury over the removal of four Lost Cause monuments in New Orleans and reminds us why that represented only a first step in reclaiming the city’s built environment from the vandalism of white supremacy.
In 1836, the federal government concocted a Solomonic scheme that split New Orleans into three separate municipalities: Two majority-Creole and Black cities and, sandwiched in between, a city for “Americans,” which was understood to mean the non-Gallic, primarily Irish and German, Anglos who surged into town after Napoleon sold the real estate to Thomas Jefferson. It was literally known as “the American Sector.”
The entire, 15-year experiment in urban master planning and racial reshuffling was preposterously inefficient, but in some respects, it achieved its objective.
New Orleans was once the largest slave market in the nation. All told, more than 135,000 human beings were bought and sold in New Orleans. According to the 1830 Census, one out of every three residents was enslaved.
But the brutalities and indignities of the city’s thriving slave trade, which largely served the economic interests of wealthy White planters from North and Central Louisiana, often obscured the complicated racial dynamics that were unique to New Orleans. The 1830 Census also revealed that one out of every four New Orleanian was a free person of color, known then as gens de couleur libres, a term that specifically applied to people of mixed-race ancestry, African and usually either French or Spanish. Combined, free and enslaved people of color comprised more than 57% of the city’s population.
“The free people of color had accumulated considerable wealth and were famous for their skilled labor throughout the city,” explained Amy R. Sumpter, then a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University and currently an Associate Professor of Geography at Georgia College, in a 2008 essay titled “Segregation of the Free People of Color and the Construction of Race in Antebellum New Orleans.” “Free people of color outnumbered whites in percentage of skilled labor and worked in many professions including carpentry, cigar making, masonry, shipping, embalming, hairdressing, nursing, and midwifery.” (You can download Sumpter’s essay here).
Some free people of color became prosperous enough to purchase slaves, often, it’s worth emphasizing, as a way of keeping families in tact and protecting relatives and children conceived out of wedlock.
The upward mobility and social acceptability of free people of color (whose descendants are now defined, at least in Louisiana, as Creoles) were a consequence of French and Spanish colonial policies which “created an atmosphere of racial openness in Louisiana and particularly New Orleans that stood apart from much of the rest of the South,” according to Sumpter. It also was in stark contrast with the prevailing racial attitudes of Anglo-Americans, who now sought to reify their white supremacist beliefs into the legal, cultural, and physical structures of the Great Southern Babylon of New Orleans. As we now know, 1830 marked the end and not the apotheosis of the “Golden Age of the Free People of Color.”
A decade after splitting the city into three, delegates to the state constitutional convention voted to move the seat of Louisiana state government— “the hotbed of the aristocracy”— out of New Orleans, then the third-largest city in America, and upriver to the fledgling military outpost of Baton Rouge, a town of fewer than 3,000 people.
Today, the decision to relocate the state capital is often explained playfully as being based on a desire to leave the “sinful” New Orleans, but in truth, it is merely yet another example of the ways in which a comparatively small contingent of wealthy Anglo-Americans established legal and physical barriers to prevent the cultural and political influence of racial and ethnic minorities.
In her essay, Sumpter provided this helpful chronological table summarizing the “major legislation passed after 1803 affecting social and spatial segregation”:
By 1860, Whites comprised a staggering 85% of the city’s population, as free people of color abandoned New Orleans for more hospitable locales in the North and abroad. This infographic from the Data Center charts the city’s population from 1721 to 2010:
During the Civil War, the swift surrender of New Orleans to Union forces on May 1, 1862 largely spared it of the kind of economic ruin and infrastructural devastation that befell other Southern cities, and Reconstruction saw Black and Creole New Orleanians begin to reclaim cultural influence and social prominence and gain political power for the first time.
Of course, these gains were promptly and cruelly reversed during the Jim Crow era. Indeed, throughout the 20th century, officials at every level and in every branch of government continually enacted policies and laws that exclusively benefited Whites— legally, politically, and financially— to the detriment of racial minorities.
There’s a reason, however, I wanted to emphasize the post-colonial, pre-Civil War era. If you’ve ever spent some time in New Orleans, particularly during Mardi Gras, you may have heard locals refer to “the neutral ground.” The term is a toponym for what the rest of the country calls a street median, and as Tulane’s Richard Campanella explains, its origins trace back to a colonial-era territorial dispute in between the Calcasieu and Sabine rivers, near the present-day Texas-Louisiana border.
In New Orleans, the term was adopted years later as a way of identifying a section of the city’s most prominent corridors. I’ll let Campanella elaborate, quoting from an essay he wrote for 64 Parishes:
In 1836, when Creole-American ethnic rivalry came to a head, authorities reached into the tool bag of political geography for a solution: by re-drawing jurisdictional lines to subdivide New Orleans into three semi-autonomous municipalities, each with its own council, police, services, schools and port, united under one mayor and a general council.
