Downtown Asheville’s Vance Monument was dedicated in 1898, decades before anyone on the joint city-Buncombe County Vance Monument Task Force was born. The obelisk’s fate now stands in the group’s hands, and at its first meeting on Aug. 20, member Ben Scales suggested his colleagues should take the long view in their work. “I believe that what happens at the Vance site will have historical ramifications that will outlive us all,” he said.
But the task force has limited time to reach that long-lasting conclusion. Per the joint city and county resolution that established the group, a “recommendation regarding the removal and/or repurposing of the Vance Monument” must be delivered to Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners within three months of Aug. 4, when the final members were appointed.
Local governments established the task force in response to widespread protests calling for racial justice earlier this year. In addition to concerns about disparities in policing and economic opportunity for Black communities, demonstrators also objected to the downtown memorial for North Carolina’s Confederate Gov. Zebulon Vance, a slave owner and avowed racist. For now, the monument is wrapped in a black plastic shroud intended to “reduce its impact on the community and to reduce the risk of harm it presents in its current state,” according to the city-county resolution.
Task force members unanimously appointed Oralene Simmons, a venerable civil rights leader and founder of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Association of Asheville and Buncombe County, and Antanette Mosley, a fifth-generation Asheville native and attorney, to serve as co-chairs. The group plans to meet weekly and gather extensive community input regarding the monument, as well as consult with other governmental advisory boards such as the African American Heritage Commission, Human Relations Commission of Asheville and Public Art and Cultural Commission.
Asheville City Attorney Brad Branham noted that the task force’s final recommendation must fall within the legal framework of North Carolina’s Cultural History Artifact Management and Patriotism Act, approved by the General Assembly in 2015. He said the law placed strict limits on what could be done with publicly owned “objects of remembrance” such as the Vance Monument. (No such limits applied to two other downtown Confederate monuments, owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, that were removed in July.)
The group essentially has three options, Branham continued. The monument could be relocated, but only to a “place of similar prominence” within the same jurisdiction, likely to be interpreted as Asheville city limits. “[Pack Square] sets a pretty high bar for relocation,” he said. “You can’t move it to Montana.”
State law also allows monuments to be altered through renaming or the addition of contextual plaques. But permanent removal can only occur if a government official deems the monument a threat to public safety — a condition, Branham suggested, that may already have been satisfied through the very resolutions that established the task force.
Whatever the group’s final decision, said Simmons, the obelisk should not remain in its current state. “My ancestors were enslaved, and that caused me to take a closer look at the Vance Monument,” she said, recalling her experiences in the segregated Asheville of the 1950s and ’60s. “I would like to be a part of shaping the history and making a change so that others will not have to have that same feeling that I had as a child.”
With additional reporting by Molly Horak