With a new “vision” for Pack Square in the works, I’m hoping that plan doesn’t involve a newly rebuilt Vance Monument.
Often, I agree with those trying to preserve old houses or historic buildings. But in the case of Pack Square and the former Vance Monument at the center of downtown Asheville, I hope the preservationists lose their case in the state’s Supreme Court.
The city, which removed the monument in 2021, has prevailed so far in its case, and now it comes down to the state’s top court, which will hear oral arguments in the case in early November. I’m hoping the North Carolina Supreme Court lets stand the city’s decision to remove the 75-foot obelisk that had towered over Pack Square since 1898.
Because, in the end, it was a monument to white supremacy.
As Asheville continues to explore ideas for overhauling Pack Square — the consultant released a draft plan of ideas for “Reimagining Asheville’s Central Square” in late July — the arguments over Zebulon Vance, the obelisk, and whether it should have been taken down continue to bubble up. In short, the case is far from over.
The Society for the Historical Preservation of the 26th North Carolina Troops sued the city in 2021, asserting Asheville had violated an agreement that allowed the organization to refurbish the monument, at a cost of nearly $140,000.
I’ve heard the argument that some folks are trying to “rewrite history” or maybe erase it with the monument’s removal, but I think that misses the point. What these statues and monuments represented was veneration of these individuals — lifting them up as examples of what people should be.
Quite literally, they were put on a pedestal.
As was Vance. In fact, the base of the obelisk — essentially the pedestal — proved unusually stubborn to remove, so it remains for now in Pack Place. To me, it’s a symbol of just how difficult it is to remove the stain of racism and hate from our country’s history.
I also understand that Vance was a man of his times, and in those times slavery was an institution in the South, and even in parts of the North. But it’s not like no one was pointing out back then that it was wrong, that the subjugation of an entire race of people was immoral, brutal, and monstrous.
‘The putrid stream of African barbarism’
The biography of Vance on the North Carolina Historic Sites webpage tackles the man’s shortcomings head on.
“Born in the Reems Creek Valley on May 13, 1830, Zebulon Vance became one of the most famous and controversial politicians in North Carolina history,” it starts.
The site notes Vance and his wife, Harriette, settled in Asheville and the “household relied on the labor of enslaved people.”
“By 1860, six people were enslaved by Zebulon and Hattie Vance,” the website continues. “Based on research, we know that Isaac, Julia, Hannah, Marion, and two unnamed children worked in the garden, cooked the meals, cleaned the house, did the laundry, and helped raise the Vances’ children.”
A lawyer, Vance served in the North Carolina Senate and then the U.S. Congress, where he was known for his oratory, including strong support of slavery. As his bio notes, on the cusp of the Civil War, Vance said in a March 16, 1860, speech:
“What, then, is best and right to be done with our slaves? Plainly and unequivocally, common sense says keep the slave where he is now — in servitude. The interest of the slave himself imperatively demands it. The interest of the master, of the United States, of the world, nay, of humanity itself, says, keep the slave in his bondage…”
The website further notes: “As he later stated, Vance believed that ‘the general welfare and prosperity of our country, the very foundation of our society, of our fortunes, and, to a greater or lesser extent, the personal safety of our people, combine to make us defend [slavery] to the last extremity.’”
Vance became a colonel in the Confederacy’s Twenty-Sixth Regiment of North Carolina Volunteers, then moved back into politics and was elected governor of North Carolina in 1862 and was re-elected in 1864.
After the war, the history notes, “With his strongly held belief in white supremacy, Vance naturally gravitated away from the Republican party of Lincoln and gave his support to Conservatives. Using his considerable political clout, Vance began campaigning on behalf of Conservative politicians within the state, using extremely racist dialogue to gain supporters.”
This was the same time the Ku Klux Klan “arose as a terrorist organization, resorting to violence and murder to rig local elections throughout the state,” the website states.
“The Klan’s violence, supported by the Conservative party, intensified in advance of the 1870 election. Vance capitalized on the tension created by the Klan in the mountain region to help the Conservatives sweep the western counties. With these victories, Vance’s party took a majority of seats in the legislature.”
Vance won a third term as governor in 1877 and later a U.S. Senate seat. To his credit, as governor he “prioritized education and agricultural reform, and — most significantly for western North Carolina — Vance was eager to bring the railroad to his home region through any means necessary.”
While the railroad opened the mountains up to tourism, industry, and population growth, its construction became another exercise in brutality for the African Americans who built it.
“Early in his term, Vance spoke in favor of convict labor and promised that the tracks would be laid into Asheville within the year. This push for speed led to extreme abuses of the convicted laborers working in harsh conditions to construct the railroad,” the history states.
Many of these “convicts” were picked up on vagrancy charges — essentially not having a job — and forced into unpaid labor. Almost all of the 558 convicts were Black men, and “at least 125 convict laborers died as a direct result of ill-treatment, the danger of the work, and the harsh punishments doled out by guards,” the website states.
