It’s time we stopped honoring racists

Peter Robbins


Despite the peacekeeping efforts of good people like myself, a battle continues to rage about what to do with old Confederate monuments in these polarized times, when not everyone considers treason and racism to be worthy of veneration. Though their side has suffered some major defeats in the last few years, many people still believe that these beautiful examples of Lost Cause propaganda should not be torn down but rather “contextualized” so as to make the choice of honoree seem marginally less nauseating to the contemporary viewer.

Here at home, for instance, a recent commentary by retired history professor Milton Ready (“Down by Law: The Monumental Toppling of Zeb Vance”) suggested, in a tone of almost wistful longing, that the now-defunct Vance Monument could have been supplemented with some sort of explanatory marker designed to encourage an “affirming yet critical” understanding of our iconic governor and his morally messy past.

Somewhat more forcefully, I proposed in a follow-up letter to the editor (“Getting Zeb Vance’s Context Just Right”) that the magnificent obelisk should be rebuilt just like new, except with the contextualizing words “Champion of White Supremacy” and “Scourge of African Savages” chiseled into the pedestal underneath the name Zebulon Baird Vance. That way, people would have a better feel for why he was so popular back in the day.

My wife said I should have used stronger language, but I didn’t want to be confrontational. I really just wanted to start a healthy conversation with skeptics who, for whatever reason, might have misgivings about Western North Carolina’s great statesman, orator, rebel soldier and world-class race-baiter.

In the midst of this scholarly exchange, however, an online reader identified only as “MV” posed a thought-provoking question: If the Vance Monument was so bad, why weren’t people also demanding that the name Asheville be changed?

One hears that a lot. It’s kind of the go-to argument for folks who want to shut down any criticism of The Way Things Have Always Been.

After all, Asheville’s namesake, early North Carolina Gov. Samuel Ashe, did enslave lots of human beings — more than the Vance family, in fact. As did, for that matter, the namesakes of numerous other cities, counties and towns in the area (including Buncombe and my own beloved Madison and Marshall). So, what about them?

The tone of MV’s comment suggested that he/she/they felt it would be unthinkable to rename a whole city merely to remove a slaveholding taint.

But is that really so?

Sure, there may be disagreements over what other name could possibly do justice to the quirky little city that I like to think of as the Muncie, Ind., of the South. In light of the Asheville Watchdog’s recent multipart exposé on the decline of the downtown, I might be tempted to propose something like Squalor City or Lawlesstown.

Then again, maybe not. As my fellow Marshall residents can tell you, people in our big sister upriver can be very provincial, and you never know how they’ll react to suggestions from outsiders.

Practical roadblocks might prove daunting, too. I remember a couple of years ago people were talking about renaming Asheville streets, but the idea died the death of a lizard when business owners complained that it would cost them too much to make the transition.

In theory, though, the concept of changing the names of towns, cities and streets appears to be a perfectly sensible way to remove embarrassing references to prior infamies. To see why, let’s try a little thought experiment.

Imagine there’s a small town called Bondageville, named after its distinguished founder, Samuel Ashe Bondage. One hundred years after the founder’s death, an enterprising historian discovers a diary in which old Bondage boasts about kidnapping, raping and torturing one girl and allowing a second kidnapped girl under his control to be raped and tortured. As the historian turns the pages, he learns that Bondage did this to hundreds of girls.

Would the residents want to change the town’s name? Would any local even stand up at the town meeting in defense of long-gone Bondage?

Now think about what it meant to be a slaveholder from a moral rather than a strictly legalistic perspective. By definition, the man was a kidnapper because all enslaved people were held against their will. Many slaveholders also routinely ravished enslaved girls who could not possibly have given consent because they possessed no freedom within which choice could be exercised.

Even if he didn’t rape enslaved girls himself, the slaveholder at least had a business incentive to turn a blind eye to rapes committed by others, such as overseers, because the master could then claim any resulting chattel either for sale or forced labor. And the slaveholder was free to torture the enslaved people in his possession (by whipping, say) on mere suspicion of disobedience — or, indeed, for no reason at all.

Do the math, and we have conclusive evidence that every slaveholder after whom a county, city, town or street is named was at the very least a kidnapper — a mass kidnapper of adults and children, no less — and we have reason to suspect that many were also rapists, human traffickers and torturers. Every slaveholder was also an extortionist who obtained valuable labor by force or threat of force. Add, where applicable, Confederate treason into the mix, and we’re talking about some pretty bad dudes.

Would you say that what’s done is done, it’s time to let bygones be bygones, and it shouldn’t matter what evils our namesakes committed long ago? Then, why did you find the Bondageville hypothetical troubling?

