Asheville City Council member Keith Young was named after his grandfather, who was born 50 years after the end of the Civil War. His great-grandfather was born in 1888, “right dead smack in the middle of Jim Crow.” His great-great-grandfather was enslaved.
To Young, as he passionately explained during Council’s June 9 meeting, the Vance Monument at the center of downtown Asheville is a symbol of white supremacy, erected to “remind black men and women that whites still have power; they still have control.”
Following Young’s remarks, Council unanimously adopted a joint resolution with Buncombe County to remove two Confederate monuments at the Buncombe County Courthouse and in Pack Square Park. The resolution also convenes a task force to further explore the removal or repurposing of the Vance Monument.
When it was Young’s turn to vote, he dedicated his voice to his family: “For my great-grandfather, aye.”
The 65-foot Vance Monument was erected in 1898 to honor Zebulon Vance, North Carolina’s Civil War governor — and a prominent owner of enslaved people. The monument stands at the former location of the Buncombe County Courthouse, which Council’s resolution identifies as the “likely location where slaves were sold and traded locally.”
In front of the Vance Monument sits a granite marker to commemorate Confederate commander Robert E. Lee and Col. John Connally, a Confederate officer wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg. Near the entrance to the current courthouse sits a monument honoring the 60th regiment of North Carolina Confederate soldiers. Per the resolution, these monuments were “installed in Asheville and many other communities in the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by white Southerners seeking to preserve the Confederacy [and] are widely perceived as offensive and painful public reminders of the legacy of slavery and present realities of systemic racism in our country.”
The resolution has yet to be approved by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, who will hold their vote Tuesday, June 16. If the board passes the resolution, a task force will be appointed to decide the fate of the Vance Monument. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, which owns the two other markers, will be given 90 days to remove those monuments before the city and county take further action.
While symbolic, the decision is not insignificant, said Sheneika Smith, who with Young makes up Council’s African American contingent. She believes the monument removals will jump-start healing from racial trauma in the black community.
“I’m hoping that we’ll see this as equally powerful as it is ceremonial. I think it’s ceremonial in nature, inaugurating the demolition of a lot of the systems that affect blacks in society,” Smith said. “From criminal justice [to] housing, employment and education, the legacy of white supremacy has been there. And it’s time for us to confront those.”
Prior to Council’s vote, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer designated one hour for public comment on the resolution. The overwhelming majority of the 22 people who spoke supported the measure. Many cited Black AVL Demands, a self-described “intergenerational collective of black leaders” born out of the city’s recent racial justice protests, which has demanded the Confederate monuments be replaced with new memorials to “honor the many black Ashevilleans who have built this city.”
“This is an opportunity to show people like me — Latin people of this country, African American people of this country, black people of this county — that we actually stand with them for once,” urged Michael Martinez, who identified as a member of the Asheville community. “As a city, we need to stand for this.”
Some commenters, such as Leslie Anderson, favored repurposing the Vance Monument to serve as an “ever-present reminder of our very difficult, grief-ridden past.” A handful of others, including Rebecca Lilly of Marshall, felt that taking away the monuments would be tantamount to erasing pieces of history. “Removing the monuments and markers will not change the past, but it will enslave future generations in the chains of ignorance,” she said.
But most felt that the realities of the present should drive decisions over the monuments. “The removal of these monuments will only serve as a visual reminder that we are committed to community justice in the city of Asheville,” said commenter Katy Hudson. “Please make this completely superficial gesture to the community as a promise that you will listen to protester demands.”