Casting the first stone: The Gospel According to Jerry

Jerry Sternberg

BY JERRY STERNBERG

As I write this, Asheville is poised to destroy the Vance Monument. The heavy granite stones may soon come crashing down onto Pack Square, leaving us all feeling emotionally relieved (or not).

Those of us with white guilt will now be absolved. The rightfully angry Black community can feel that “Vengeance is mine,” and many in the white community — who, racist due to birth and ancestry, don’t really give a damn about this old stone pile or the guy it’s named for — will say, “What will they want next?”

That all-too-familiar refrain was heard when we freed the slaves, when we grudgingly made them full citizens, when they were finally able to ride in the front of the bus and send their kids to the same schools as white kids, and even when they were given the right to vote — subject, of course, to considerable voter suppression efforts.

I’ll tell you what “they” want next. They want respect for their contributions to our great nation. They want respect from law enforcement officers who don’t intimidate their children. They want an end to the kind of aggressive, racially tinged police enforcement that led to the needless killing of George Floyd and the abuse of Johnnie Rush right here in our own community. They want an end to redlining so that they, too, can finance their homes and businesses. They want a change of policy by white banks that gladly accept their money but apply a different set of criteria to minority loan applicants.

Maybe they should have their own banks, some folks say. Well, they’ve tried that but found out that money isn’t black or white, it’s green and must be offered to all on an equal basis.

Another option

When we look at those heavy stones scattered on the ground, we have to reflect that the monument was a handsome piece of design that, for more than a century, served as our city’s centerpiece.

I must point out that in and of itself, this simple stone spire does not depict an armed man on a horse, a religious symbol, a swastika or some other objectionable idea. In its essential form, the Vance Monument resembles hundreds of similar obelisks found in cities around the world; what tarnished this striking work of art is the inscription dedicating it to a man who was a slaveholder, a Confederate officer and a Civil War governor.

There’s a strong movement in this country today to stop honoring those who served in the Confederacy to preserve the horrible institution of slavery. Many now consider these people to have been traitors to our nation, and the latest wave of serious racial incidents has only exacerbated that resentment.

Asheville recently spent $18,500 to put clothes on this “emperor,” and less than two months later those clothes were gone with the wind. Now, we’re about to spend several thousand dollars on the demolition.

That money won’t put one bite of food on the table for white or minority children; won’t improve their education or pay for critically needed affordable housing at a time when low-income people are in such dire straits. What it will do is remove any vestige of the name Vance from the public square.

If we follow that logic, though, shouldn’t we also tear down Vance Elementary School rather than merely renaming it?

A committee appointed by the city has recommended destroying the monument, and City Council is slated to take up the matter at its Dec. 8 meeting.

I understand the zeal that many feel during this time to “do something,” but I suggest that while they feel great angst and an honest desire for retribution, they won’t ultimately feel any better once this icon has been reduced to a pile of rubble lying on the ground.

I also believe that if given a choice between annihilating this objectionable symbol or simply removing the Vance name and rededicating the monument to honor a truly deserving citizen or group, a majority in the minority community would choose to preserve it in altered form. City Council is constantly doing surveys: Why not poll the minority community — who are, after all, the offended party — and get a consensus instead of allowing just a few people to decide?

Looking to the future

In the coming days, both City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners will vote to determine the monument’s fate. Do these elected community leaders want to be remembered as the ones who chose to destroy a magnificent monument in a time of great racial strife in order to placate an influential group of angry citizens? Or would they rather be remembered for their courage in righting a societal wrong by repurposing this icon, so that future generations can look toward the sky and appreciate this awesome artistic structure, now cleansed of the ugly stain of slavery?

Rather than settling for a pile of useless stones on the ground, why not envision a very special, countywide turnout to rededicate this monument to honor one or more local residents whose lifework, conducted in a spirit of love, care and understanding, aimed to improve their fellow citizens’ lives?

Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at gospeljerry@aol.com.

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21 thoughts on “Casting the first stone: The Gospel According to Jerry

  1. pearl2k

    George Washington owned slaves. Do we waste $ demolishing that too, or can we simply rename it? I would like the $18,500 wasted to cover our monument back in the City coffers, and would much prefer taking the estimated cost of demolishing our monument, minus the cost of renaming it, and give it to the community itself. Let the community decide what makes the bigger difference in their lives.

    • Carol Marty

      I’m not sure why we (MX) are at this point posting commentary from someone in opposition to the decision made by the task force who is not informed about the process that has been undertaken. The task force was created from a diverse group of people in the community who applied to be on it (and/or were appointed). There have been months of public input opportunities available. I attended one of the calls that were specifically for public input and the vast majority, probably up to 90 to 95% of the people who called in, were in favor of removing the monument entirely, including historians, people of color, white people interested in racial justice, and long time residents. The decision was not just made by a few people on a task force.

