Can repurposing the Vance Monument help heal the divide in Asheville?

Sandra Kilgore
Sandra Kilgore

BY SANDRA KILGORE

The first recorded obelisks date back to the 11th century B.C., and to the ancient Egyptians, they symbolized the 
sun god Ra. That makes the architectural form 13,000 years old. It symbolized the concept of duality and balance. Obelisks are thought to represent good energy and dispel negative forces. These works of art are known all over the world, and many are located throughout the United States. Among the most notable are the Washington Monument, Cleopatra’s Needle in New York’s Central Park and the Newkirk Monument in Philadelphia. Those monuments will always have a place in history.

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. Asheville is known to be a city of the arts, and the monument represents one of Asheville’s oldest art structures in downtown Asheville.

Many people in the community have strong feelings about our ancestors being sold in a public space, Pack Square. Truth be told, our ancestors were sold — and killed — in many public places, as well as in barns throughout the country. Do we hide our truth, or do we embrace it and use it as a reference to become stronger?

Reclaiming the monument

An alternative is to reclaim the monument, recapturing its positive and inspirational meaning. Over 150 years ago, the Confederacy attached itself to positive symbols. Proponents wanted to give their movement relevance. One symbol they used was the cross — a symbol that is still being used today by white nationalists and white supremacists to intimidate. For decades, our ancestors had to bear witness to the burning of crosses left at the scenes of property destruction, public lynchings and murders of all sorts.

Removing the monument is an emotional and reactionary response, providing an apparently easy answer to a complicated issue. We need to be mindful as to how we show up. The African American community in Asheville is on the radar. Decisions we make may affect other communities.

We cannot avoid the hidden phantom side effects of the desecration of the monument, held so dear by so many. Those effects fall squarely on the backs of Blacks, like many lashes from the past. The scars are hidden beneath the civil courtesy and liberal ideals, while the shirts we wear hide the scars and the bloodstains. For example: when a landlord decides not to rent to a Black family; an employer overlooks a qualified Black employee; or a health care worker offers lesser services to a Black patient. Let’s also address the well-intentioned individuals who fervently support such actions as removing the monument while never experiencing the consequences.

The Vance Monument Task Force was commissioned by Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners to consider removing the monument, born out of a group call arising from the George Floyd protests last summer. But African Americans are not a monolith; just because a group takes a stand on an issue does not mean it is the decision or consensus of the entire Black community.

Black contributions to Asheville

For far too long, African American history has been ignored, forgotten and suppressed. This is an opportunity to educate and to provide a better understanding of the many contributions African Americans have made to Asheville.

Richard Sharp Smith, the supervising architect of the Biltmore House, was the same architect who designed both the obelisk and the YMI Cultural Center. The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area website notes that the YMI was “built by and for the several hundred African American craftsmen who helped construct and furnish the Biltmore House.”

With that being said, I think it is safe to assume that our ancestors played a role in the obelisk’s construction. In 2015, when a time capsule was discovered in the base of the monument that contained The Colored Enterprise newspaper from 1897, I felt proud.

African Americans are not given credit for their contributions to society because many people do not know the history. We have been stigmatized and stereotyped with negative labels. We now have an opportunity to do something special with the monument by honoring those who gave their lives to build Asheville, which includes the railroad.

No one can deny what our people went through. The monument that wears Vance’s name is absolutely a testament to a history of discrimination, which still exists. However, we are doing ourselves a disservice if we are destroying the evidence of our history, and thus, the stories of those who suffered and sacrificed.

A new narrative

Asheville’s history could be told full circle as we address the dark stains of slavery and the impact of urban renewal and institutional racism in the once-robust Black community. 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. The obelisk would provide a platform to begin to have those difficult conversations that bring us together.

Asheville as a city has acknowledged our dark past and chosen not to ignore those injustices and crimes against humanity. Rather than honoring the perpetrators of these crimes, we could honor our ancestors, whose memories would otherwise have been lost. It would be a great opportunity to educate our visitors as well as locals in the community.

