Dedicated in 1912 and included in the Federal Register of Historic Buildings, the Calcasieu Parish Courthouse has been a fixture in downtown Lake Charles for more than 100 years.
The stately old courthouse was the site of several high-profile trials over the years including that of Toni Jo Henry — who was tried three times before being convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Joseph P. Calloway. She was 26 when she was killed on Nov. 28, 1942, and is the only woman to die by electric chair in Louisiana, taking her last breaths in the basement of the courthouse.
There's something else that makes the courthouse stand out — the South's Defender's Memorial Monument — a statue on the manicured front lawn that has oftentimes been the focus of criticism by some over the years.
The Calcasieu Parish Police Jury rebuilt the courthouse after the previous structure was destroyed by the great fire of 1910 in downtown Lake Charles. All these years, the statue has graced the expansive front lawn.
The monument was dedicated on June 3, 1915, to recognize local veterans who fought in the Civil War, along with other soldiers from various towns in the South.
Now, after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer and protests against racism around the country, the monument has become a focus once again and there are renewed efforts to have it removed.
Mayor Nic Hunter, Judge Ron Ware, attorney Todd S. Clemons, the Rev. J.L. Franklin, and others, say it's time for the statue to be taken down and possibly moved to a museum or other place. None of them are asking for the monument to be destroyed.
Clemons recently placed a full-page ad in the American Press, calling it a "Justice and Human Rights Blueprint: Calcasieu Parish." The blueprint had sections on police reform, criminal justice reform, citizenry, news media, economic equality and the monument.
Regarding the statue, Clemons said, "The Confederate Monument must be promptly removed from the grounds of the 14th Judicial District Courthouse. It's a symbol of oppression and a celebration of racism. It's not a symbol of ‘Justice for All' and it doesn't deserve a place near the Halls of Justice. Being on Ryan Street in downtown, it sits on the ‘front porch' of our city. We're better than that!"
Hunter said over recent weeks he has "tried to do more listening than talking and has sought wisdom and advice from people he respects."
In doing so, Hunter recently announced he feels the South's Defenders Memorial Monument should have no place on the lawn of the Calcasieu Parish Courthouse.
"In the year 2020, a courthouse lawn is not the place for this monument," Hunter said.
The statue is dedicated to the memory of Southwest Louisiana's fallen Civil War soldiers.
"The Civil War was one of this nation's bloodiest conflicts, leaving death and destruction on so many fronts," Hunter said. "For some, acknowledging those who fought and died is a very personal and altruistic matter. Likewise, for many citizens, the statue represents a painful chapter in our history, and its existence on a public square acts as a daily reminder about a bygone, unjust era and a lingering racism."
Franklin, president of the Southwest Louisiana Coalition for Action, said Hunter's announcement was a "bold and courageous statement from a public official."
"This shows someone else is listening to the concerns of African Americans," Franklin said. "We have exceptional respect for Mr. Hunter making that stand."
While they and others have spoken out and want the statue removed, there are some who are just as passionate about wanting it to remain.
Candace Britt Fontenot, a local resident commenting on a social media post about the matter, said, "We should at least be able to vote on the removal or not. It should not be left to one group to decide what's appropriate for our city."
In the same thread of comments on that post, Jackie LaCombe Miller said, "How long has it been in front of the courthouse and it's now bothering people. Leave the statues alone. You can't take history away. What's next?"
David Triche said removing the monument won't accomplish anything.
"It's been there for 100-plus years and now you want to remove history?" Triche asked. "What's next, the Vietnam monument? World War II monument? The cannon on the courthouse grounds? Erasing history at its finest. It takes the Police Jury and we the people, not the mayor! Leave the monuments alone. It will not improve anything but repeat history."
Shawn McDonald put his thoughts in a letter to Ashton Richard, his police juror, and said he mailed it to him this week.
The letter said, in part, "I understand there is a lot of controversy surrounding the Confederate monument standing on the courthouse grounds. I wholeheartedly endorse it staying right where it is. Bowing to the mob in times like these and destroying the work our forefathers did to beautify our city with such things, just can't be condoned. In 1915 when the monument was placed, the Civil War was as fresh in the minds of our ancestors as the Vietnam War is in ours today. Endorsing the removal of the monument would only embolden future mobs to try and remove any memorial to a war they didn't agree with."
In closing, the letter said, "I represent that we are not the destroyers of the past. We are not that sort, to destroy things we don't agree with. I beseech you to stand firm, and vote to keep the monuments where they are and protect our heritage. In the end, we're all brothers and sisters of the United States of America."
Some people, like Wade Rasbeary, believe the issue is one that needs to be voted on by the citizens.
"This should be put on a ballot for the whole parish to vote on," Rasbeary said in response to a social media post about the issue. "This decision doesn't need to be made by a handful of people, period! Wondering if this mayor even knows the full history of the statue. Did he have family that died in the war? Again, let all the people have a say. Put on a ballot. Majority rules."
Daniel Johnson said learning from history is an important start toward creating change.
"We cannot give in to the weak-minded idea that taking down these historical monuments is gonna change anything," he said. "This is history and we cannot go back and change it. We can reflect on it and try to change the future; not the past. We must not repeat the past mistakes but we must be reminded of them without being offended."
Jana West has tried to see both sides of the monument issue.
"Even though the past was painful in ways I'm not sure any of us could understand, this is part of all of our history and how we all came to be the people we are now, living together free and as neighbors," West said recently in commenting on a social media post about the monument.
"This (monument) does have to do with black history, southern history, all of our history," she said. "Should we really try to erase it? We have all come a long way together. These monuments can serve as reminders that the past is real and we all have grown towards something greater!"
The heated debate continues for now, with strong voices on both sides of the issue. But it remains to be seen whether the controversy will result in the statue being taken down and possibly relocated.
The Calcasieu Parish Police Jury would decide whether the monument should be removed. It was last considered in 1995, when a committee agreed it should remain on display. Police Jury President Tony Guillory recently released a statement saying that police jurors are "in a period of active listening" regarding the monument.
Guillory asked residents of Calcasieu Parish to "display a mutual respect for differing opinions" on the monument.
"We ask for everyone's support in our efforts to address this matter in a sincere and meaningful way," Guillory said.