Representatives from three Welcome Table New Orleans groups gathered last week at the Mahalia Jackson Theater to present their ongoing work on racial reconciliation to Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Deputy Mayor Judy Reese Morse, representatives from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, and about 200 members of the public.
Welcome Table New Orleans is an initiative of the University of Mississippi's William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, a program that uses dialogue, writing and thought exercises to get people talking about racial issues. Last year, the Institute started work in New Orleans, with an initial 300 New Orleanians signing up to take part, a number that gradually dwindled to 100 committed volunteers.
The three groups, or "circles," represented different neighborhoods in the city: Algiers, Central City and St. Roch. After each group outlined its progress, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry interviewed members onstage about what the experience was like, particularly opening up about race. In the St. Roch circle, one participant said one of the most enlightening moments of the program was when a fellow participant who is African-American mentioned that he'd been incarcerated for drugs. Another participant, a white woman, told the group she'd been involved in more severe drug-related activities but had never been incarcerated, despite multiple arrests.
The Algiers circle proposed a yearlong project for area youth to interview Algiers elders about the racial history of the neighborhood, then represent the experience through a mural project to be completed under the guidance of Exhibit Be artist Brandan Odums. The Central City circle proposed putting markers of notable community leaders and role models around the neighborhood, while the St. Roch circle proposed a series of four intimate conversations and story circles where residents can communicate openly and share with one another. The circle then wants to share the stories that come out of those conversations throughout the neighborhood and city.
Before the presentations, Landrieu spoke about the importance of racial reconciliation, explaining that the first step forward was acknowledging that "something bad has happened." He did just that, by delivering a formal apology for slavery and New Orleans' role in perpetuating the slave trade. "On this day," said Landrieu, "let me, as the chief executive officer of this government, in this city, that at one moment in history sold more slaves into slavery than anywhere else in America, apologize for this country's history and legacy of slavery." At the end of the program, the mayor said that it's also time to discuss renaming Lee Circle and perhaps removing the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee (see "Toppling General Lee," p. 9). Until 1884, the roundabout had been known as Tivoli Circle.