BY PETER ROBBINS
The deadly violence sparked by an effort to remove Robert E. Lee from one of his pedestals in Charlottesville, Va., this summer has prompted renewed debate here in Western North Carolina about what to do with our own towering salute to white supremacy — the Vance Monument.
As one who lives outside the city, I realize that I have but so much standing to opine about how its most important civic space should be used. Nonetheless, the mayor has asked for ideas, and so I offer the following suggestion — to which some will no doubt say I have devoted an appropriately limited amount of thought.
First off, let’s agree that anybody with an ounce of decency must feel a bit embarrassed that Asheville has given its top award for excellence to a man like Zebulon Baird Vance — a slaveholder; a Confederate officer and governor who took up arms against his country in support of an ignoble cause; an unrepentant racist who could be counted on to use his oratorical skills to whip up hatred toward African-Americans whenever his party called; and a political opportunist who dedicated his public life to returning the freed slaves, to the extent he could get away with it, to a condition of servitude long after The Rebellion was over. That part of the man’s legend should be well-known by now.
But even when he tried to do something admirable, Vance always found a way to let his racial animosity mess it up.
For instance, his frenetic push to complete the Western North Carolina Railroad in the late 1870s had economic benefits for our region, to be sure, but it relied on a prisoner workforce made up almost entirely of African-Americans — most picked up on vagrancy charges and the like — a cynical system that differed little from “the coerced industrial labor system of slavery,” as historian Gordon B. McKinney has pointed out in his masterful biography Zeb Vance: North Carolina’s Civil War Governor and Gilded Age Political Leader. When 125 of those involuntary workers died, the official explanation was that blacks from eastern North Carolina were not used to mountain winters. Well, OK then. Who knew?
Or consider the essay endlessly dusted off as proof of Vance’s enlightened side — a ponderous oratory called “The Scattered Nation.” On page after page, Vance urged fellow Southerners to eschew discrimination against Jewish people (so far, so good), but not because they were human beings entitled to equal rights. No, the punchline was that respect was due because their history and cultural achievements made Jews, in contrast to the descendants of African savages now coddled by pernicious Reconstruction laws and partisan courts, almost as white as Christians. Such a mensch. You can see why folks liked him so much.
And let’s have no whimpering about how our boy’s race-baiting was merely a product of his times. Nobody forced him to demonize blacks. The career of his opponent for governor in 1876, Judge Thomas Settle of Rockingham County, in many ways paralleled Vance’s to that point in history, and yet he and the Republicans of the day managed to stand up for the political rights of African-Americans. For a while, anyway; nothing lasts forever.
So we can’t pretend the Vance Monument doesn’t pay homage to North Carolina’s foremost champion of white supremacy — a man who can be admired as a hero only by placing so little importance on racism as to render our own values suspect.
But that still leaves the question of what to do.
The simplest fix would be to leave the 75-foot obelisk where it is and rename it after some person, group, event or cause actually worthy of honor. But some people immediately will object that so drastic a step would erase the great man from our history entirely, leaving only Vance Gap Road; his Weaverville birthplace spread; a museum at his Statesville house; a statue in the U.S. Capitol; a statue in the state Capitol; an administrative building and a portrait at the UNC Chapel Hill; and the names of one county, two towns, at least two public schools and a battleship to keep his memory alive. Let’s not get carried away here.
Another alternative would be “recontextualization” — which has the distinction of being both a ridiculous word and a terrible idea. What people — mainly historians — mean when they propose to recontextualize the monument is to leave the dedication in place but add a plaque or something explaining why we’re ashamed of the guy and wish he were someone else. Well, forget that. You don’t invite someone to be guest of honor at his retirement dinner and then berate him for his table manners, no matter how rough they are. That’s just impolite.
“Reconceptualization,” on the other hand — now there’s a word I just made up that points us in the right direction and brings me, at last, to my proposal.
Step one: Restore the obelisk to its original grandeur by getting rid of all the rubbish that has been allowed to pile up over the years at its base, i.e., the fawning plaques, the statues of confused pigs and turkeys heading north, instead of south, on the Buncombe Turnpike, and that hideous Lee tribute (more of a taunt, if you ask me) which depicts a lonely Marse Robert wandering around on his horse in absent-minded search of his Lost Cause. Letting junk like that accumulate in the front yard just reinforces unfortunate regional stereotypes.
Step two: Admit that Vance, for all his faults, at least did something right by promoting education from time to time, and if folks want to honor him for that, hold your nose and leave his name on one side of the monument’s base. But change the other three sides to recognize more praiseworthy people who made contributions to education at subsequent moments in our history. Choose figures who symbolize progress from segregation to integration to empowerment, and make sure African-Americans, for once, are represented. (Isaac Dickson, Asheville’s first black school board member, comes to mind, but I’m sure locals can think of others.)
Step three: To accommodate the slow people who still haven’t gotten the point by now, add a marker explaining what the old monument was, how we came to realize our sentimental mistake and why we added new names to symbolize something better. Start with the fact that human beings were once sold at the courthouse near this site to malefactors like Vance and go on to describe how we eventually learned more civilized ways of treating people. You know, with the help of schools and teachers and books and such.
This way, no history gets erased. In fact, we get four times the heroes in the same space. And Vance still gets what he deserves. Come to think, it might be especially fitting — in a Greek myth sort of a way — to make the fellow share the neighborhood, in eternal perpetuity and on a basis of complete equality, with one or more African-Americans he refused all his life to recognize as peers.
My compromise may not be ideal, of course. A case could be made for just knocking the old vulture from his perch the same way Yale University recently shooed John C. Calhoun off one of its colleges. But we pragmatists must be wary of making the perfect the enemy of the good enough. A historical tribute that gets three-quarters of the way to respectability is better than nothing.
For a Confederate monument, it may even be a record.
Peter Robbins is a retired lawyer who lives near Marshall.