The drawing of municipality lines entailed an overlaying of ethnic geography upon urban geography. The Creole-dominated French Quarter and Faubourg Tremé would become the First Municipality, and would be divided from the poorer Creole and immigrant lower faubourgs (Third Municipality) by prominent Esplanade Avenue. Heading upriver, the First Municipality would be separated from the Anglo-dominated Second Municipality by 171-foot-wide Canal Street.
A system designed to ameliorate intra-urban antagonism, however, ended up only reifying it. Municipalities competed for scarce resources, and costly municipal services all had to be in triplicate. Most of the rivalry played out between the densely populated First (mostly Creole) and Second (mostly Anglo) municipalities, on either side of Canal Street and its spacious median.
One rainy morning in January 1837, a new newspaper hit the streets of New Orleans. It was named The Picayune, and it was published in English by Anglo-Americans from an office on the Anglo side of Canal Street. Apparently those rains continued all winter, rendering Canal Street one muddy mess—enough for The Picayune to gripe about the problem repeatedly. On March 11, 1837, it wrote, “ ‘The Neutral Ground’ — This fair portion of our beautiful city is becoming daily … an object of deep interest. A large number of emigrants from the neighborhood marshes have settled on this territory. We suppose they intend laying it off into lots, and giving it the name of Frog Town…. Canal street — it is to be called by the above name in the future.”
This is among the first clear published uses of “neutral ground” to refer to Canal Street’s median, and while a direct link to the circa-1806 usage might be difficult to make, it stands to reason that locals would reach into their local vocabulary and, with tongue in cheek and a fair dose of irony, pull out a familiar term which accommodated a comparable local situation. Note that the anonymous writer put the term in quotation marks, implying it was familiar enough to go unexplained, yet new enough to warrant conscientious punctuation.
The Neutral Ground is also the name of a new documentary film by Cecil “CJ” Hunt, chronicling the two-year battle over removing four Lost Cause monuments in New Orleans and premiering in the city later today at the Orpheum Theater as part of this year’s New Orleans Film Festival.
The first thing you need to know about CJ Hunt is that he’s legitimately hilarious. For the past four years, he worked in New York as a Field Producer for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, so perhaps it’s not too surprising that he has a knack for figuring out how to make an audience laugh even when the story being told isn’t all that funny.
The Neutral Ground, believe it or not, is at least one-part comedy. Of course, it’s easy to to laugh at the absurdity of those passionately defending four New Orleans lawn ornaments. But this isn’t a mockumentary; its subject matter is deadly serious.
CJ spent nearly a decade in New Orleans, a pivotal decade, moving to the city in 2007, shortly after earning a degree from Brown University, the same year that another young Brown graduate traded his job on Capitol Hill for one on the fourth floor of the State Capitol in Baton Rouge.
But unlike Bobby Jindal, CJ Hunt came to serve those most in need.
He’d been recruited by Teach For America, one of 115 newly-minted college graduates who committed to a two-year teaching gig in a city that was only beginning to pick itself up after the devastation caused by the Federal Flood in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He spent his first year teaching Language Arts at the Arthur Ashe Charter School in Gentilly and his second as a “reading specialist” at the Samuel J. Green Charter School in Uptown.
Although there are legitimate criticisms of the decisions that resulted in a surplus of job openings in schools all across Orleans Parish, there’s also no doubt that young people like CJ, in our time of need, heeded the words of President Kennedy and asked not what their country could do for them but what they could do for their country.
Hunt decided to stay put in New Orleans, landing another gig in public service as the Assistant to the Chief Defender at the overstretched and woefully underfunded New Orleans Public Defender’s Office. He spent three years in the job, learning about the city through the experiences of its most marginalized and most vulnerable.
In his spare time, he dabbled in stand-up comedy, and it didn’t take too long before he became immersed into the city’s comedy scene. He started teaching improv classes through a local theater company (he left more than five years before the company imploded after a performer came forward with accusations that its owners mishandled her complaint about a sexual assault that occurred in their home). Eventually, he landed a fellowship with the New Orleans Film Society, and in 2013, he co-created and co-stared in “Sunken City,” an acclaimed comedy web series that “unlocks a hidden world of [New Orleans] gutter punks, old money aristocrats, wide-eyed transplants, pirate people and countless other schemers and dreamers.”
I mention CJ’s background not only because his personal experience, as a biracial American, informs his movie, but also because I recognize that in New Orleans there’s always been a tension between appropriating and documenting the stories of its people, its culture, and its history. Hunt approaches his film from an informed perspective, but he is earnest and honest about the questions to which he doesn’t know an answer and the perspectives he’d never previously considered.
