What should the city do with the 65-foot-tall obelisk honoring prominent citizen and slaveholder Zebulon Vance towering out of our center?
The word “monument” comes from the Latin “monere,” which means to remind, to warn. I read this in a Mountain Xpress article [“Bought & Sold: Forgotten Documents Highlight Local Slave History,” April 9, 2013] about Buncombe County’s efforts to digitize its original slave records, the first in the country to do so. Acknowledging the crimes of the past in this way makes me proud to live here. In light of the brutal events in Charlottesville [recently], I think we should follow the county’s lead and use the monument to acknowledge the past as a reminder and warning.
The Vance Monument and its surrounding plaza are a vital part of the city’s public space. It is a free-speech zone where I personally have stood in vigil and protest many times. It’s the site of the bleachers for the holiday parade and dozens of art and music festivals all year round. It’s an easily spotted landmark for tourists and locals alike. To tear it down would not only erase Vance’s story, both his crimes and his contributions, but it would turn a highly visible public space into a boring median strip. It would also cost a lot of money, far better spent on community needs.
I think the monument needs recontextualizing. The quickest option would be to make the name much smaller and combine it with a plaque giving accurate historical context. More expensive, but more evocative, would be to commission sculptures to go around the base that portray local African-American history.
I spent an hour Googling slavery monuments and found many inspired artworks. Try looking up “freedman cemetery statues,” “Underground Railroad memorials,” “slave market markers.” Definitely look at the new lynching memorial being built by the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala.
We are supposed to be a creative city; let’s apply that to this situation. I think we should put out a request for proposals from artists and community members, and create a panel of local activists, artists and historians to assess them. Get the new equity manager involved. Something fitting and beautiful will come out of that.
While we are at it, the Vance Monument is the most obvious, but we also need to consider the many street names, buildings and parks named after prominent slaveholders like Woodfin, Patton, McDowell, Baird, Weaver, Vance, Merrimon and Reynolds. The ugly stain of slavery should not be hidden anymore but stand as a warning. Creative, sensitive treatment of this history will make our city stronger.
— Jennifer Murphy