Like all years before it, 2022 will soon join the past. To celebrate its entry into history, Xpress reached out to three local historians to discuss important happenings from the year.
Featured are: Katherine Cutshall, manager of the Buncombe County Special Collections; Anne Chesky Smith, executive director of Western North Carolina Historical Association (and author of the recent book, Murder at Asheville Battery Park Hotel: The Search for Helen Clevenger’s Killer); and Darin Waters, N.C. deputy secretary for the Office of Archives & History (and co-host of “The Waters and Harvey Show”), who is speaking as an Asheville resident and not in his official capacity.
Xpress: What 2022 local event or community decision will make its way into future history books?
Cutshall: The formation of the Community Reparations Commission. The work of the commissioners to highlight systemic racial injustice, document harm and recommend policy changes will shape the way our community develops for years to come.
Chesky Smith: I agree. The first members of Asheville and Buncombe County’s Community Reparations Commission were appointed in March 2022 to make recommendations that will help repair the damage caused by systemic racism. The work that this commission does has the ability to not only help Asheville residents but also to serve as a road map for other municipalities undertaking similar initiatives.
Waters: I think for many, the response to what key local decision will be remembered in future history books is the decision concerning the Vance Monument. The monument, at least as I understand, was originally gifted in memory to Zebulon Vance — who served the state not only as governor during and after the Civil War but also earlier as a U.S. congressman and later as a U.S. senator. But it has, over time, became a central and representative image of the Lost Cause and white supremacist narrative of the Civil War. I believe people will look back on the period of the monument removal as a time of reckoning with the false narratives we often construct about our past.
Outside of your own work, what 2022 local history project stands out to you the most and why?
Cutshall: The continued progress on the RAIL (Railroad and Incarcerated Laborers) Memorial Project is incredibly exciting to me. In October 2021, the group placed a memorial honoring incarcerated laborers killed on the Western North Carolina Railroad. Since then, the team has continued research by employing the use of dogs trained to find human remains to discover the final resting place of some of the workers. The work that the team of historians, forensic experts and community members has done to highlight the stories of the incarcerated laborers who built the Western North Carolina Railroad has drawn much-needed attention to this often forgotten piece of history.
Chesky Smith: The Buncombe County Register of Deeds launched the story map, “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow: A history of Cherokee land cessions and the formation of Buncombe County,” to document how the land we inhabit was acquired “through violence, oppression, coercion and broken treaties.” This is one of many projects they have undertaken which utilizes historical documents to amplify the stories of people who have been marginalized by these same land deeds.
Waters: Again, I would point to the debate and ultimate removal of the Vance Monument as a pivotal moment in 2022. As we move toward the nation’s commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution, this past year’s happenings around the Vance Monument — which while local was still a part of a much larger state and national conversation — offer us the opportunity to reflect upon whether our nation’s mission has been and remains one committed to the expansion of liberty for all who make up our national body politic. While this and other conversations can be and have been difficult, they are nevertheless healthy and very much needed.
What is one project that you worked on this year that you’re particularly proud of as it relates to local history?
Cutshall: I’m extremely proud to be a part of the Pack Square Plaza Visioning process by providing support as a researcher and an archivist. I love Asheville and Buncombe County, and my passion is sharing our stories. To have the opportunity to do that in a way that will have an impact on the community for years to come is humbling and exciting.
Chesky Smith: For the last few years, I’ve been involved in The RAIL Memorial Project, which as Katherine mentioned earlier, seeks to tell the story of the incarcerated men and women who constructed the railroad into Western North Carolina under brutal conditions. This year, as part of that project, I worked with the Jackson County NAACP on an application for an N.C. Historic Highway Marker to acknowledge the state’s role in the drowning deaths of 19 incarcerated men.
Waters: The work that my friend and colleague Dr. Marcus Harvey and I have done through our radio show and podcast, “The Waters and Harvey Show,” is what I would point to as being key to our local efforts this year. The purpose for starting the show in 2014, was to help facilitate important local conversations around history, memory and the future of our republic. Having reached the milestone of our 100th episode this year, I feel like we have helped to stimulate thoughtful conversation about who — as a community, state and nation — we are and hope to be.