Letter: Getting Zeb Vance’s context just right

Graphic by Lori Deaton

I would like to commend retired history professor Milton Ready for his recent commentary on what remains of the Vance Monument [“Down by Law: The Monumental Toppling of Zeb Vance,” June 21, Xpress]. In this thoughtful piece, professor Ready explains to the people of Asheville that the demolition ordered by the City Council more than two years ago was completely unnecessary. Instead, says the professor, an informational placard, small but strategically placed, could have been used to “contextualize” the life of Zeb Vance and bring his racist infamy back into compatibility with modern-day values.

Must have been more than a few slapped foreheads over at City Hall when that story broke. All that controversy, all that turmoil, all those advisory commissions, all that shouting — and the ideal solution was right there the whole time. But don’t blame professor Ready for delivering the embarrassing news. Telling folks what they should have done in the past is what being a historian is all about.

My only criticism is that professor Ready’s proposal doesn’t go far enough. If we really want to resurrect the Vance Problem and then take an informational tack to solve it, here’s an even better way:

Rebuild the 75-foot obelisk just like new, but this time with a more complete dedication that reads: “Zebulon Baird Vance — Champion of White Supremacy; Scourge of African Savages; also Rebel Officer, Governor, Senator and Blah, Blah, Blah.” All that information is accurate, so no one could possibly bellyache.

The inscription might seem a little jarring at first, but when historical memory is at stake, halfway measures just won’t do. White supremacy wasn’t merely a footnote to Vance’s public career, after all, and he would have been the first to tell you so. In fact, he would have been appalled to find his many contributions to racial theory buried in the fine print.

With the heavy lifting out of the way, of course, we could still follow professor Ready’s advice and add a little placard somewhere explaining to any skeptics why our golden boy’s racist side, though regrettable in hindsight, should not prevent viewers from appreciating his monument with a mixture of awe, gratitude and nuance. That sweet spirit of toleration would inspire all but the most flint-hearted. A towering achievement, as it were.

Or we could just turn the contextualization thing over to the spray-paint pundits again. That would work.

— Peter Robbins


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23 thoughts on “Letter: Getting Zeb Vance’s context just right

  1. Peter Robbins

    Before an online war heats up (but please don’t feel obliged to ignite one), I need to update you’uns on one development that occurred after my letter to the editor was written.

    Aside from some cud chewing about culture wars, the only reason Milton Ready gave for why Zebulon Vance belonged in Asheville’s face to begin with was his belief that Western North Carolina had few other “notables” from whom to choose because it was “seldom important in state and regional affairs.” Now I don’t personally share his dismissive opinion of mountaineers, but if he’s right about that prestige shortage, it counsels against trying to use the public square to honor notables at all. How about tapping some unsung heroes?

    And, speak of the devil, the city just won a $3 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to re-imagine Pack Square Plaza, including the area formerly occupied by the obelisk. According to the press release, the grant will pay for works of art and stuff “that more completely and accurately represent the multiplicity and complexity of American stories.”

    Hear that? There’s finally going to be some competition for hall-of-fame honors. No more schoolboy hero-worship for us. No more scraping the bottom of the barrel for political and literary notables. Social history, here we come. And who knows? There might even be a place amidst the multiplicity and complexity of stories for a little something – a commemorative brick perhaps – with the name Vance on it. As professor Ready explained, all Zeb needs is a little context and he cleans up nice.

  2. Grant Millin

    The Vance Monument happened 125 years ago. Lining up Asheville and the nation for success over just the next 50 years — including for people who are on the wrong side of the median income here and across the nation right now — is pretty important to focus on at this point.

    It was a tiny fraction of the Asheville population that decided to remove the Vance obelisk. It’s fine to put something else there that is about a new message. I picked a clock tower and renaming that whole downtown park system Unity Future Park.

    • RG

      I also liked the idea of Unity Park, or something to that effect. As an educator, I cannot think of a better place to teach children about critical race theory than the base of the monument (which represented a mere chapter). All we’ve done by removing the stones is empower them more and skirt the important conversations.

      • Peter Robbins

        Oh, please. You could have the same teaching moment — a better one in fact — on the site where the Vance Monument used to be.

  3. WNC

    We could have left the interesting architecture up to be enjoyed with no placard and saved the bucks.
    If a placard is still preferred we could also place a placard that says Zebulon Vance Democratic Governor and party patriarch .

