What’s in a monument—a complex view
by Rob Neufeld
History has become a subject of special interest with proposals surrounding the renovation of the Vance monument.
A petition now put forward by the UNCA Center for Diversity Education and other groups moves that an African American monument be placed in Pack Square, perhaps near the prominent 117-year-old obelisk.
The dedication date for the Vance monument had been Feb. 25, 1898 (four months after ground-breaking), not 1896, as is often reported. The idea came up in 1896 when George Willis Pack offered the county a courthouse site with the stipulation that the land in front of it would be a park with a monument to Vance.
“It was at this site,” the petition states, referring to pre-Pack Square days, “where enslaved people were sold and had the bills of sale recorded. In addition, enslaved people were punished and imprisoned at this same site yet no marker of any kind acknowledges this or the many contributions African Americans have made to this region.”
The first reference in the petition is to slave history, suggesting the need for a corrective to memorials to slave-owners, such as Vance.
“After 1898,” Dr. Darin Waters, a black heritage spokesperson says, “there was this effort to create monuments to a white supremacist past, because you wanted to create a certain message.”
Mentioned second in the petition are African American contributions.
If Asheville were to memorialize African American contributions, there are several sites that might accomplish that in a noteworthy way, and in a way that would contribute materially to African American life.
For one model, we look to Atlanta.
Comparisons and perspective
Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site is located in the Old Fourth Ward, a century-old African American neighborhood, which includes Dr. King’s birthplace and Sweet Auburn, a thriving black business district. It receives about 600,000 visitors a year.
There are economic and tangible aspects to Atlanta’s celebration of its black heritage.
The average median household income for black residents in metropolitan Atlanta is $41,047 compared to $33,632 for the nation—and in Asheville, $19,889, according to the American Fact Finder data base of the U.S. Census. (The median income for white households in Asheville is $47,120.)
One quarter of the businesses in Atlanta are African American-owned; in Asheville, it’s 2.9%. Comparing those numbers to the populations, one could say that
Atlanta is three-and-a-half times as successful as Asheville in nurturing a black middle class.
Should monuments, sites, and commemoratives go along with actual progress? Can a monument kickstart such progress? Or, is a symbol important enough by itself?
PHOTO CAPTION: Zebulon Baird Vance, c. 1875, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Brady-Handy Photograph Collection
Zebulon Vance, Buncombe County-born state governor and U.S. senator, opposed civil rights for African Americans during Reconstruction.
Campaigning for fellow Democrats, he took positions that became familiar in the South: on the one hand, underscoring and condemning what he and many white voters considered the radical policies of Republicans, who favored empowering (but not integrating with) African Americans; and on the other hand, coming out strongly against white racial violence.
In contrast, Vance’s positions on civil rights in other matters were progressive.
When the Confederacy implemented its military drafts, and convicted and punished evaders without the protection of habeas corpus, Vance, as governor, stood up to the violation of states’ as well as individual rights with more than just verbal resistance.
In May, 1863, he sent a squad of militia soldiers to get John W. Irvin out of a conscription camp prison after Irvin had not been allowed to use the exemption he’d been granted previously. The draft age had been raised, and Irvin’s substitute was no longer substitute material; he was draftable.
Vance put North Carolina law above Confederate war office proclamations, and said he would continue “to resist any such arrest upon the part of any person, not authorized by the legal order or process of a Court or Judge having jurisdiction of such cases.”
While Vance stood up against Confederate infringements of and slights against North Carolinians, his state, he told Jefferson Davis, was still the top provider of soldiers and clothing to the army—in a fight that Vance had opposed until President Lincoln had called for troops to put down South Carolina.
In 1874, while Vance was opposing African American rights, he was championing Jewish people “at a time when anti-Semitism was on the rise in Europe and America,” Gordon McKinney writes in his 2004 biography, “Zeb Vance.”
“Let us judge the Jew as we judge other men—by his merits,” Vance asserted in his famous lecture, “The Scattered Nation.” “And above all,” he continued, “let us cease the abominable injustice of holding the class responsible for the sins of the individual.”
In lectures he gave in the North after the Civil War, he upbraided his audiences for thinking that a majority of Southerners were in favor of slavery; for imposing penalties upon citizens who were following their government and defending their homeland; and for hypocrisy.
“Boston and Providence slavers,” Vance told a Boston audience in 1886, “vexed the seas in their ungodly search for kidnapped Africans to be bought in exchange for New England rum and sold to Southern plantations...We only bought your wares.”
The fundraising effort that the Society for the Historical Preservation of the 26th Regiment N.C. Troops has spearheaded to prevent deterioration of the Vance Monument refers to his serving as a Colonel of the 26th, and also to his remarkable rise from Reems Creek boyhood to a powerful representative of his people. His sense of humor, down-to-earth relations with all classes, love of his wife, scholarship, and oratory are a large part of his legacy.
So is his conformity to beliefs about white supremacy, which should show us how we all are vulnerable to the popular madnesses and rationalized sins of our times; not how we are better than our forebears.
Pack Square may be the best place for a monument to African Americans, but not because it makes a statement against another monument. And there are other sites and factors to consider, including who the monument is for.