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.