A year after the 75-foot obelisk honoring Zebulon Baird Vance was removed from Pack Square in downtown Asheville, its future remains in flux. Ongoing litigation in the state court system has prevented the disassembly of the base of the monument, which was built in 1898 to memorialize the Buncombe County native, Confederate colonel, North Carolina governor, slaveholder and white supremacist.
Despite the uncertainty of the site’s future, many local historians view the removal as a step in the right direction.
Catching up with Xpress one year later, these experts discuss the weight of the decision and how it impacts the broader community’s understanding of history. Additionally, they share how local historical sites continue to expand exhibits, creating a more comprehensive view of the region’s past. Part of the goal for many historic site leaders, these experts note, is not only to learn from the past but to help create lasting change.
Task force reflections
Katherine Calhoun Cutshall, collection manager for Buncombe County Special Collections and a member of the Vance Monument Task Force, was relieved when Asheville City Council voted 6-1 to remove the Vance obelisk in March 2021.
“The decision felt like a long time coming,” she says. “Discussions about the removal of the monument had been going on since at least 2015, so hearing that Council was ready to take action by forming the task force was encouraging.”
While the City Council vote aligns with Cutshall’s personal beliefs, she stresses that the 12-person committee took its guidance from the community in evaluating whether to repurpose, relocate or remove the monument. Likewise, task force co-Chair Oralene Simmons was elated by the decision. She is also proud of the work that the team did, particularly the research that went into the decision, which included an array of speakers who presented on the history of the monument and Pack Square.
“There’s always that little voice that crept back in my mind of, ‘Did I make the right decision?’” Simmons reveals. “But then I have to think about the history [and] about the intimidation — because I grew up in the era of Jim Crow and injustice within the shadows of the Vance Monument.
“Like every other African American, I have suffered the indignities of America’s racism, but I have always worked to bring people together rather than set them apart,” Simmons continues.
Though she hasn’t sought out individuals who opposed the monument’s removal, Simmons has had numerous conversations with people about the decisions of the task force and City Council.
Now that the obelisk is gone, Simmons views its absence as representative of change. She is hopeful the site’s future use will represent all people in Asheville, even if it’s as simple as a peaceful green space.
Cutshall is similarly eager and feels that the most important next step for the site is gathering community input. Consistent with members of the Vance Monument Task Force turning to the citizenry for advice, she believes that local officials should do the same as they move forward with plans to reimagine Pack Square.
Those efforts are currently underway, according to Stephanie Monson Dahl, urban design and place strategies manager for the city of Asheville. While the N.C. Supreme Court considers whether to hear an appeal of a lower court’s ruling that the city can proceed with the monument’s removal, the city and Buncombe County are moving ahead with a visioning project for a more inclusive Pack Square.
A call for artists will soon be put out for Art in the Heart, a temporary public art program that asks organizations and individuals with ties to the county to consider how Pack Square might better include all people, whether through design, storytelling or programming. As early as mid-June, city staff will request authorization from City Council to move forward on the project.
“The process of planning how Pack Square will change over the coming years is an important opportunity for community healing,” Cutshall says. “The 2-acre plot in the middle of downtown Asheville is the public square of all people in Buncombe County. It’s an important space for community gathering, civic demonstration and a physical space that represents the community at large. Now, we’ve been presented with the unique opportunity to think critically about the story we want to tell the more than 10 million visitors to Asheville and Buncombe County each year.”
Wheels in motion
An associate professor of history at East Tennessee State University and the author of Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains, Steven E. Nash also serves as board president for the Mountain History and Culture Group. The nonprofit provides funding and support for the Vance Birthplace state historic site’s educational initiatives and interpretation.
When a suggestion arose for the Vance Monument to be relocated to the Vance Birthplace in Reems Creek, Nash strongly opposed the idea, saying that doing so would divert from the site’s efforts.“Since the current site manager, Kimberly Floyd, arrived midway through 2016, the staff have been working diligently to implement a more inclusive and historically complete interpretation,” Nash says. “Research into the men, women and children enslaved by the Vances began more than a decade ago, and Ms. Floyd and her staff have brought that information to the public in a variety of ways.”
These efforts include the Appalachian Christmas Carol program, which tells the story of Venus, a woman enslaved by the Vances; the production encourages its audience to make connections between the past and present while looking to the future. Elsewhere, the site’s Juneteenth exhibit prominently displays the names of the 27 people enslaved by the Vance family and tells as much of their individual stories as possible through a self-guided audio tour. Much of that information is also available on the Vance Birthplace’s website.
Simmons has been in touch with Vance Birthplace representatives regarding the site’s upcoming Juneteenth celebration, which she’s excited to attend. She also thinks highly of the staff’s expanded interpretations and emphasis on education — leads that she hopes other area groups will follow.
Nash additionally applauds Floyd’s revision of the main site tour, which now begins in the slave dwelling and incorporates “the experiences of all the people who gave life to that place in the 1830s.” And he points to an exhibit inside the visitor center that explores the evolution of the site’s historical interpretation over the years as further evidence of how the site has evolved and continues to change.
