Renaming Robert E. Lee Boulevard for Allen Toussaint seen as a fitting tribute
By Daniel Schwalm, Gentilly Messenger
The city is moving forward with efforts to rename Robert E. Lee Boulevard after local musician Allen Toussaint. Although the name has not yet been changed after it was first recommended by the New Orleans City Council Street Renaming Committee last year, support remains strong for the renaming.
“For far too long, one of the most prominent streets in the city has venerated a traitor who took up arms against our country,” said Councilman Jared Brossett, whose district Robert E. Lee Boulevard runs through. “The name Robert E. Lee invokes memories of slavery and enforces notions of white supremacy and oppression.”
“I cannot think of a better way of honoring Mr. Toussaint than by renaming one of the city’s most prominent streets in his honor,” Brossett said.
Toussaint, who lived on Robert E. Lee Boulevard for many years, was born in New Orleans and had a long musical career in the city as a musician, songwriter and producer. Toussaint also opened a recording studio on Robert E. Lee Boulevard after his previous studio was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The next step for the renaming is to go before City Council for a hearing and a vote. Brossett said he plans “to move on this issue in the near future” and that he hopes his fellow council members will support the change as well. He did not specify when that action would take place.
Support to memorialize Toussaint, who died in 2015, goes beyond the City Council.
“Without a doubt, he’s one of the first people you should name a street after,” said David Kunian, curator of the New Orleans Jazz Museum.
“He was an amazing piano player,” Kunian said. “Beautiful and distinctive. He was one of the best songwriters ever.”
Just within the past week, Toussaint’s “Southern Nights” was officially designated Louisiana’s state cultural song.
Kunian said that Toussaint’s influence on music in New Orleans and around the world can’t be overstated.
“In terms of New Orleans musicians, he’s up there with Fats Domino and Louis Armstrong,” he said.
Toussaint’s legacy stands in stark contrast to that of Robert E. Lee. Lee was commander of the Confederate States Army during the Civil War, fighting to secede from the United States and uphold the institution of slavery.
Like Lee Circle, Robert E. Lee Boulevard was given its name in the late 1800s by supporters of “Lost Cause” ideas who, according to the Street Renaming Commission’s statement, “downplayed the centrality of slavery in motivating the rise of the Confederacy and sought to maintain the centrality of white supremacy in Southern social, economic, and political life after the war” and “sought to promote permanent white control of Black life and labor in the postwar South.”
The Street Renaming Commission also notes that “even the most sympathetic Lee biographers concede that he viewed Black people as inferior to white people, and supported continued white dominance of culture, politics and society after the war.”
While some of the Confederate leaders whose names appear on street signs in city have a connection to New Orlean, Lee may have never even been to New Orleans. The Street Renaming Commission states simply that “Lee had no direct connection to New Orleans.”
Lee Circle, which is also named after him, is slated to have its name changed. The statue of Lee that stood in the middle of the circle was removed in 2017.
The Street Renaming Commission said that Toussaint would be a more fitting namesake for the street because “no one was more responsible for bringing New Orleans music to the world.”
Kunian suggested that everyone, especially in New Orleans, should listen to Toussaint’s music, regardless of the street renaming.
“It’s really great stuff. It’ll make your day better,” Kunian said. “As they say, ‘he wrote the songs that made the whole world sing.’”
Daniel Schwalm is a journalism student at Loyola University and a reporting intern at Uptown Messenger. He can be reached at email@example.com.