    • Peter Robbins

      That would be unfair to Zeb and his memory. It would be like writing a biography of Charles Manson and mentioning only his contributions to rock music and his participation in communal experiments. You can’t erase or whitewash history merely because you’re afraid somebody might be offended by the full truth. Can you?

      And don’t go saying I was equating Vance and Manson. I was exaggerating to make a point. A little.

      • Peter Robbins

        And, by the way, I have no trouble acknowledging that Vance was a Democrat (although they were called Conservatives back then). It’s certainly true (and worth knowing) that Republicans were once the progressives, favoring civil rights and government intervention in the economy, and Democrats were once the party of racism and states’ rights. We can explain that part on professor Ready’s placard, if you’d like, although most people learn about it in high school.

  4. T100

    And while we are at it, let’s add this well-known quote of Lincoln to his memorial:

    “I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”

    • Peter Robbins

      False equivalence. Lincoln, at critical turning points in history, advanced the cause of racial equality, regardless of whether he thought it could ever be fully achieved. Vance, at those same turning points, fought all his life against racial equality because he was convinced it should never even be desired.

  5. WNC

    It’s the Vance monument not a A Polyptych.

    We could honor Lincoln for freeing slaves on a monument and call it maybe Lincoln monument

    • Peter Robbins

      Sorry to break the sad news, WNC, but the Vance Monument isn’t anything anymore. It was torn down. The front of the old monument said “In Honor of Zebulon Baird Vance: Civil War Soldier. War Governor. U.S. Senator. Statesman. Orator.” I don’t remember anyone complaining before that the inscription was too wordy.

      What kind of tribute slights the honoree by mumbling as little about his life as possible? Such a cruel way to treat Zeb after all he did. I’d hate to have you speak at my testimonial dinner. But do go on arguing about what an imaginary monument should say on it. Just don’t let Milton Ready hear you. Historical context is his business, and he might be insulted that you think it’s so worthless.

  6. Enlightened Enigma

    would need to add ‘friend of and honored by the Jewish people of the region’

    • Peter Robbins

      No, Mr. E, we wouldn’t. Contrary to Professor Ready’s claim, Zebulon Vance long ago ceased to be regarded as a champion of religious toleration. His much touted speech on the subject – “The Scattered Nation” – is so riddled with racism that it is an embarrassment today even to the Jewish recipients of his putative “support.” See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scattered_Nation.

      But, hey, if you’re willing to say “Champion of White Supremacy” on the new monument, in big letters and upfront where everyone can see it, I don’t think it matters much what else the dedication says. Do you?

      • WNC

        Don’t forget to add Democratic Governor and patriarch of NC Democratic Party of NC

        • Peter Robbins

          I already covered that. We have to say he was a Conservative, not a Democrat, because that’s what he called himself.

  7. WNC

    “Covered”? You tried to white wash the fact that Zeb Vance was the Democratic Governor and patriarch of the Democratic Party.
    The Vance/Aycock Dinner in Asheville was one of the signature events of the NC Democratic Party for decades recently being renamed. You can easily find
    Democratic governors and legislatures proudly attending the event on video.

    • Peter Robbins

      I was placing Zeb in the context of his times, when Democrats in North Carolina were called Conservatives. I thought that’s what you fellers wanted. But here, I’ll bend the facts and put your preferred titles in the dedication, right after “Scourge of African Savages,” just the way you asked. Actually, I think it’s better that way. Now for sure everyone who stands in front of our monument and looks at the inscription will think to themselves: “Is this town nuts or what?” We will secure forever Asheville’s reputation for weirdness.

    • Peter Robbins

      Okay, for those keeping score, the dedication now reads: “Zebulon Baird Vance – Champion of White Supremacy; Scourge of African Savages; also Rebel Officer, Senator, Democratic Governor, and NC patriarch of the Democratic Party of NC.” Revisions are now closed.

      Who says you can’t write by committee?

  8. gapple

    Will it be okay to spray paint graffiti on the new project? Maybe paint Unborn Lives Matter on the road?

    • Peter Robbins

      People will be free to deface my Vance Monument any way they want. In fact, the new format encourages an interactive experience. But we’ll probably have to insist that supplemental contextualization be germane to the topic. We don’t want to open the door, as you fear, to uneducated dolts.

  9. joelharder

    I understand your intentions; however, the decision is there is no unified narrative among different segments of our community to contextualize Zebulon Vance. This is just fact.

    The community went to great expense to debate and subsequently demolish the statue. That’s where the situation stands.

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