In late June, only a few days after The Neutral Ground premiered in the Tribeca Film Festival, I spoke for more than an hour with Hunt via Zoom. Initially, I’d hoped to publish a review of the film in advance of its nationwide debut on July 5 on PBS, as a part of its POV series, but our conversation was far more expansive and illuminating than I had anticipated. (After all, I lived here during the whole fracas and covered the story extensively on the Bayou Brief).
Instead of writing a standard movie review (five stars, by the way), I decided to tackle some of the questions that the film provokes and leaves unanswered. No, I am not referring to questions from those concerned about the ultimate fate of the monuments to Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis, and the so-called “Battle of Liberty Place,” which, to the best of my knowledge continue to be housed inside of a city warehouse facility at an undisclosed location, nor am I referring to questions about the future of Lee Circle.
The Neutral Ground challenges us to contemplate the complicated task of not only reclaiming the built environment of New Orleans from the vandalism and the fascism of white supremacy but also reclaiming the historical narrative from Lost Cause apologists and political propagandists, bad actors who care more about stoking racial fear and maintaining privilege than about accepting historical truths or constructing a civil society that truly values equality and justice.
Hunt decided to make the film after attending (and recording) one of many public meetings in which residents were provided an opportunity to comment on Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposal to enforce Chapter 146 Art. VII Sec. 146-111(b)(1) of the City’s Code of Ordinances. This is where he begins the film as well, stitching together footage from the local government access television channel of the parade of supporters and opponents of the city’s four most notable and pernicious tributes to the cult of the Lost Cause.
Landrieu’s administration outlined the process for the removal of the four monuments in a letter he sent to then-Council President Jason Williams and in a press release distributed by his office on July 9, 2015. “Landrieu today formally asked the City Council to begin the legal process outlined in City Code Section 146-611, which governs the procedure for removal of public property structures that are deemed to be a nuisance,” the press release stated. “In addition to soliciting public comments, the Code also requires the City to receive comments and recommendations from the Human Relations Commission, the Historic District Landmarks Commission, the chief administrative officer, the City attorney, the superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department, and the director of the Department of Property Management. Landrieu also asked that the City’s Welcome Table initiative to help facilitate discussion on the issue.”
For the most part, the people who showed up at City Hall to defend the monuments were, in both style and temperament, entirely different than the militant racists and Confederate fetishists who would later show up in the streets to protest against their removal, even if, ultimately, they were expressing the same opinions.
In the City Council meetings, we meet the local Lost Causers: Genteel, aristocratic, and jejune White people who buy antiques and either live in the same Uptown home their grandparents lived in or in a Jefferson Parish replica. They drink red wine, exclusively, and they’re not slurring their words; that’s just the way they talk. They went to good schools but don’t have a good education. A confederacy of dunces. Like Ignatius J. Reilly, they are more comfortable living in a different century, and like his New Orleans, they have “a certain apathy and stagnation” that most of us would “find inoffensive.” They weren’t there for the cameras though they would happily talk to the newspaper.
Their arguments in favor of the monuments, as documented in the movie and reported at the time in the local press, often centered around nostalgic memories from their childhoods and filial piety for their male ancestors. Sheer sentimentalism. Arguments that typically aren’t expressed as outright racism but as unapologetic entitlement.
There are still plenty of people like this in New Orleans. We meet them in Hunt’s film. But their numbers have been dwindling for decades. For some reason people seem to have a hard time remembering that today’s New Orleans is 60% Black and one of the most liberal cities in America. Every public review committee approved of removing the monuments. The City Council passed Mayor Landrieu’s ordinance 6-1. The City of New Orleans had a perfect record in court, winning more than a dozen decisions in state and federal court upholding that ordinance, including a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the staunchly conservative U.S. Fifth Circuit. Republican efforts in the state legislature to usurp the authority of local officials in New Orleans puttered out. Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser’s love letters to Donald Trump were unrequited. For the first time in his life, Republican state Attorney General Jeff Landry acknowledged that “no viable legal remedy existed” for litigation that would have otherwise benefitted him politically.
The Lost Causers who showed up to protest on the streets were a different sort. They were there for the cameras. You already know these people. They are usually in one of two camps. There are the militant racists—neo-Nazis, klansmen, skinheads, Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, and, as we’re reminded in the film, even before they were galvanized by the ugly violence of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, people who showed up to support Donald Trump. And there are the Confederate LARPers. They’re more an older crowd, more laid back. Their costumes are more elaborate. This is an all-day affair for them, like a music festival or a Renaissance Fair.
Yes, a few of the faces we saw at City Hall also showed up in the streets, but the overwhelming majority of the public spectacle were out-of-towners and tourists.
