Soaring ideals: Rethinking Asheville’s Vance Monument

THE HUB: Here’s Pack Square circa 1930, looking east, with Asheville City Hall and both the 1903 and 1928 Buncombe County Courthouses in the distance. Photo by George Masa. Original photo held by the NC Div. of Archives & History, this print courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, North Carolina
Deborah Miles
The author, Deborah Miles, is the executive director of the Center for Diversity Education at UNC Asheville

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.

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5 thoughts on “Soaring ideals: Rethinking Asheville’s Vance Monument

  1. Big Al

    Vance was the governor of North Carolina while it was part of the Union for TWICE as long as he was governor of Confederate NC, and he WOULD HAVE served six years as a NC Senator if his service in the Confederate Army and government had not been held against him. That is 14 prospective years of elected public service for the state AFTER the war compared to 1 as a soldier and 4 as an elected official during the rebellion. How does this make a monument to Vance a “Confederate Monument”? Clearly Ms. Miles has a political agenda here which has blinded her to her duties as an educator, which include bringing ALL of the facts to her students, not just the ones that fit her narrow political convictions. Vance does not need to apologize for his service, nor does any other institution that claims him. If anyone should apologize, it is Ms. Miles for needlessly politicizing our history.

  2. Roger McCredie

    “We are witnessing a cultural and political atrocity — an increasingly successful campaign by the media and an academic elite to strip young white Southerners, and arguably black Southerners as well, of their heritage, and therefore their identity. They are being taught to forget their forefathers, or to remember them with shame…. to silence them on matters central to their self respect and dignity is … to build up in them harsh resentments … Black Americans have good reason to protest vigorously against the disgraceful way their history has been taught, or, worse, ignored, and to demand a record of the nobility and heroism of the black struggle for freedom and justice. But that record dare not include the falsification or obliteration of the noble and heroic features of the white South. To teach the one without the other is to invite deepening racial animosity … ” — Eugene Genovese, PhD, Distinguished Scholar-in-Residentce at the University Center in Atlanta and author of “Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.

  3. Roger McCredie

    “We are witnessing a cultural and political atrocity — an increasingly successful campaign by the media and an academic elite to strip young white Southerners, and arguably black Southerners as well, of their heritage, and therefore their identity. They are being taught to forget their forefathers, or to remember them with shame…. to silence them on matters central to their self respect and dignity is … to build up in them harsh resentments … Black Americans have good reason to protest vigorously against the disgraceful way their history has been taught, or, worse, ignored, and to demand a record of the nobility and heroism of the black struggle for freedom and justice. But that record dare not include the falsification or obliteration of the noble and heroic features of the white South. To teach the one without the other is to invite deepening racial animosity … ” — Eugene Genovese, PhD, Distinguished Scholar-in-Residentce at the University Center in Atlanta and author of “Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.”

  4. Southern Born as Well

    Ms. Miles acknowledges her southern roots, but this southerner is puzzled by one statement: ” daily terror attacks carried out in the South between 1915 and 1970.” Terror attacks -terror attacks? – occurring daily -daily? – for 55 years? This makes it sound like the South was a continuous war zone for blacks, akin to present-day Iraq and Syria. I don’t remember living in this war zone between 1950 and 1970, although I do remember a few Ku Klux Klan rallies and even one whispered conversation one morning between my parents about a cross burning the previous night.
    Others have put Ms. Miles’s comments – which deserve thoughtful consideration – into the perspective of Vance’s accomplishments.

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