      Likening the taking down of a monument that was built in honor of someone is not the same as naming a school that was built and then named. The school’s name can change. The school was not built in honor of Vance, it was just named after Vance. The monument was built to honor him and at this point in our history we may not find him as honorable as was previously thought, which was a white supremacy point of view. Enslaving and oppressing people has never been the “right” thing to do.

      It’s too bad money needs to be spent that could be better spent elsewhere, but let’s not spend more money getting input that has already been given. And then let’s figure out how to be contributing more resources to the African-American/Black community. As well as to other people of color, the indigenous communities, those at lower incomes and the homeless—any and all those who have been oppressed systemically.

      • CA

        Correction: The name on the obelisk landmark CAN BE CHANGED! Why spend thousands because a few are whining about it being “ a reminder”. Reminder of what? Very doubtful there are slaves alive today or so called owners…. Mr Vance WAS NOT A SLAVE OWNER! His family may have had slaves but he NEVER OWNED SLAVES. What does it take to make this fact understood?
        And remember: thousands have already been spent unnecessarily to appease a few; could these dollars have been better spent feeding, clothing, housing, educating lower income citizens of any race? Black, white, Native American- etc- many are in need and hungry or cold. Unfortunately “ the team” in Asheville and supporters prefer to perform such a stupid act as destroy a granite obelisk dedicated at the time to the Governor of North Carolina. SHAMEFUL!

    • C-Law

      Ah, but your “progressive” leftist leaders know far better than you! Your job is to shut up and continue to be a good tax mule.

      Asheville and Buncombe have gotten EXACTLY the government they DESERVE!

      Peaceful change of your local government is futile. Peacefully withdraw your consent of those local governments by means of personal secession…partake in no legal commercial tax generating activity there and move to jurisdictions more favorable to personal liberty.

    • brtova

      In the plaza in downtown Santa Fe, NM stands a monument dedicated to the civil war and to
      soldiers’ victory over the “savages,” referring to the indigenous peoples who were there first.
      The offending word was chiseled out and nearby was an explanatory placard updating the history of the obelisk and the changing attitudes that led to the alterat ion.

      Learning about the recent history of the monument made it come alive for me and shone a positive light on the inhabitants of that fine city.

      This teaching moment spoke to me louder than visiting the plaza with no monument.

      I, though, concur with Jerry that the decision be made with input from the offended parties.

      • brtova

        Wouldn’t it be better to give the money needed to tear it down to the African-American community?

      • Chanel

        OK, I am an offended party! A granite piece of art stands for 120 years and suddenly some feel offended so it must be removed.
        Sheer foolishness and destruction of much to cater to a few -who will only want more!

  2. AVLlaura

    Thank you, Jerry!
    I’ve lived here since the early 90s and (embarrassingly) never bothered to really know who Vance was. In fact, when talking about the Monument, I’ve always referred to it as “the obelisk”. Like Jerry, I’d like to see it saved for its architectural value – and yes, rededicated. If we’d put as much concern (as well as funds) into reparations and programs to advance the people negatively impacted by Vance, we would be a stronger community. Meanwhile the obelisk can serve as Asheville’s reminder to embrace ALL its citizens.

  3. Blaise deFranceaux

    I agree with the opinion of Jerry Sternberg on the recommendation by the Vance Monument Task Force to remove the monument. It seems like we could do so much better than just removing it. Rename it, repurpose it, exorcise it’s demons, yes. But it seems wasteful to spend what I assume would be an enormous sum to dismantle and remove it. With the Black Lives Matter mural on the road around it, why not rename the portion of Pack Square where the monument stands Black Lives Matter Plaza, and flip the script on it’s racist past. Remove any mention of Vance, and rename the monument in honor of freedom and democracy. Since we all gather there when we celebrate an election or protest one, honor free speech with the renaming of the monument. It’s a noble structure, and could now be standing in honor of our noblest cause,

  4. Paul Fiery

    My suggestion is to leave the monument in place but add to the base of the monument a very prominent plaque or other display of words manufactured to be as durable over time as the monument itself. The words presented should recontextualize the monument as a symbol of what once was but is no more. In effect, it would change the monument’s meaning from memorializing Vance and by implication the confederacy to memorializing the end of the era he represents. This way no history is erased, probably less money is spent, we avoid a fight over what to put there instead, and most importantly we commemorate the positive meaning and history of our ongoing national and local transition towards an inclusively free society.