We could call it the Unity Tower that is located in Freedom Park. We could create a legacy that will be a centerpiece for our growing city. We could offer a positive road map for other cities all over the country that are dealing with similar issues. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired the human race to strive for harmony. He realized that no man, woman or child is truly free until all men are free.

Asheville native Sandra Kilgore was elected to Asheville City Council in 2020.

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21 thoughts on “Can repurposing the Vance Monument help heal the divide in Asheville?

  1. Emily

    If there is a Unity Tower, I’d sure like to contribute. I can’t think of a city better at transforming things.

  2. Dave

    In these stressful times of social distancing and reduced school sports and socialization, the monument would make a perfect venue for high school bungie jumping events. COVID-SAFE(tm) and NCHSAA approved, high school bungie jumping competition would be a first step back to the numerous social and physical benefits offered by school athletics.

  3. Enlightened Enigma

    There are MANY more important issues that need LEADERSHIP in this ‘city’, Ms. Kilgore. Until Council protects this city by adding more police and
    stopping the vagrancy/addict factor here you are NOT doing your elected JOB !!! CLEAN IT UP !!!

    WHY are so many democrackkk led cities in America in shambles? WHY do democrackkks have NO leadership skills ? SHOW US your difference !!!

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  4. Ginger

    Idea, Let our Black Community rename the Obelisks. I have lived in Asheville and WNC for over 50 years and never known such separation and have loved that very thing about Asheville. Who in Asheville would be stand in front of the Obelisks and apologize for our ancestors? I would be happy to and it would be with my whole heart. The Obelisks has been a part of downtown Asheville where everyone gathered for Bele’ There, Downtown after 5 , festivals. Love you Asheville

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  5. Annie Long

    Wow–this is truly a well-thought out position–Ms Kilgore covers every aspect of the issue, the history, the whole backstory and the controversy. It did not occur to my [sadly] narrow point of view, the reality of repercussions on the black community in the case of removing the monument, as articulated by Ms Kilgore. I thank her for the opportunity to raise my consciousness. I was fascinated to learn the history of the symbolic, awesome shape of the Monument. This is a brilliant, inclusive, hopeful solution, a Unity Tower emerging from the pain and history of the Vance Monument. If not the only way, I think it is certainly the best way forward. I fully support this and will pass it forward. Again, my gratitude to the author and the paper for giving space for her voice.

    • North Asheville

      Agree that Ms. Kilgore’s commentary is thoughtful and thorough. She is an asset to City Council.

  6. theDon

    Personally, I think the monument should be re-purposed to honor the convict labor (which was mostly African-American) that was used so callously used to bring the railroad over the Old Fort Gap into Asheville not so long after the civil war. Many of them who were unjustly impressed lost their lives in this endeavor that so changed Asheville.

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  7. Janet

    Thanks for the article I would like to hear more from the black community. For myself , I hate to see an asheville icon ( which many do no associate with racial discriminatin) torn down . I prefer a lesser cost approach and a more inclusionary vision of our efforts to continue striving for equality,justice and concern for one another..

  8. James

    As important as the Black Community’s voice is in this debate, it is not the only one. The Vance Monument is dedicated – per its plaque — to “Confederate Soldier. War Governor” Vance. Over 120,000 U.S. troops were slaughtered by Vance and his ilk. Descendants of American troops or really any American who claims to support our troops should be appalled. Keeping that monument up would be like insisting we have a statue to the Japanese in Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 hijackers at the Pentagon or World Trade Center and calling it “unity.” If you attack our country and kill our troops you are not now or ever “American.”

    Confederates and their descendant supporters (KKK etc), like the recent Capitol insurrectionists attacked and killed Americans. Why in God’s name are we trying to preserve a monument to that while trying to impeach our 21st century Jefferson Davis? Ms Kilgore calling for unity with those who killed American troops and who enslaved, tortured and killed people based on their race is as bad as the GOP calling for “unity” today by which they mean leave things as they are, don’t prosecute Trump and don’t undo any of the damage they caused. Ms Kilgore is calling for appeasement and we know that has never worked.

