I recently attended a conference at the Grove Park Inn where I was mesmerized by a talk Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson gave. Her book The Warmth of Other Suns describes the Great Migration of 6 million African-Americans out of the caste system and the daily terror attacks carried out in the South between 1915 and 1970.
At the conference, Wilkerson spoke about the power of narrative to help people heal and promote a sense of self, of belonging. UNC researchers, she noted, have studied the cultural socialization of African-American students. They found that the more family and community stories fifth-graders knew, the higher their self-esteem and academic achievement were by the time they were in the seventh grade. Accordingly, she implored the audience to tell family and community stories to empower the next generation, helping build resilience and fortitude.
One story this community is telling right now concerns Zebulon Vance and the monument in his honor placed in Pack Square, directly across from the seat of local power. The monument was dedicated in the 1890s, at the height of the re-emergence of white power and Jim Crow laws. And like many of his peers, Vance was a complicated person: Freemason, slave owner, lawyer, state legislator, commander of the Confederate 26th North Carolina Regiment, governor, maker of a prison labor system using “vagrant” African-Americans, U.S. senator — and advocate of religious tolerance who spoke on behalf of the much-maligned Jewish community.
A “rededication” of the newly restored monument (from the Latin “monere,” to remember; to warn) will take place on June 6. But what, exactly, are we being asked to rededicate to? Which current Asheville fifth-graders are getting their sense of self and place reinforced so that their seventh-grade test scores will reflect their growing confidence that they, too, are part of this community?
During the same conference, Douglas Blackmon, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book Slavery by Another Name, asked an audience of 500 people if there were Confederate monuments in their community — and, if so, “What are you doing about it?” The way he sees it, these monuments need to be “curated” as the museum objects they are, rather than continually glorified.
Taking Blackmon’s words to heart, then, how are we to curate the Vance Monument and the four other Confederate monuments nearby?
As an educator, I would start by considering point of view.
At the monument’s original dedication, Tennessee Gov. R.L. Taylor sang Vance’s praises, declaring, “Through all his long and brilliant career, his love for humanity never waned, and his devotion to country never cooled.” But did that include the 33 percent of North Carolinians who were African-American? As a curator, I’d also compare and contrast the choices Vance made with those of Gen. Alvan Gillem of Tennessee. Vance didn’t initially favor the split between the North and South, but after the shelling of Fort Sumter, he reluctantly decided to fight against his country. Gillem, on the other hand, left the South to fight for the Union and later led the army of liberation into Asheville to free the enslaved community. How would a discussion of their respective choices inform today’s young people?
I might also revisit Vance’s other roles (Mason, lawyer, senator, etc.) and ask each of those organizations’ members how they’re curating their own understanding of who Vance was and what his complex legacy directs them to do today.
Given Vance’s efforts to combat anti-Semitism, it’s possible that he might eventually have changed his mind about African-Americans and the caste system that continues to rip our country apart today. Would he want his memory to be harnessed to the resurgence of white supremacy in the U.S.? As a lifelong Southerner and the descendant of multiple slave-owning families tracing all the way back to Jamestown, I know that my ancestors would want these 21st-century acts of reconciliation and understanding to be carried out on their behalf as well.
I urge all those attending the June 6 rededication to see it as the time to reconsider this person and time period, in part, as cultural artifacts. Rather than focusing only on honor and glory, I implore speakers and audience members alike to face history’s shadow side, and our own, to address this complex story in a way that embraces all the impacts. I also ask that a word be said on behalf of all the people who were bought and sold on that very spot — still publicly owned — with the full support of multiple levels of government.
There are also other, more durable ways to re-envision this monument and others like it. One powerful way would be placing additional markers around these core artifacts to reinterpret their meaning, so that all fifth-graders for the next 100 years might see themselves as part of the soaring obelisk’s story — and draw on the resulting self-confidence to do their own academic soaring in future years.
Deborah Miles is the executive director of the Center for Diversity Education at UNC Asheville.