“If anything, I would want people to know that the monument and the Vance Birthplace state historic site are two different entities, and the public should know that the site has been doing great work to highlight all voices and histories related to the state historic site,” Nash says. “That work began before the process of removing the monument, and it will continue regardless of the monument’s future.”
Cutshall says that the Vance Monument’s removal has in no way impacted Buncombe County Special Collections’ mission to collect and preserve the history of Asheville and Buncombe County.
“Archives aren’t typically in the business of historical interpretation, but BCSC did install an exhibit in 2021 called ‘An Incomplete History of Buncombe County,’” she says. “While writing the exhibit, BCSC staff and community collaborators took a ‘whole truth’ approach to storytelling, ensuring that visitors get a more complex and inclusive version of our community’s story.”
Meanwhile, Anne Chesky Smith, executive director of the Western North Carolina Historical Association, views the Vance Monument as an interesting case study on the erection and demolition of monuments in general.
“I often hear the argument that by taking down monuments, we are erasing history. I would argue that by taking down monuments, we are making history,” Chesky Smith says. “Monuments tell us very little about the person or event that they celebrate and much more about [the communities] that erected them and what they valued. In the same vein, removing monuments tells folks in the future what we value today.”
She elaborates that honoring Vance with an enormous obelisk in the middle of downtown communicated with its size and location that the city of Asheville considered — and continued to consider until 2020 — Vance to be very important and worthy of celebrating. She adds that the 2015 restoration and rededication of the monument at a significant cost will prompt future historians to look back with interest at how quickly the city moved from that decision to demolishing it, the significance of that shift regarding how values change and how citizen action can create this change.
“There’s very little nuance to [the monument],” Chesky Smith says. “Vance was a complex figure, and Asheville certainly wouldn’t be what it is today without his influence, but that’s true of many people, and the monument did not help us explore or understand the contributions — both positive and negative — that Vance made to our city or the people who he exploited to make these contributions.”
Instead, she sees programs such as wayside panels, historical markers and walking trails as more effective means of communicating history to the public. She points to the recent placement of a marker about the photographer George Masa across from Pack Square and views Asheville’s Urban Trail and the forthcoming African American Heritage Trail as resources capable of conveying complex histories to the public in ways that can help them understand the larger story of the city’s development.
“It’s important to keep in mind that these markers and trails can still obscure important histories and still reflect what those involved in erecting them value,” she says. “But they generally do contain enough interpretation to help viewers consider our history in a more thoughtful way.”
Allies and inspiration
Chesky Smith also sees the Vance Birthplace’s use of “living history, interpretive exhibits, restored structures and excellent storytelling” as a means of better understanding Vance’s complicated legacy and the time in which he lived. In her work with the Western North Carolina Historical Association, she strives for a similar inclusiveness through an ongoing project, launched in early 2020, to uncover the hidden histories of the people who were enslaved at the Smith-McDowell House, where her organization is based.
“We’ve created a living exhibit that shares everything we’ve learned — including all primary documents — that is freely accessible to the public,” Chesky Smith says. “We hope that making this information available might also help us connect with descendant communities as we look to create a lasting physical acknowledgement of their often overlooked histories, contributions, resistances and lives.”
Additional recent efforts include approving a justice statement that’s available on the WNCHA website; creating a diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion committee; and releasing a progress report. In 2022, the Smith-McDowell House closed for interior renovations but also to prepare for a restructuring of how the WNCHA serves its community at the facility.
“It’s a work in progress, but when we reopen, we hope to be a hub, or first stop, for folks who want to learn about our regional history — where locals and visitors can better understand our diverse history, participate in community programs and engage with others,” Chesky Smith says. “And where we can direct our visitors to other places of historical interest around the region to really help bring history to life for them. But also to take some of the legwork out of discovering historical places of interest and make these spaces more accessible to those who want to engage with historical events.”
She adds that, as a public historian, her job is to interpret history for the public — which often looks at history as a series of undisputed dates and facts, when, in reality, the past is much more interesting than that. But in performing those duties, she’s upfront about the challenges that persist and the efforts being made to branch out and present a more complete record.
“Our more distant history is even more complicated because, rather than having [many accounts], we generally might only have one recorded perspective,” she says. “And in American history, more often than not, that is the perspective of a wealthy, white male, which can really skew what we consider historical ‘fact’ … [which is] why we need historians to help us see our history in all its messy complexity.”
Simmons, likewise, champions telling the whole truth. She also sees this truth with a renewed sense of hope, knowing today’s Black youths and future generations will not have to grow up under the shadow of the Vance Monument.
But getting there, she believes, will take addressing and eradicating racial disparities in law enforcement and education, and electing officials who will see those advances through. Increased community involvement, she continues, is key to making lasting changes, which goes hand in hand with the Black community remembering its past.
“I certainly hope that the future generations will be informed. I encourage them to learn about the history of our community and to realize the sacrifices that so many people people made in order for us to achieve certain things today,” Simmons says. “And I hope that they will not have to suffer the things that we have suffered, because we can’t go backwards. We’ve got to continue going forward.”