    • DavidWNC

      I agree with your conviction that we should not honor those who have caused so much harm to our country – either individuals or groups.
      That said, I think the idea is to “change the plaque” and add what we know now to it. Slavery existed, Vance governed, the Civil War happened and there was incalculable harm done by all them – and, as you put well, “their descendant supporters.” I’m one who thinks there’s value in acknowledging the past and remembering it, albeit with a different attitude.
      Apropos: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

      • James

        We don’t need statues of the 9/11 hijackers at the Pentagon or else we forget 9/11 happened. We don’t put statues of the Japanese pilots on the Arizona because “You can’t forget that this history actually happened.” The attacks on the Capitol didn’t happen because we forgot that the Confederates did the same kinds of things back in the 1860s. We didn’t leave up the “Coloreds Only” bathrooms so that we didn’t forget that happened. I get your point, but HOW we choose to remember our history is more important than simply doing so based on who got their monument up first.

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      • Carol Marty

        I don’t understand why people constantly say keeping monuments will keep us from repeating history. I’d like to have an example of when a monument has kept us from repeating history. We repeat history all the time. It’s the human condition. We move from one type of oppression to another, one type of colonization to another, on genocide and restriction of peoples rights to another. Monuments have not helped.

  9. Carol Marty

    I don’t understand how the public comment process is being totally ignored. There was a several months long process to gather public input, and an overwhelming majority, at least 90% of those who commented, which led to city and county governance votes to remove it. What does this say about whether anyone listens to those who participated in that process? Sounds like it was a huge waste of time to me and total ignoring of citizen comments.
    Why are we revisiting this? Oh thanks for your input, but we’re going to ignore it? Same thing happened with the hotel survey. More than a thousand responders (99% of those who commented) ignored.
    I would love to believe in my governors here but am losing my faith.

  10. Roger

    Ms. Kilgore, I am impressed, and so, so glad you are native to Asheville and now a member of City Council. Your input upon this matter has been so sorely needed. Your vision is perfect for going forward. I’m a native, also. And, yes, the past is an ugly history that requires integrity and wisdom for reconciliation; not “knee-jerk” reactions that sometimes cause the wrong action to be taken. I hope the community will listen and take your thoughtfulness and your wisdom to bear upon this matter before the wrong decision gets carried out and an enlightened vision is lost without evidence that is [or was] here. You would be a great mayor. This community needs the heart and intelligence and the wisdom and grace you bring to the table. I hope the current Mayor has the humbleness and the grace to recognize your good vision; I hope, too, that she reconsiders her past “politically correct” input. Hopefully, the Mayor will work with you to bring what is truly needed to enlighten us and point toward reconciliation and healing. I wish for you the very best. I believe you have a promising future. With all due respect to your colleagues, both past and present, but I haven’t been so excited by a local representative in a long time.

  11. blueridgeguvnor

    The Obelisk is aesthetically pleasing, especially now when so much of downtown is construction projects and graffiti

    Rename it, move on. Name it the Nina Simone Monument or better yet Gladys Knight

    • James

      Should we rename the slave quarters at plantations “orphanages” then? Will calling something built for one purpose by another name really change what it is, was and still stands for?

  12. Paulette McMahan

    Change the name. Dishonor the past. Change the name. Honor the present. Change the name. Create the future. Words matter. Names matter. Changing the name of this piece of our historic reality-this piece of real estate-in the heart of our city says that we no longer stand with a culture of injustice and inequality. Let it be Unity Tower in the Land of the Sky Freedom Park. And let Ms. Kilgore get to work to solve our city’s problems so that we are not the hypocrite who only has empty, pretty words once we have changed the name that came to symbolize hate and division.