Would you say that we’re used to these familiar names, and change makes us uncomfortable? At one time, people were used to slavery, and some expressed annoyance at the very idea of tampering with tradition.

Would you say that it’s wrong to judge people in the past by today’s more enlightened values? Don’t make me laugh.

Would you say that it costs too much money to change place names, particularly for innocent businesses and residents?

Oops, that last one may have some merit. It’s why the chair of the African American Heritage Commission came out against changing Asheville street names.

But cost is merely a pragmatic, not a principled objection. Many worthy projects are too expensive or inconvenient to fully undertake. That doesn’t make the goal any less worthwhile. As Preacher in the movie Pale Rider asked, how much is it worth to have a clear conscience?

So, I’ll bite the bullet and propose that, to the extent practicable, we really should look into changing some of those odious slaveholder names, if we can accomplish the task in a cost-tolerable fashion. Asheville wasn’t always called Asheville, you know. Marshall wasn’t always Marshall.

It might be hard to rename everything all at once, but according to Wikipedia, dozens of places have managed the feat — and for far more quotidian reasons than the moral imperative we’re talking about here. Maybe the smaller towns can lead the way.

The concept is not unthinkable. What is unthinkable is making excuses for criminals and calling it historical nuance. Which brings us back to those damn Confederate monuments, doesn’t it?

Peter Robbins is a retired lawyer who lives near Marshall.


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40 thoughts on “It’s time we stopped honoring racists

    • Peter Robbins

      Our sins? Speak for yourself. My only offense is borrowing a slaveholder’s name when I put the return address on letters. That’s not something I feel obliged to take to the confessional.

      • Ponygurl

        My family wasn’t even here during slavery. Funny how these people call everyone n everything racist…just all of a sudden. Silence..for decades…then .along comes 2015 to the present…NOT defending slavery..I’m part Irish… remember what happened to the Irish??? Or we don’t count because our skin color doesn’t fit your narrative.

  1. MV

    Actually, I don’t think it unthinkable at all to rename an entire city. I think it’s hypocritical to knock down monuments while simultaneously harming living citizens and glorifying and advertising (but not renaming) a city named after a slaveholder (for fear of harming ‘the brand’). Although you missed my tone, I’m glad you grasped and (seemingly) embraced the larger point. Nice opinion piece, Peter Robbins. We should meet for a cup of coffee in Marshall when the weather cools.

    • Peter Robbins

      I don’t know that it’s hypocritical to demolish slaveholder monuments while leaving slaveholder names on cities, towns and streets. I’d say it’s simply starting a project and then not finishing the job, which I understand is kinda standard operating procedure in Asheville. But let’s not quarrel. I don’t want to spoil someone’s attempt to agree with me, the event being so rare.

      By the way, the coffee is on you, and I’m going to want a bagel with cream cheese, too. Audiences with famous pundits don’t come cheap.

      • MV

        I’m fairly famous myself, thus the incognito ‘MV.’ So let’s call it a draw and go Dutch.

      • Samuel Harrell

        Under this theory of traitors, which is ludicrous, everyone is a traitor to Britain. This entire year down statues is ignorant. It won’t stop. Anything anyone acts offended by will soon be removed. Get a life and move on. Don’t look at them.

        • Peter Robbins

          Seriously? The English king forfeited the allegiance of the American colonists by committing tyrannical acts that deprived the colonists of inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. His rule over the colonists was no longer legitimate. I think there’s some document that spells all this out, but I forget what it’s called. I believe that the Revolutionary War also ended in a treaty in which the king renounced any claim to sovereignty over Americans.

          The Confederates, on the other hand, rebelled against the legitimate American government because they feared they would someday lose their tyrannical ability to deprive enslaved people of inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In addition, Confederate statues and monuments furthered the post-war agenda of white supremacists who wanted to remind emancipated slaves who was still in charge. Those circumstances make matters different.

          If any British citizens want to complain that statues of Revolutionary War leaders in the United States honor traitors against the British crown, they are free to do so. Until I hear from them, I will decline to address whether my commentary has unfairly offended their sensibilities. And if you, good sir, are offended by the absence of Confederate monuments in the public square, I suggest that you take your own advice and look away. I won’t, of course, also recommend that you get a life, because that would be rude.

  2. Mike Rains

    I find all of this moral outrage of our forefathers attitudes values and actions interesting. No question Americans have done some pretty bad stuff over our history, and not just slavery; although that ranks up there at the top. Anyone half versed in “real” American history could bend your ear for a long night.

    That all said, it’s more than a bit hypocritical to be so outraged with these past “unacceptable” behaviors when without question, our generation is going to remembered (demonized?) for being the greediest, most glutonous (energy-wise) group of fools to have graced our planet.

