It’s hard to miss Asheville’s most controversial landmark: Towering above busy Pack Square, the soaring 75-foot granite obelisk bearing the name Vance emphatically marks the center of the city. During its 120-plus years, the monument — erected in 1896 at the intersection of Biltmore and Patton avenues — has silently witnessed shootouts, parades and protests, been a target of vandalism and inspired its share of controversy.
Some see it as a vital part of the region’s heritage: a tribute to Zebulon Vance, North Carolina’s famed Civil War governor. For others, it’s a bitter reminder of the segregation, white supremacy and violence that spiral through the heart of Asheville’s past like a kudzu vine.
The recent removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans and elsewhere has triggered renewed debate about such issues nationwide. In Asheville, residents, scholars and city officials have once again turned a critical eye on the Vance Monument and other local markers, raising questions as to what they really say about our collective identity — and what should be done with them now.
Hidden in plain sight
After a white supremacist shot and killed nine people in a historically African-American church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, local discussion of Asheville’s Confederate landmarks bubbled up again. (See “Letter writer: Take down the Vance Monument,” April 22, 2016, Xpress; “Letter writer: Vance was a great man who served our people well,” May 6, 2016, Xpress; When Past is Present: Zeb Vance and His Monument, June 25, 2015, Xpress; “Vance Monument Restoration Raises Troubling Questions,” April 8, 2015, Xpress.)
The city of New Orleans’ decision to remove four high-profile Confederate monuments from public spaces around the city earlier this year has only added fuel to the fire: On June 3, the Asheville Citizen-Times ran an op-ed calling for the removal or renaming of Asheville’s prominent obelisk; meanwhile, a series of May and June op-eds in The Asheville Tribune decried such actions as historical whitewashing.
But while the Vance Monument draws plenty of attention, other nearby memorials tend to escape notice. Just in front of the towering obelisk, a small granite marker commemorates the Dixie Highway, Confederate icon Robert E. Lee and Col. John Connally, a Confederate officer who was wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg. And near the courthouse entrance, another smaller obelisk commemorates Confederate soldiers from Buncombe County who fought at Chickamauga and in other Civil War battles.
Sometimes, landmarks can be as subtle as a street sign: Merrimon, Clingman, Patton and other Asheville thoroughfares bear the names of some of the region’s founding families, many of whose members either owned slaves or actively served the Confederacy. “Eighty percent of the [original] street names in Asheville were named after slave owners, largely because James Patton was the person who laid out the street network,” says Deborah Miles, executive director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Diversity Education.
What’s in a name?
As with Vance, these founders’ legacies get complicated when viewed from a 21st-century perspective. “These wealthy families served in local government, pushed to fund improvements in roads, opened stores and hotels to build the tourist economy — and they did so on the backs of slaves,” says Kimberly Floyd, site manager for the Vance Birthplace, a state historic site in Reems Creek where Vance spent the first four years of his life.
Merrimon Avenue, for instance, bears the name of Augustus Merrimon, a notoriously partisan postwar Democratic senator who actively feuded with Vance and summarily dismissed African-American claims of voter intimidation in the South during Reconstruction.
Both Clingman Avenue and Clingman’s Dome are named for North Carolina explorer and legislator Thomas Clingman. Less recognized is Clingman’s use of regional North/South divides and racial partisanship to further his political career before and during the Civil War.
Historical records show that the Woodfin and Patton families, who helped lay the foundations for the bustling city Asheville would become, were the two largest slave-owning families in Buncombe County. Several of their progeny served as Confederate officers.
“History is interesting because the people that make it are complicated and contradictory,” says Floyd. “The most important thing we can do when telling the stories of these influential families is to also tell the stories of the enslaved men, women and children.”
Accordingly, says Floyd, the Vance Birthplace, created in the 1960s as a memorial to a historical figure, now focuses more on educating visitors about life in the mountains during the early 1800s than on the man himself.
Still, Floyd concedes that it’s hard to get out from under Vance’s substantial shadow. Attempts to partner with a number of local businesses and organizations have been rejected, because “they don’t want to work with a ‘Confederate’ organization, even though the site itself has nothing to do with the Confederacy or the war,” she says.