  13. jonathan wainscott

    Why don’t we discuss the issue of cultural appropriation. Is it appropriate to take an ancient, religious symbol of people from another continent and use it to espouse our own virtues? The swastika is thousands of years old. An ancient Indian symbol for “well being” it was common in Hindu and Buddhist iconography for centuries. And then the Nazi’s adopted it to espouse their virtues.
    The word “obelisk” isn’t even Egyptian, it’s Greek, but the mystique and power of the object still resides in Egypt. Yes. the obelisk is a very powerful symbol because the originals (which I now pray to see for myself someday) were cut by the hands hundreds of peasants and slaves to bolster the power of the kings and queens that lorded over them, and they were made out of a single piece of stone over a hundred feet long. I have been to the Washington Monument and the Vance Monument is architectural flatulence by comparison, but I’m glad “our” monument isn’t just a slice of Washington DC in the middle of our town. I guess.
    Oblesiks were also used to mark the territory and define the king(queen)dom of Egyptian rule. The Romans came in knocked a bunch down, repurposed some for their own architecture to espouse their virtues, and hauled off a mess of’m to become trophies for the Roman Empire, so the history of obelisks includes repurposing and relocation.
    Asheville has recently experienced the removal of a towering symbol of ancient power. I’m referring to the 23 foot fiberglass sculpture of “Chief Pontiac” who stood sentinel over Patton Avenue from Harry’s On The Hill Cadillac, Pontiac, GMC car dealership, which was owned by the Patton family whose name is now being taken off the avenue because of the slave ownership in their history. Yep, even the slave-owning family finally realized the depiction of a Native American Chief in the pursuit of their own prosperity and well being wasn’t OK anymore. But hey man, obelisks are cool. Hottest tattoo in Beer City.
    Though the ancient form of the obelisk is available for free use is it really OK for us to use as we see fit? Well, the Daughters of the Confederacy thought so when they paid for the Vance erection in the middle of town.
    Which brings me to Ms. Kilgores’s point that the Vance Monument isn’t a monument to the Confederacy. Yeah, it wasn’t built to memorialize the Confederacy in it’s entirety, it was quite clearly to honor the achievements of Confederate Colonel Zebulon Vance who was one of the leaders of a regiment of Confederate Soldiers that had 80% of it men killed, wounded, or captured in their losing campaign into the North- a campaign that they were fighting to keep your ancestors Ms. Kilgore in slavery. Had Zebulon Vance been successful you would certainly not have your real-estate license today. Sadly, you are on the wrong side of history and I was wrong to have voted for you.

  14. Harry Watt

    The Vance Monument was put up by the locals that were grateful to Vance for his positive political work as a governor and senator. He was a colonel in the NC State Troops that were raised locally to defend the state against hostile military forces. Vance and local men who joined the ranks saw themselves as patriots. We today should honor Vance and those that supported the erection of the monument in downtown Asheville. Political leaders start and end wars that involve the masses in ways that are harmful. We should look at the Vance Monument of those times when our leaders in Washington choose war over peace, reminding us today that war for the masses has mostly negative consequences that last a long time and are far reaching.

  15. Gary Incorvia

    Ms. Kilgore’s article regarding the repurposing of the Vance monument should be considered by all those making the decisions regarding the future of the monument. What better way to try to bridge the divide. I like the ideas of calling it a Peace monument or Unity tower. My grandparents came to this country in the early 1900’s, well after the end of slavery, and were discriminated against as they came from either Sicily or mainland Italy. Through a lot of hard work, many, but not all, of my relatives have become successful in the U.S. Rather than linger on aspects of slavery that predates many families currently in this country, let’s find a way to move on and celebrate what can become. Yes, I understand that the Black community has faced significant discrimination for many years. I also understand that many, but not all, Black Americans have ancestors that suffered under slavery. Yes, I understand that Vance (and Washington and Jefferson, among others,) owned slaves. But we are really trying to address the issue of discrimination and want to promote Unity. Other ethnicities (Irish, Italian, Lebanese, Jews, Bosnians, Japanese, Chinese, to name a few) have also faced discrimination. And none more so than Native Americans. So rather that looking to potentially (and it is only a potential) satisfying one relatively small group. Let’s try to bring all of us together under a theme of Unity. We are all in this together. Removing the monument will promote more division. Repurposing can be a first, albeit small, step toward healing.

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