Letter: Recontextualize the Vance Monument

Graphic by Lori Deaton

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


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21 thoughts on “Letter: Recontextualize the Vance Monument

  1. bsummers

    prominent citizen and slaveholder

    It’s worth noting that the first thing cited on the monument honoring Vance is “CONFEDERATE SOLDIER”. For the people who chose to put the thing up, and I suspect quite a few of those wishing to keep it up, this is the main reason for honoring the guy. He was an officer in the army trying to break the US in two, over slavery.

      • Lulz

        Oh and one other thing, anyone who supports Trump in the eyes of communist, Antifa, DEMOCRATS is a Nazi. Especially if they are white and male. LOL, the useful idiots don’t understand.

        • luther blissett

          The self-proclaimed champion of the working stiff has a choice between a higher minimum wage and defending the totems of a messed-up past, and he has made his choice.

      • bsummers

        By proposing we “recontextualize” some old monuments? Who’d a thought it would be that easy to bring it down…

    • Big Al

      Vance was only a Confederate officer for one year, during which he campaigned for and was elected Governor of Confederate North Carolina and served that office for three years.

      AFTER the war, he served as Governor of the UNION state of North Carolina for EIGHT years and would have served a SIX year term in the UNITED STATES Senate had he not been discriminated against by Reconstruction-era Unionists.

      Vance’s monument is NOT to his Confederate service, it is to his many years of service to North Carolina, whichever nation it was a member of, and of his being arguably the most famous North Carolinian to come out of Western NC.

      Such petty politics of division. No wonder the Democrats are in such disarray, even against an embarrassment like Trump.

  2. C-Law

    Naw Jennifer, that’s just half-measures. Burn it all down. And I mean ALL OF IT! Remove all whites, even those with just one drop of white blood and have them removed back to Euroland or Caucasia or wherever off of this continent. Destroy anything and everything they touched, built, or had a hand in. But don’t stop there. All colored folks should be returned to the African continent as well, however, sent back with generous reparations as a parting gift. AS tough a time as they have had of it, they also are not native to this continent and don’t have ultimate claim to usurp these hallowed lands from the true First Peoples. The North, South, Antebellum and post Reconstruction USA governments have so much blood and despicable actions on its hands and the time is NOW for it to END! The blood-thirsty and evil empire aka USA shall thus be dissolved and all lands will be returned to the First Peoples and Texas and the Southwestern states will be receded back not to Mexico, but to their First Peoples as well of La Raza, but not to any of the despicable Euro-Spaniard conquistador bloodlines…only to pure-blooded Aztecas. Thus, true justice and peace will return to this continent and world-wide as well. Few if any will mourn the end of this horrid Empire of endless war, conquest, abuse, and tyranny. It cannot be saved through reform or political action…only by dismantling it and removal of all non-native people groups. If you claim to be progressive-left, etc. and you don’t support these ultimate aims you are worse than a hypocrite. Renounce your white, black, non-native privilege and exit this continent so that the First Peoples may finally have the justice that they have long deserved!

    • bsummers

      Whoa, lighten up, C-Law (if that is your real name). We’re just saying, “Lets not celebrate the whole civil war, white supremacy, pro-slavery thang anymore”.

      • C-Law

        Sure what with your white male privilege you assume you can order me to “lighten up!” Your words indicate just another white man thinking he can order “others” (I noted your passive-aggressive questioning even of my identity…white male privilege again) around and dominate every discussion as if your white male thoughts are more true than other people. You might consider yourself “progressive” or of the left, but you can’t deny what is in your DNA and what you are–just another white man, full of assumed and institutionalized privilege. If you really are down for justice you would voluntarily leave this continent and actually accomplish something tangible for people of color and the First Peoples.

        In addition, all the various statues and monuments to the “Buffalo Soldiers” that exist must be toppled as well due to their participation in the US Empire’s genocidal wars against the First Peoples…they have innocent blood on their hands of which their former slave status does not absolve. They voluntarily and willingly committed these atrocities in the furtherance of the evil empire and their record and monuments must also be toppled into the dustbin of history!

        • bsummers

          Or as they said in Lemmings, “If you wanna do something really meaningful, we got TNT suppositories for everybody.”

          Yeah, we’re just trying to make things a little better around here.

          “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards”
          Max Weber

          • Peter Robbins

            Habit is habit, and not to be flung out the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs one step at a time.” — Mark Twain

  3. Jason W

    While we’re at it, why don’t we consider a name change for our city too. Governor Samuel Ashe was a plantation owning, states-rights advocate from the Eastern part of the State.

    • bsummers

      Did he lead troops in the war to split the US, so as to continue the practice of slavery?