Eye of the beholder
Cultural biases inevitably influence one’s view of men like Vance. Too often, the public tends to simplify controversial historical figures, says Sharon Fahrer, whose Asheville-based business, History @ Hand, offers tours and other services. “We only talk about Zebulon Vance or others in sound bites, but a person isn’t all bad or good,” she points out. “You have to put them in context.”
In the Jewish community, which Vance spoke up for in his famous “Scattered Nation” speech, perceptions of the former governor have evolved over the years, notes Fahrer. “There wasn’t even a mention in the Jewish press when Zebulon Vance died; he wasn’t considered any kind of hero to the Jewish people.”
By the 1920s, however, “You had the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the B’nai B’rith doing ceremonies at the Vance Monument for his birthday. Those are very unlikely bedfellows.”
For many African-Americans, however, Vance’s legacy represents a dark chapter in American history that has yet to be fully addressed. “I understand when white North Carolinians talk about the good things that Vance did,” says Darin Waters, an assistant professor of history at UNCA. “We’re not debating the humanity of someone like Zebulon Vance; we’re only talking about his memory. But I still feel like I’m in the position where I have to fight for the humanity of my ancestors.”
Sasha Mitchell, who runs the African-American history and networking website colorofasheville.net and serves on the African American Heritage Commission of Asheville and Buncombe County, puts it more bluntly. “The only Confederate ancestors I had owned my ancestors and raped their mothers,” she says. “You can remember [Confederate] history — that they wanted to protect their family — but waving that flag and putting up statues in their memory is different than saying you’re remembering your ancestors.”
While it’s easy to get caught up in the auras of the people these monuments commemorate, the historical context in which many Confederate monuments were built is equally important, argues Waters. With the advent of Jim Crow laws and the reimposition of segregation in the late 19th century, “There was a concerted effort to begin to construct a narrative of the history of the South that stayed a certain way,” the historian notes.
Commonly referred to as the “Lost Cause,” this ideology maintains that the Confederacy was not a defense of slavery but a response to draconian interference in the South’s affairs by Northern abolitionists and the federal government. Bolstered by popular 20th-century works such as Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation, the Lost Cause remains a core part of many Southerners’ conception of their heritage.
“It’s no mistake that you can go to any town in the state of North Carolina and find a Confederate monument,” Waters points out. “All you have to do is go to the places of power: the courthouse, City Hall. They’re all there.”
Others maintain that the Lost Cause view is not an attempt to absolve Southerners for slavery but to set the record straight in the wake of politically correct revisionism. “In the last two decades, Confederate flags, monuments, symbols and heroes have come under increasing slander and contemptuous treatment by those who have uncritically accepted the prevailing counterfactual narrative of Civil War history,” historian and syndicated columnist Mike Scruggs wrote in a May 17 op-ed in The Asheville Tribune.
Conflating Confederate monuments with racial prejudice amounts to historical cherry-picking, he argues, particularly when Northerners of that era were just as bigoted. “Most Northern states did not want blacks within their borders, and Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and Oregon had strict laws to enforce this bias,” Scruggs wrote in a May 24 Tribune op-ed. “As an Illinois legislator, Abraham Lincoln fully approved of such laws.”
Waters agrees that racism isn’t specifically a Southern phenomenon, but he disputes the idea that the Confederacy was centered on a heroic defense of states’ rights. “This wasn’t a noble cause when the outcome would have been the continued enslavement of another group of people,” he says, citing Southern Agrarian writer Robert Penn Warren’s book The Legacy of the Civil War. “It was a tragic war, across the board. We’ve built these monuments to glorify it, but there was nothing glorious about it.”
The burden of memory
Some might question the relevance of debating the underlying meaning of events that happened 150 years ago. But for many contemporary Americans, the psychic scars left by the Civil War, and the ensuing battle over how to view its legacy today, are inextricable parts of their identity.
“When you lose a war, there is a pall over your culture,” says state Rep. John Ager. “That’s doubly so when you were defending an institution like slavery that was an anathema to the ideals of freedom and equality.” Ager grew up in Atlanta near the Peachtree Creek battlefield.
Numerous academic studies have confirmed the importance of appreciating one’s family and community history, which can affect a child’s self-worth, confidence and performance in school. “There is a sense of agency when children understand they have a place here, that their ancestors contributed,” says UNCA’s Miles. “Their voice is valued; their ancestors’ voice is valued. It gives a sense of belonging.”