    You see, everything in life is relative. And while it might feel good to rail against past sins….one might first look in the mirror of the present.

    • Peter Robbins

      Outraged? I came across as outraged? Oh my. That certainly was not my intent. Next time I discuss slaveholding and similar behaviors, I’ll follow your example and put the word “unacceptable” in scare quotes so people won’t think I’m overreacting.

  3. kw

    Would be wonderful if the white nationalist Trump gets Not One Black Vote in 2024. Otherwise, the monument should maybe go back up.

    • Larry

      More blacks will vote for trump because they’re realizing, just like Malcolm X did, that the left is merely using them. What have the democrats ACTUALLY done for black Americans???? EXACTLY!!!!

    • Peter Robbins

      All the more reason not to overlook little flaws in our great men. Like sexual assault and insurrection. I don’t even want to think about what an orange obelisk would look like.

    • Enlightened Enigma

      Trump did more positives for blacks in America than any other President in history…ask Kim, ask Candace, ask Byron Donalds, ask the black woman he pardoned…and many others. And now, everyone realizes how wonderful the world economy was during the Trump Adm. !

      #BLEXIT for the people NOW ! Free Your Mind, Join the Movement !

  4. Voirdire

    “good people like myself” ….jesus, lord help us. Surely they’ll be an obelisk to you (and yours …and your endless tome ;) in the not so far future up there in reconstituted Lapland. Remember Don Quixote and his endless tilting at windmills? ..surely you of all present and able can relate to the quixotic quest of the tottering knight of goodness. I know, how about a windmill built for the ages to your goodness there on the island… sounds about right! Bon voyage! ;)

  5. Peter Robbins

    A monument to me on Blannahassett Island in Marshall would be a worthy project – one that my quiet demurral might not be able to forestall forever. But I can think of at least two arguments against it. First, I don’t write for honors or glory. I’m in it strictly for the money. Second, my hypothetical memorial would have to share the island with a wastewater treatment plant, and in that setting, I don’t think even I could resist the temptation to make a rude quip.

    I like the windmill motif, though. Sympathetic, idealistic, literate and eco-friendly. A good description of me and an inspiring example for you.

    • WNC

      I bet the return address you put on your envelope is the same name the area had when you chose to move here to this area?

      • Peter Robbins

        It was. And as I explained to Grant Millin, I committed no “sin” by moving to Marshall, and I do partake in whatever collective “sin” he thinks won’t be “cleansed” by changing place names. John Marshall committed a moral wrong by enslaving people, not me. If he feels guilty about what Marshall did, that’s his problem.

        The question I raised here is not whether the harms of slavery will be erased by changing the name of places like Marshall but how comfortable people are with keeping names like Marshall after thinking seriously about the gravity of the wrong slaveholders like him committed. If they are fine with the name after thinking things over, then they’re fine with the name. But if not, there’s no principled reason not to change the name to something with which they are more comfortable. And whatever practical impediments may exist to effecting a name change have nothing at all to do with demolishing Confederate monuments that express values with which communities are no longer comfortable. Such pointless “whataboutism” is simply a non-argument. It is not necessary to make everything perfect to make a few things better.

  6. Jerry

    Can we all get over the constant dribble of the past and look to our future.
    We seem so obsessed today to dwell on the past evils and in the meantime we are creating racism and hatred where there was none. Lets dwell on the good things that our country has done and move on with your life.
    We are turning this once great country into a banana republic that I don’t recognize anymore.

    • Peter Robbins

      Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and nobody ever gave him a hard time about it.

  7. Soothsayer

    Wish I had more to add to this tired and old conversation but I do not. The author clearly has way too much free time on his hands to continue to analyze and scrutinize actions from nearly 200 years ago. Renaming and removing items that 99 percent of people pay less than a millisecond of attention to does not right any wrong.

    I would suggest using some of this free time to conduct actual proactive acts in the way of swigging a hammer with Habitat for Humanity, giving free lessons of life skills for underserved residents, or trucking around with MANA, FoodConnection, or any of the many other great service providers in this area.

    • Peter Robbins

      Thanks for the tip. I’ll remember that as I deliver meals to shut-ins in Madison County.

      • WNC

        You might have to move to downtown Asheville and live on a high density property to be a “good citizen” according to some.

  8. C-Law

    Justice Louis Brandeis once warned that “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.” Peter Robbins is one of those men and he is now offering to police the truth if only you will allow him.

    • Peter Robbins

      Wow. If you’re going to get personal like that, please exercise the liberty of using your real name.

      • C-Law

        You claim to be a man of letters…

        Ever heard of?

