“I hope we can get to a unanimous vote on this because of the message it will send our community,” said Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara minutes before a June 16 vote by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners to decide the fate of several Confederate monuments in downtown Asheville.
“A message that we are ready to turn the page, that we are ready to heal, that we are ready to stand shoulder to shoulder in this work — and perhaps above all, that we are ready to do more than remove monuments and replace them,” Beach-Ferrara continued. “We’re ready to tackle the really critical policy questions that get to the structural inequities that haunt our community and that simply don’t need to.”
But when the votes were tallied, the board sent a decidedly different message. Commissioners remained divided along partisan lines: Beach-Ferrara and her three Democratic colleagues voted to remove the monuments, while Republicans Joe Belcher, Anthony Penland and Robert Pressley voted against the move.
Pressley, who is running against Democrat Brownie Newman to become the commission’s chair, seemingly dismissed the overwhelming tide of public comment asking the board to take action. Earlier in the meeting, Beach-Ferrara reported that the commissioners had received 549 email or voicemail comments in support of monument removal, with only 19 comments asking for the markers to remain.
“Yes, there was more to take it down, but that was because of what was publicized: ‘Hey, let’s everyone get together.’ We know how people post and paste on here,” Pressley said. “Half of these people, or probably more than that, that wrote in here really don’t even know about that monument, what it really — we have people that read the headlines. And I’ve always said, that is what I dislike about the media the most.”
Meanwhile, Penland objected to being left out of earlier consultations between the board’s Democrats and Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer regarding the resolution’s scope and wording. Asheville City Council had unanimously passed a similar resolution regarding the Confederate monuments on June 9.
Penland also suggested that changes to the Vance Monument in particular would not help Buncombe County address issues of racial justice. “You want to repurpose the Vance Monument? Put a 65-foot cross in the center of downtown Asheville, because the only way we’re going to heal this land is to look to our almighty God and pray to him that we change people’s hearts,” he said. “I don’t look at that monument for my values: I look upward.”
And although Belcher noted he “would not disagree that [the resolution] would be a start, a movement that something was being done,” he said that removing monuments wouldn’t fix the county’s inequities. Instead, he remained focused on opportunity gaps within county and city schools and said the commissioners needed to have deeper discussions about change.
“I’m not going to defend anybody. I don’t know the history of Vance. It really doesn’t matter; it’s what it represents, and I get that people are concerned about that and hurt by that,” Belcher said. “But I don’t think that the way this is written and I don’t think this is the answer, and for that, I’m not going to be supporting it.”
Democratic Commissioner Al Whitesides, the board’s only Black member, agreed with Belcher that the Confederate monuments were of only symbolic importance. But having lived with the monuments since his time as a student at Asheville’s segregated Stephens-Lee High School, he continued, change to those public symbols was well past due.
“What we’ve got to stop doing is passing that 800-pound gorilla down from generation to generation, and by that, I mean racism,” Whitesides said. “We got to deal with it. It’s going to be some uncomfortable conversations, but we’ve got to have them.”
With the passage of the resolution, the United Daughters of the Confederacy has until Monday, Sept. 14, to remove a monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Col. John Connally in Pack Square Park and one to the 60th Regiment of N.C. Confederate solidiers near the county courthouse. Asheville and Buncombe County will also establish a joint task force to make “a recommendation regarding the removal and/or repurposing of the Vance Monument” within three months of being appointed.
The resolution also calls for the Vance Monument to be immediately “shrouded in order to reduce its impact on the community and to reduce the risk of harm it presents in its current state.” As of press time, the 65-foot granite obelisk in Pack Square remained visible.