A city landmark. A place to celebrate and protest. A symbol of trauma and abuse.
Asheville’s Vance Monument is seen as many different things to many different people — but soon, it won’t be seen at all. On Dec. 8, Asheville City Council voted 6-1 to move forward with the removal of the downtown obelisk, which memorializes Confederate Gov. Zebulon Vance.
Since August, the volunteer Vance Monument Task Force have met weekly to determine the monument’s fate, explained Oralene Simmons, task force co-chair. The team, jointly appointed by the city and Buncombe County, held engagement sessions with community members most impacted by the marker’s presence and read through over 1,000 emails, texts and voicemail messages as they considered three different options for the controversial monument: removal, relocation or repurposing.
After 12 weeks of deliberations, the task force voted 11-1 on Nov. 19 to recommend the monument’s removal. On Dec. 7, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to accept that recommendation.
“This was hard, laborious work,” said Council member Antanette Mosley, who briefly served as a task force co-chair before her appointment to Council in September. “Based on some of the emails I’ve received, it seems that people have jumped to the conclusion that simply because you are from a certain race, it means you are predisposed to a certain outcome. And your work illustrates that that is not the case.”
When it was time to vote, Mosley led the charge. “As the descendant of those enslaved in this area and very likely auctioned off at that very spot, it is with great pride that I move we accept the task force recommendation,” she said.
“In the same spirit, I second that,” echoed Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith, who had been elected to that post by her colleagues earlier in the evening.
Sandra Kilgore, new to Council as the top finisher in November’s election, was the only member to oppose the task force recommendation. In her remarks, she explained that repurposing the monument was more likely to bring an already divided community back together.
“This monument represents a dark time in our history, but it was our history,” said Kilgore, who is one of Council’s three Black members alongside Mosley and Smith. “Maybe we could find some type of consensus to come together and build on that history, where we could actually change the complexion and make it a monument for all people with inclusion and equity.”
Although ultimately voting to accept the recommendation, member Gwen Wisler shared concerns about the potential cost of removal and the current lack of any plan for what might go in the monument’s place. “I’m concerned that this might become the Pit of Despair all over again,” she said, referencing a much-disputed city property at the corner of Haywood Street and Page Avenue.
And Council newcomer Sage Turner noted that in all of the comments she received in the lead up to the vote, not one community member had advocated to leave Vance’s name on the monument. “There wasn’t any momentum I received that wanted to continue to pay homage to this particular individual and that history. I think that alone is in itself the community coming together, and it’s a great first step,” she said.
Initially, Council had only planned to hear a report on the task force’s recommendations without taking a vote or public comment. A last-minute agenda change, announced by Mayor Esther Manheimer at 5:30 p.m. the night before the meeting, brought the item to a vote “to try and mirror the process the county was using,” she clarified.
The city and county will now work together to determine the next steps, including the costs and logistics for removal. The task force has identified several alternative funding sources, including The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Monuments Project, though a cost estimate has not been drafted.