But that’s precisely why some Southerners see calls to remove Confederate monuments as an attack on their heritage. “It’s cultural genocide,” says Kirk Lyons, a Black Mountain attorney who serves as chief counsel for the Southern Legal Resource Center. The organization says it works to defend the rights of “Confederate Southern Americans.” These monuments, notes Lyons, “have been around for over 100 years. They’re part of the heart of Asheville.”
On several occasions, the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center has accused Lyons and his organization of having ties to white supremacist groups. Lyons, however, rebuts those accusations.
“People call me a white supremacist, but I’m nothing compared to these people on the so-called ‘tolerant left,’” he says, likening those advocating the removal of such monuments to the Taliban and ISIS. “The same type of intolerant mindset is driving it. What happened to free association? What happened to free speech? What happened to live and let live?”
Other Confederate heritage organizations, however, worry about being lumped together with white supremacists because of their support of monuments honoring Civil War figures and events. The local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, for example, declined to comment for this article, but its website clearly states that the organization “does not believe in slavery in the past or present” or in “racial superiority, bigotry or hatred” against any group or individual. The site also highlights the group’s charitable work in the community to benefit people of all colors.
While Miles says she appreciates the role such groups play in maintaining cemeteries and honoring the dead, she contends that simply repudiating racial bias doesn’t resolve important concerns about the institutional racism that many Confederate monuments represent.
“If people don’t feel like they act on racist attitudes, they excuse themselves from all the racism that’s perpetuated around us,” says Miles. In Pack Square, she continues, “What does it mean to have three monuments and two historical markers that refer to enslavement and the Civil War and nothing that talks about the contributions of the people who built the railroad, or the construction of buildings, or the fight for equality?”
Stories we tell ourselves
The sheer number and high visibility of such monuments in Asheville also belie Western North Carolina’s ambivalent relationship with the Confederacy during the war. While most Buncombe County residents were solidly Confederate, other rural communities, especially in Madison and Watauga counties, were lukewarm — if not outright hostile — toward the rebel cause. (See “Blood in the Valley,” Jan. 28, 2016, Xpress.)
A couple of miles from the Pack Square monuments, markers in Asheville’s historic Newton Academy Cemetery commemorate local Unionists and Confederates who died in the war. The Confederate monument is easy to spot: a large obelisk near the center of the grounds, flanked by several rows of gravestones inscribed with “C.S.A. 1861-1865.” Dedicated in 1903, the monument is believed to be one of the oldest Confederate markers in the state erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
In contrast, the memorial to Union supporters consists of five nondescript, weathered stones marked simply “U.S. soldier.” The disparity begs the question: What other local history is being overshadowed?
While most Ashevilleans know about Vance, for example, relatively few have heard of Virgil Lusk, a former Confederate who spent his postwar years as an Asheville attorney battling the Ku Klux Klan in the courtroom, in Congress and even in a shootout with local Klan members in Pack Square.
Or how about Lillian Exum Clement, the first woman to serve in a state legislature in the South? Or Newton Shepherd, who became the city’s first African-American to serve on the Board of Aldermen (the equivalent of City Council) in the 1880s?
“You don’t hear anything about Newton Shepherd; there are no streets named for Newton Shepherd,” says Waters. “He’s buried somewhere in Riverside Cemetery in an unmarked grave.”
The monuments to local black history that do exist, notes Waters, are usually confined to historic African-American communities. “That’s great, but they need to be part of the larger city of Asheville as well,” he maintains.
Efforts at equity
Several local neighborhoods and organizations are working to do just that. Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell recently proposed renaming Broadway north of Interstate 240 in honor of Shepherd. “The switch from Broadway downtown to that section is confusing; there aren’t many addresses on that street at this point, so a name change wouldn’t be a big problem,” Bothwell maintains.
Meanwhile, in Montford, Fahrer is busy developing a “museum without walls” — historic panels placed throughout the neighborhood that will help tell the local African-American community’s history. “Are you going to alter history because you don’t like what it says? No! But you can give a much broader perspective on it,” the historian explains. “Let’s talk about making better monuments that people can connect to and interact with.”
Residents along Clingman Avenue and in the River Arts District successfully lobbied recently to change the proposed name of a previously unnamed stream from Clingman Branch to Bacoate Branch in honor of a prominent African-American family from the neighborhood.
