After months of debate, planning and input from the community at large, the first piece of the towering Vance Monument was removed from Pack Square May 17.
Demolition of the 123-year-old monument to Zebulon Baird Vance in downtown Asheville is expected to take two weeks, says city spokesperson Polly McDaniel. Costs to take down the structure block by block will reach roughly $114,000, while an additional $25,500 has been allocated for site restoration following the monument’s removal. Sidewalks around the area will remain open, but the surrounding streets will be closed to traffic.
The final decision on the structure came on March 23, when Asheville City Council members voted 6-1 to remove the 75-foot obelisk. “I’ve come to realize that the Vance Monument no longer reflects, and probably never reflected, the values of our community,” Mayor Esther Manheimer said during the meeting, in reference to Vance’s record of racism toward Black people. “I’m looking forward to the day we can have a centerpiece in our city that reflects Asheville today.”
McDaniel says there are no plans to make portions of the Vance Monument available to the public. The Asheville-based demolition contractor, Chonzie, is required to provide the city with a written disposal plan.
Controversy surrounding the monument is not new, but the city’s 2020 protests over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis reignited debate over the structure based on its namesake’s racist views.
Vance was a Buncombe County native, slave owner, North Carolina governor and U.S. senator who fervently supported the Confederacy. In an 1860 speech addressing the U.S. House of Representatives, Vance denounced Northern abolitionists and adamantly opposed emancipation.
“Common sense says keep the slave where he is now — in servitude. … Treat him humanely, teach him Christianity, care for him in sickness and old age, and make his bondage light as may be; but above all, keep him a slave and in strict subordination; for that is his normal condition; the one in which alone he can promote the interest of himself or of his fellows,” Vance said.
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, Vance was arrested by federal troops. Held in prison for just two months, he was released in July 1865 and placed on parole. He was later pardoned in 1867 for his role in the Confederate army, and although initially prohibited from serving in public office due to his past disloyalty to the United States, he continued to be active in politics and argued against civil rights for African Americans.
Vance died on April 14, 1894. Just four years later the cornerstone for a granite obelisk honoring him was laid at Pack Square in downtown Asheville.
Take it or leave it
During demonstrations in June 2020, the monument was repeatedly vandalized, leading city officials to deem the structure “a public safety threat.” Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners then authorized the appointment of a volunteer task force to determine if the obelisk should be removed or repurposed.
In August, the Vance Monument Task Force began meeting weekly to discuss the monument’s fate, explains co-chair Oralene Simmons. The team 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 different options.
Council member Sandra Kilgore, one of the body’s three Black members, was the sole vote against the removal of the monument. She had repeatedly pleaded with her colleagues to consider repurposing instead.
“Asheville’s obelisk itself does not represent the Confederacy. Many of the Confederate statues removed thus far were made in the image of Confederate soldiers, not stand-alone obelisks,” Kilgore argued in a commentary published Jan. 23 in Xpress. “Lifting the monument up and using the power of the obelisk could provide a new narrative that unites us all to create the desired results of unification, equity and inclusion,” she wrote.
As the monument continues to come down, Council is considering possibilities for the future of the site. In February, the Vance Monument Task Force offered ideas for Pack Square in its final recommendations to Council and the Board of Commissioners, including recognition of the Cherokee presence on the site before 1792 and commemoration of the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality.
In April, the city and county entered an agreement to split the $70,000 cost of hiring a consultant to facilitate that revisioning. The process is expected to last through fall and will include a community engagement component, which could begin as early as June, to answer questions about possible replacements and designers for the monument.
Results of that process are expected by the end of 2021. The cost of actually conducting any renovations remains to be determined.