That’s not a legacy most North Carolinians are aware of when they hear the trains rumbling through the mountains.
While the Historic Sites biography is straightforward about Vance’s racism, it leaves out some of his more hateful language.
As local historian Jon Elliston has previously stated:
“Vance also wrote that the ‘putrid stream of African barbarism’ runs through the veins of Black people, including, presumably, his slaves,” Elliston wrote. “When we talk about the monument to Vance, this is who we’re talking about.”
What we’re left with here is this: Whom do we want to venerate?
I’m going to say we do not need to venerate Vance. Or rebuild the monument. He not only owned slaves, he reviled the Black race, after profiting from their labor.
City stands by its position
Regarding the court case, Asheville City Attorney Brad Branham said via email the city got “favorable final decisions in this case from the Buncombe County Superior Court and the N.C. Court of Appeals.” Those decisions were appealed, though, sending the case to the top court.
Branham said the city’s position remains constant.
“We believe that the purported ‘contract,’ alleged by the plaintiffs in this action to give them rights to ensure that the monument is never removed, is categorically without merit,” Branham wrote. “State law further provides specific authority for local governments to remove these structures under certain circumstances, and the city has followed that process.”
“Until we hear word from the Supreme Court, the stones removed from the monument site will remain in secure storage to ensure their security,” he added.
Of course, the plaintiffs disagree with the city’s take, and they feel the agreement was binding. One of their court filings states:
“It is undisputed that plaintiff funded and oversaw the restoration of the Vance Monument; and that it did so under a written contract with the City of Asheville. Yet, in little more than five years after the Monument was rededicated, defendants decided that it was time to bow to political pressure and to remove the obelisk from Pack Square Park. This decision on the part of defendant city arguably constituted a breach of the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing which undergirds every contract which is enforceable in law.”
I had an interesting conversation with the plaintiff’s attorney, Ed Phillips, who first noted that oral arguments in the case are slated for Nov. 1. This will be the final stop for the case.
We talked quite a bit about the complexity of the Civil War, the notion of presentism (judging past lives by present standards), the rift in the country then, and now, over race.
Phillips, who majored in history before going to law school, said he has an east Tennessee ancestor who fought for the Union, but he has other ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. It’s easy, he said, for us to Monday morning quarterback a war that began 162 years ago.
“How long are we going to relitigate a war that has been over for almost 160 years?” Phillips said. “How long are we going to say there’s no getting along until everything is done one way and not another way?”
Phillips said when he approached taking the case, he asked relatives and friends for their opinions. One friend is a Black man who grew up in segregation, served in the military and works as an engineer now.
“He said, ‘I know what these monuments are — they’re monuments to the dead. And as a combat veteran, I don’t have a problem with them,’” Phillips said.
At the end of the day, Phillips told me, the Vance Monument was “an inanimate object.”
“Every nation has had its foibles,” Phillips said. “But the only way forward is to embrace one another in friendship, in a brotherhood and sisterhood.”
I appreciate that sentiment. I really do, and I agree with it, although I’ll say slavery was more than just a foible. And the Vance Monument may have been an amalgam of stones and mortar, but it was much more than an inanimate object — it symbolized the old Confederacy and what it stood for to many Black people.
Everything changed in America in the wake of the May 2020 murder of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor that same year — and many more over the decades — changed the very core of America.
Floyd’s slaying in particular opened the eyes, finally, of so many white people who never really understood what it meant to be Black in America, to be the descendants of people accused of having a “putrid stream of barbarism” running through their veins, to be discounted and killed without thought or consequence.
‘It would really be a step back…’
Draw a line from 1619 to the Civil War to the erection of monuments like the Vance Obelisk to decades of Jim Crow laws, segregation, lynchings, red-lining, race “riots” where Blacks were slaughtered, and yes, even to modern America where racism and inequality persist.
We haven’t made it to Dr. King’s promised land yet, and we won’t get there by walking backward. And that’s what re-erecting the Vance Monument would be.
“I think it would be just as offensive today as it has been when it was up,” Oralene Simmons, the co-chair of the Vance Monument Task Force, which recommended the monument’s removal, told me. “And I think more people would speak out against putting it back now, because people are more in a frame of mind of rallying today because of so many of the unjust and wrong things that we have experienced.”
Simmons, the first Black person to integrate Mars Hill College, said the George Floyd murder in particular allowed America to “actually be able to see it, and play it over and over again.” In short, to believe prejudice is real.
She would have no problem with the monument, or its stones, being stored or displayed in a museum — a place where people intentionally want to see it, Simmons said. But putting it back up in the center of town where no one can miss it?
“It would really be a step back, which is really out of step with today’s times,” Simmons said. “I think it would reopen old wounds, and it would call people to action.”
That’s not the path to any kind of real brotherhood or sisterhood in our community.
Let’s hope the Supreme Court upholds Asheville’s decision.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at email@example.com. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.