  5. Audrey Bayer

    We agree with Jerry Sternberg’s comments about saving the Vance Monument. If renamed, it should satisfy everyone. It should remain as a
    beautiful iconic centerpiece to our downtown.
    Bob and Audie Bayer

  6. chas fitzgerald

    we can resolve the historical problem by resheathing the base or providing the full history nearby to give this context with demolishing such a handsome iconic landmark that has graced our public square for over a hundred years.

  7. bsummers

    but I suggest that while they feel great angst and an honest desire for retribution…

    I support taking down the monument. But I for one don’t feel that way out of a “desire for retribution”. That’s unfortunate framing, Jerry, and that expression only supports the sense of victimization that the Lost Causers feel and spread and lean on to justify their anger.

    I just want to see a strong statement in favor of turning the corner on race relations in this country. If you haven’t noticed, we really need that right now. Racism and holding on to worshiping the Confederacy are intertwined. Time to bring that chapter to a close – a positive act, not another negative one.

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  8. wbellnc

    I agree with Mr. Sternberg and hope that the BCo Commissioners will vote to repurpose vs tear down. Many people from diverse backgrounds have already expressed the same view so getting more input doesn’t seem necessary.

    • Carol Marty

      The input was already collected and the overwhelming sentiment was to remove it entirely. The process was publicized and extensive and the county commissioners should affirm the task force’ decision. It’s too late to comment now. Input gave the task force its 11-1 vote to remove it.

  9. Barbara

    I favor repurposing the monument in honor of equality and moving forward with love and peace for all in our wonderful city and thereby obliterating Vance and all of the inhumane history associated with his name.

  10. Clive Broadbent

    Yeah Jerry,
    I am an immigrant as are most of us outside of the Qualla boundary are. My history has it’s own history of bad behavior, but any amount of posturing will not change that record or recompense the oppressed. Rename the obelisk to remind us that our future is all we can modify. Break the archaic strictures of society that continue to oppress, not the structures of past times.

  11. Roger

    I hope City Council members will consider another side to what has been suggested and campaign to reverse what was decided upon before it is too late to do what is best for the entire community. A task force is fine. But to allow what a small group of citizens has recommended to be done against what citizens from the entire community at large might want is an ill-advised decision, which I hope the County Commissioners will correct. I think Mr. Sternberg (a longtime resident of the City) has presented a well-thought through argument to reverse what the task force has recommended and that the County Commissioners would be wise to represent the larger community and endorse the author’s vision of preserving the “art object” itself. Rededicate this “object” to project a positive vision for our City.

  12. Arthur Einstein (Tar heel born)

    Tearing up the past (i.e. tearing down a monument) feels like the ultimate rejection of whatever it stood for. In that respect it can be a good idea and a public service. Get rid of the damn thing! Forget the odious thinking it stood for.
    Repurposing it, and rededicating it seems to me a bigger and more important message – that we are turning our back on the past in favor of a new and brighter tomorrow. Tearing it down is destroying and forgetting. Preserving and re-dedicating is a commemorating a transition. On this one I’m with Jerry

  13. Richard B.

    I am in agreement with the author of the article as well as those commenting above concerning the additional monies required to destroy the Monument. Money that could well be spent with a donation to MANNA Food Bank, Toys for Tots, etc., etc.
    Vance was not a bad man, given the context of the world he was born into. Yes, slavery is evil, always has been, throughout the long history of mankind, even those native West African tribes who for over two centuries gathered up their neighboring tribes, – men, women, and children – and sold them to the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, and English for work in the West Indies, then in the newly formed states.
    Acknowledging the evils of our past histories, – each of us have ancestors who, in today’s views of morality and civil and uncivil behaviors, would be found wanting, – is what we need to be doing.
    Should all of our citizens of German descent be castigated for the evils of the Nazi Regime? A rhetorical, perhaps shocking question. But is not that the way many are thinking about the Vance Monument, as well as all such statues, etc. of folks celebrated for their leadership during the era of American slavery?
    When the terrible nights of wanton destruction ensued for three months, night after night, following George Floyd’s death, it was obvious to me that most of the thugs, with encouragement from the locals governing those cities, were not at all “peaceful demonstrators”, as the MSM pretended them to be. I will repeat here what I commented on at the time these riots were occurring.
    “People who have no plans for the future, no reason for self pride in who they are in the moment, attack the past as a feeble attempt to validate themselves.”

  14. Shultz!

    If it was a great monument to begin with that had some real artistic value I’d be with you, but the whole obelisk thing is just so very corny – remnant of that whole ‘occult wisdom of the ancients’ fad that was so popular at that time.

    Much better use of the space would be an open area for rotating art installations. I’d LOVE to see something by Patrick Dougherty put up there after the monument comes down – or other sculptures or spatial art. THAT would be a much better use of the space in so prominent a location and much more reflective of the spirit of Asheville

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