In the 303-year history of the city of New Orleans, there are a few repeating themes: Floods and fires, public killings and jazz funerals, Mardi Gras and mob violence. Threaded through its history, from its past to its present, are outsiders who seek to impose their will on New Orleans, to force it to change in ways that better reflect their own cultural views than the culture of the city, or to prevent it from governing itself. Sometimes, particularly when it involved local corruption or public graft, the outsiders actually were acting the public’s best interest, but more often than not, they were ideologues. It’s carving out three different cities to concentrate white wealth and, more than a century later, carving directly through the city to facilitate white flight.
It was also what was on display in New Orleans in 2017, and we see it in Hunt’s film. If you had the impression that there was ever widespread opposition to removing the monuments among the actual residents of the city, then that’s because the national media followed this roving hodgepodge of alt-right performance artists and Trump supporters when they came to town on their protest tour. There wasn’t ever any legitimate or a half-organized movement locally. There were just a small handful of petulant rich people who couldn’t buy an audience, the guy who owns Rock ‘N Bowl, and folks from Jefferson Parish or the northshore.
It played out far longer than it should have, but the outrage was manufactured. Lost Causers never stood a chance. The city government had the law and the public on its side.
Nearly two years after Landrieu’s letter to Williams, in the mid-afternoon of May 19, 2017, Robert E. Lee was hoisted from his lofty perch and hauled off in ignominy, but CJ Hunt’s film doesn’t end there. Instead, on a whim, he hitches a ride with acclaimed local photojournalist Abdul Aziz to Charlottesville to document the “Unite the Right” rally. Very quickly, it becomes clear that this is an entirely different experience. The racist hate on the streets in New Orleans looked quaint and farcical when compared with the boiling rage on display in Charlottesville. Despite the differences in outcome, however, the protestors in both places were many of the same people, and the message they were expressing was essentially identical.
I asked Hunt about the juxtaposition between the two cities and why he thought Charlottesville became much more confrontational and violent and, ultimately, deadly. “The [law enforcement] authorities in New Orleans, if there’s one thing they know, it’s crowd control,” he noted.
“What I hope audiences will take away [from the film] is the characters in Charlottesville and New Orleans are the same,” he tells me. “If you are watching these folks who showed up [in New Orleans in May 2017 with shoulder pads, goggles, and helmets and hope to fight to protect Lee, you then see them ten minutes later in the same film showing up in Charlottesville. Even though we are laughing about how ridiculous they look in New Orleans, just waiting around, that was a dry run for what we saw with deadly consequences in Charlottesville. That’s a duality that I want audiences to sit with: That white supremacy is both dumb and deadly.”
Hunt’s film picks back up three years later in 2020 and finds reason for hope. Last year, in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd, which galvanized between 15-26 million Americans to protest in nearly 550 different places and was arguably the “largest movement in U.S. history,” 168 other Confederate monuments and symbols were removed across the nation, a number that includes the renaming of Lee High in Baton Rouge and Lee Junior High in Monroe as well as the rededication of New Orleans’ Jefferson Davis Parkway in honor of the former longtime president of Xavier University and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Norman C. Francis, a change that former Mayor Landrieu first proposed in the same aforementioned letter to then-Councilman and now Orleans District Attorney Jason Williams back in 2015.
Earlier this year, the city of Lafayette, LA, a deeply conservative town led by a far-right Republican who won election by somehow framing the contest as a referendum in support of Trump, removed a monument to Confederate martyr Alfred Mouton that had stood for 99 years in the downtown square across from the Second City Hall building.
These are unmistakable signs of progress, and Hunt’s film ends on a buoyant note above a Black Lives Matter protest in Jackson Square in New Orleans (a place named for a man who ordered the forceable removal of 60,000 members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations from their ancestral lands and a reminder of the ubiquity of white supremacy in the built environment of the fourth largest majority-Black city in America).
As we saw during the Jan. 6 Capitol Insurrection, in which a violent mob of frenzied and furious Trump supporters attempted to overthrow the results of an election that officials in Trump’s own administration found to be “the most secure in American history,” the Lost Causers found another Lost Cause to champion and now another crusade to wage: A fight for control over American history itself, packaged as a ban against the teaching of “critical race theory.”
I asked Hunt what he made of the newly-found outrage over an academic discourse that its critics not only grossly misrepresent but are also defiantly proud of their ignorance on the subject.
“The terms of the debate changed,” he noted, “but the purpose is the same.”
It should be of little surprise that the first recorded use of the old adage “history is written by the victors” by a U.S. politician was from a former congressman from the Confederacy.
But it wasn’t in any speech he gave in support of the Civil War. He said it in 1891.
By then, George Graham Vest of Missouri had gotten himself elected to the U.S. Senate. But he was not acknowledging the North’s victory over the South 26 years before; no, he was arguing that the Confederacy had actually won the Civil War and therefore had also written its history.
Reports of Robert E. Lee surrendering to Ulysses S. Grant after the Battle of Appomattox Court House were apparently “fake news.” To some even today, it still is.