      • Jason W

        No, but his grandsons fought in the Civil War. It’s hard to say what his opinion was on the issues since he died 48 years before the onset of war, but it’s a good bet that he probably would have sided with the south, as many people in the state did, because they were doing what they thought was their duty. It still seems funny to me how we can look past the wrong committed by some historical people, yet fixate on those very same wrongs in others.
        I don’t think any person is entirely good, or bad. Our moral and ethical code is a product of the time we live in, our environment, and experiences. Take the increasingly execrated Zebulon Vance for example. He was a complex, and sometimes contradictory person, as pointed out by Dr Milton Ready in his June 25, 2015 XPress Commentary: When Past is Present: Zeb Vance and His Monument. https://mountainx.com/opinion/when-past-is-present-zeb-vance-and-his-monument/ Yet for all the questionable things he said or participated in, he still did a lot of good for WNC and NC in general, and he was greatly admired by it’s citizens when they chose to build a monument to him three years after his death. Even George Pack, one of Asheville’s greatest benefactors and philanthropists, contributed $2000 of his own money towards the project. Vance couldn’t have been all bad.
        My point I’m trying to illustrate is that if it seems absurd to rename our beloved city, because it’s namesake may have been a slave-owning POS, it should seem equally absurd to demand the removal and renaming of historic Asheville landmarks and memorials because of the very same reasons. I feel that some of these reactions are overblown and looks to shift the blame somewhere else, so we can distance ourselves from it and somehow make ourselves “better” people than these “horrid” people who don’t deserve any recognition at all.
        For better, or for worse, these people are part of Asheville, and Buncombe County History. Asheville recognizes people like Vance, Woodfin, Patton, McDowell, Baird, Weaver, Merrimon and Reynolds, because of the significant contributions they made to our city as both private citizens and public figures. Was everything they did great? Certainly not. These people certainly made some questionable choices. But should we really blot out these people from our history, because we don’t like some of the things they did?
        Sure, replace the plaques put up by The Daughters of The Confederacy with ones that highlight the contributions of minority citizens to our city. Put into context the achievements of our prominent citizens by emphasizing the price paid for those achievements by our forgotten ones. One can even remove the memorials to to people like Robert E. Lee, who have nothing to do with the history of Asheville, but don’t try to sanitize the city I was born and raised in, and love because you’re offended by what some of our historical figures did a century and a half ago.

        • bsummers

          1) Nobody is suggesting we take down or recontextualize monuments just because someone was “a slave-owning POS”.

          2) Nobody is suggesting we “blot out these people from our history”.

          All I hear suggested is let’s stop celebrating and honoring in the public square, people who were strong advocates for protecting slavery and splitting the nation in two over it. Get it? Nobody’s chasing down every record of anyone who ever owned slaves, and taking whiteout to the history books. We’re just saying, stop making us pretend that we should honor these particular men who led the fight to try to split the nation in two over slavery.

          And since we see that there are those who clearly celebrate these figures for reasons of white supremacy, well, that makes it a moral imperative to take action. Whats-his-name down in SC who waved the Confederate flag and then shot up an African-American church ensured that that flag was no longer welcome. Same thing should happen with these statues.

    • Peter Robbins

      I see where you’re going with this, Jason W, and you can just forget it. There’s already a Robbinsville in North Carolina.

      • bsummers

        Robbinsberg? Robbinstown? Robbinsboro? The-City-Formerly-Known-As-Asheville?

        • Peter Robbins

          Apparently, I misunderstood. Jason W doesn’t really want to rename Asheville. He just wants to remind us of all the good things Zeb Vance did after his slaveholding days and duty to the Rebellion were over. Well, lessee here. Apart from his lifelong white supremacy and relentless efforts to protect white folks from nasty Reconstruction Republicans (including his refusal to accept the legitimacy of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments), and apart from his reactionary opposition to the Civil Service Reform Act, the Great Man’s most important civic contributions were his promotion of public education and his fanatical push to complete the Western North Carolina Railroad. The education, of course, was segregated. And the railroad? Well, let historian Gordon McKinney tell the story:

          “[Z]eb, in his first message to the legislature, had recommended that all available state convicts be sent to the Western North Carolina Railroad camp in McDowell County. He also requested that county prisoners who would have been transferred to the state penitentiary be sent directly to this same camp. The use of convict labor was becoming standard throughout the South during this period. By placing convicts at the work site, the Southern states eliminated many of the costs of maintaining prisoners in prison buildings. The use of convict labor also allowed the state to make investments in projects through labor without having to raise taxes. Since the vast majority of prisoners were African Americans, the convict labor system differed very little from the coerced industrial labor system of slavery.

          * * *

          The consequence of the unrelenting schedule that Zeb dictated was that approximately 125 convicts died during the construction of the Western North Carolina Railroad. It thereby qualifies as one of the most egregious industrial construction disasters in North Carolina history. The official explanation for the slaughter was that many who died were African Americans from the eastern part of the state who were unprepared for the cold winter.”

          (Zeb Vance, p. 334 & 335-37). Or, as writer Rebecca Harding Davis, put it: “The gorge swarmed with hundreds of wretched blacks in striped yellow convict garb. After their supper was cooked (over campfires) and eaten, they were drawn into a row of prison cars, where they were tightly boxed for the night, with no possible chance to obtain either air or light.” (p. 337).

          So there you have it. Even when he backslided into progressive policies, we can be proud that our Zeb never forgot the one great principle which animated his entire political career – that black lives don’t matter. How dare we git above our raising by thinking ourselves better’n that?

  4. Dave

    I think Jennifer is spot on on her letter. It would be nice to see city council use a little common sense for once, instead of a knee jerk reaction to any social cause that comes down the road. The Vance monument is indeed a focal point for people and groups to promote any and all viewpoints which make Asheville the city of diversity it prides itself on

    • bsummers

      The Vance monument is indeed a focal point

      The Vance monument occupies the spot that would always be a focal point, whether it was there or not. Put a nice shrubbery at the main intersection downtown, and “people and groups” would still gather there.

  5. Peter Robbins

    “When an old hen has set her time on a nest of rotten eggs, you do not put a new hen on the same eggs; you take a new nest and fresh eggs.” — Zeb Vance on contextualization

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