“It’s actually named after Osie W. Bacoate, who moved her family into the neighborhood in the 1940s,” says Pattiy Torno of the West End/Clingman Avenue Neighborhood Association. “Her son, Matthew Bacoate, has been a civil rights activist in Asheville for many years and also had the largest African-American-owned business in Asheville’s history, called AFRAM.”
A proposed greenway in what’s now the South Slope will feature historic panels documenting African-American businesses and the people who lived in the area during segregation. Funding for the Bacoate & Town Branch greenway projects is currently in limbo, however, due to higher-than-expected construction costs that forced the city to cut them from its transportation improvement plan for the River Arts District, according to a June 22 Citizen-Times report.
City officials, meanwhile, have charged the African American Heritage Commission with devising a proposal for a new monument that might be placed in Pack Square alongside the others. Mitchell says she’s glad to see the community address the idea, but worries that the focus on monuments may distract from more significant issues.
“Recognizing that history is important,” she points out, “but bigger than that is the struggle of the black community right now. We’re talking about a shrinking number of people who have very little voice or opportunity to stay and grow in Asheville. Any money we raise for [a monument] should probably go elsewhere.”
A capital decision
Bothwell, meanwhile, also has his sights set on removing the Connally/Lee monument from Pack Square. “Lee has no historic connection to Asheville,” he argues. “Asheville must utilize public spaces to reflect the air of the future: equality, inclusiveness, coexistence. It is long past time that we followed in the footsteps of cities such as New Orleans.”
That campaign, however, could run into resistance from Raleigh: A 2015 law requires state approval before any monument can be removed from public grounds.
“I’m embarrassed to have to tell you this, but I don’t think that any of us quite understood what we were voting on” at the time, confesses Democratic Sen. Terry Van Duyn, who voted in favor of the bill. “The debate on the floor was very limited and never mentioned Confederates. I don’t have an opinion about any particular statue, other than I think we need to debate it honestly.”
Ager, who voted against the bill in the House, says he was bothered by its political tone, its lack of regard for the African-American community’s sentiments, and the implications of the General Assembly’s dictating the way local communities remember their past. Nonetheless, Ager says he’s generally opposed to removing monuments.
“Are we trying to sanitize our past?” he asks. “If people once believed ideas I disagree with now, what ideas do I assume to be true that my grandchildren will question? I think present and future generations need to think about the past and consider the political ideas that drove people to action in a different time.”
For his part, Lyons says the Southern Legal Resource Center will continue to fight tooth and nail against any attempts to remove Asheville’s monuments, but he wouldn’t necessarily oppose adding interpretive signage. “If you want to put your stupid little plaque there saying, ‘It’s white supremacy; it’s evil,’ fine. Just leave the damn monument alone!”
So that the future may learn from the past
In 2015, workers renovating the Vance Monument unearthed a time capsule buried beneath the cornerstone in 1897. Among the artifacts it contained were two seemingly incongruous items: a muster roll from Vance’s Confederate Army company and what’s believed to be the only extant copy of The Colored Enterprise, an African-American newspaper.
The discovery, says Fahrer, underscores the monument’s enduring — and evolving — place in the city’s cultural fabric. “It’s like our witness to history,” she says. “If you look at it as not just a monument to that man, then there’s more questions than just taking his name off of it.”
In that sense, Confederate memorials can play a vital role in framing how we view the complex nature of the past, Waters suggests. “These monuments are artifacts of the time period in which they were built,” he explains. “If we use them as such, it’s a lens into what was going on, how that group of people acted. For me that’s a positive, because it enhances our understanding of the past as a fluid thing that’s constantly changing.”
Regardless of what becomes of these landmarks moving forward, Miles believes the current debate is a signal of the broader conversations the community must have with itself. In Latin, she points out, “Monument means ‘to remember and to warn.’ We need to do big-time storytelling about our local histories, and the monuments are a great way to centralize that conversation.”
That sentiment is echoed on the bottom of the 2015 rededication plaque in front of the monument. Underneath the names of people and organizations that contributed to its repair, notes Floyd, “It simply states, ‘So that the future may learn from the past.’ Whether the monument stays or goes, we must use it as a teachable moment.”