        Voltaire–Catherine Vade
        Daniel Defoe-Miranda Meanwell
        William Thackeray–The Hon. Wilhelmina Amelia Skeggs
        Benjamin Franklin–Martha Careful, Busy Body, Alice Addertongue, Polly Baker, Richard Saunders, Anthony Afterwit, and of course the widow Silence Dogood

        So what exactly is the point you are trying to make about attaching a personal name to a public comment? Right…you have none.

        My point above stands firm…Regardless of your motives, I for my part, do not consent to your self-appointed gatekeeping of history and never will. Case closed.


      • Peter Robbins

        I object to people making personal attacks on ordinary citizens while hiding behind a mask of anonymity. I think that’s cowardly – and I will continue to think that’s cowardly regardless of what misdeeds noteworthy writers may have gotten away with in the past and what lesser lights might still get away with today. In passing, however, I note that the real names of all the writers with whom you presume intellectual kinship are well known. Is yours?

        As far as my being the gatekeeper of history, I didn’t apply for the job, and you’re welcome to it. Bear in mind, though, that you’ll find lurking in the bushes some nasty snipers, well-meaning but without understanding. I won’t say they’re lurking insidiously because they’re actually kind of amusing.

  9. Cathryn

    Break free from arguments. Buy land, build anew, name streets after nice people like yourself!

  10. Trevor Jennings

    An extremely ignorant post full of lies throwing out accusations like mostsave owners were rapists and abusers or turned their heads away from these crimes. Saying the Confederacy committed treason is flat out false. The Union laid ridiculous tariffs on cotton so the Confederacy formed and legally seceded. This country was founded with strong state governments in order to restrict the power of the Federal government. Liberals lie, manipulate and truly have no understanding of facts but only how they ‘FEEL’ how it should be and do whatever underhanded, dishonest, even down right criminal steps to push their agenda. Then what the hell? They act like the US is the first and only country to own slaves. Every body on this planet is either a decendant of a slave or a slave or a slave owner. Thats probably a little over exaggerated. Slavery has been a custom since wars began. There are hateful people and evil that has been prevalent throughout tour history, but the ones we need to worry about now are these liberals falsifying accounts of specific instances to further their agenda such as this article of lies and opinions. Lying and making your own ‘facts’ in order to persuade an audience to your own view and agenda is morally wrong and very typical of this day and age. We wonder why our nation is crumbling, well take a step back and look at all the lies, misinformation, and just plain ignorant crap we get from our so-called news outlets. Movies, actors, and our lovely lawmakers push these agendas when they are the most corrupt and immoral people in our nation because they purposefully and intentionally every day divert our attention from the real threats and issues we need to address.

  11. Voirdire

    no wow necessary… nor are you a danger to anyone but yourself. Those however in close proximity to your goodness, that have to put up with you and your completely and endlessly delusional sanctimonious self are in our thoughts. It does make for good theater though, I’ll have to admit. Kind of sad and pathetic too. I think/ hope that there is a growing movement that sees the far left woke zealots, and the far right MAGA zombies as pretty much one in the same… anti-intellectual as the day is long, that can only hear themselves and those that manipulate them so callously. Then of course, there is on the other hand the hard charging issues of rampant and widespread dementia and narcissism ….throw in looming climate change on an almost unimaginable scale and we’re all in for very big trouble. The nonstop screed from you and them will only get louder in the meantime…. that’s how it always works. sigh.

  12. kw

    Polar ice caps melting. Far right and far left unwilling to move even a millimeter toward center. But let’s knock down monuments and rename cities and streets and continue wasting time and money with surface theatrics. That will totally end systemic racism, create housing for nurses and teachers, clean up downtown and make it so regular folk can afford to buy overpriced beer.

    And yes, I know that a certain retired lawyer won’t be able to resist the temptation to chime in yet again…

    • Peter Robbins

      I’ll put aside your self-defeating reliance on “whataboutism” and focus on where we agree.

      I, too, am in favor of combating climate change, reversing the legacy of racial injustice, increasing the supply of affordable housing, and improving the quality of life in Asheville. Small world, huh? As luck would have it, there is something we can all do right now to simultaneously advance each of these causes – support the “missing middle” zoning reforms that will soon be coming before the Asheville City Council. See

      I doubt my name-changing idea will dominate the entire agenda at the meeting, but if it does, I’ll ask the Mayor to table the motion myself. I think that’s more than accommodating. See you there.

      PS. It’s my party and I’ll chime if I want to.

  13. J&C

    Why not rename Asheville to honor someone else with the name Ashe? Arthur Ashe? Surely there are honorable and worthy people to honor with the same names of those we now know to be problematic men of our past. History notes would still show those who were originally honored, but they would also note that we evolved and changed the people honored with the monuments, streets, etc.

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