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NC Supreme Court hears arguments in Vance Monument removal case

 The remaining base of the Vance Monument, captured July 2023.
BPR News
The remaining base of the Vance Monument, captured July 2023.

For more than two years, the granite block pieces of the Vance Monument have remained disassembled at an undisclosed location, with only its base remaining at downtown Asheville’s Pack Square.

But for some parties, including the 26th North Carolina Regiment, a group dedicated to preserving the history of the confederate unit, the fight to reinstate the monument continues. On Wednesday, the NC Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Raleigh from the advocates who want the monument returned and their adversaries, the City of Asheville, and Buncombe County.

For many community members, the obelisk – and the legacy of Zebulon Vance – represents an enduring symbol of racism. Vance, a Confederate officer and later a North Carolina governor and state senator, enslaved people prior to the Civil War and fought against civil rights for Black Americans in the 19th century.

The 26th Regiment took legal action to keep the Vance Monument in response to the City of Asheville’s decision to take down the 75-foot granite obelisk in March 2021. The demolition followed the recommendation of a joint Vance Monument Task Force involving the City of Asheville and Buncombe County.

In April 2021, Edward Phillips, the 26th Regiment’s lawyer, filed an unsuccessful petition to attempt to stop the removal. The following month, the monument was disassembled block by block in a process that took several weeks. The Regiment appealed to the N.C. Court of Appeals who dismissed the case, stating the group did not have standing to make a claim. The Regiment again appealed, and the state’s highest court agreed to hear their claim.

In a statement from 2021, Vance Monument Task Force co-chairs Oralene Simmons and Deborah Miles explained why they recommended the removal of the monument.

"Black and African-American residents as well as other residents of the City of Asheville and Buncombe County have issued a clear call to remove the Vance Monument due to the harm it continues to impose on our community,” they wrote.

“By removing the monument, we are joining southern cities from Richmond to Raleigh to New Orleans to address the symbols that linger from the Civil War and Jim Crow that foster hate and racial terrorism. We want Black and African-American residents and visitors to feel welcomed in our downtown. We hope that the removal of the Vance Monument will begin the healing process for the Black, African-American and Indigenous individuals in Asheville."

 Pack Square Park in July 2023
BPR News
Pack Square Park is a focal point for demonstrations, art projects, and events in downtown Asheville.

The legal question

The central legal question under consideration by the Supreme Court’s seven justices is whether the confederate advocacy group has legal standing, or the right to bring a suit, over removal of the monument.

“The trial court ruled that the Plaintiff lacked standing to bring such a claim, and a three judge panel of the Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed that decision,” Eric Edgerton, a Woodfin Town Council member and the attorney representing Asheville, told BPR in an email. “The Supreme Court will be the final court to take up that same question.

Phillips, the plaintiffs’ attorney, told BPR that standing is at issue, but he believes his clients should be able to seek relief from the courts.

“In its simplest terms, standing is whether or not you can be a party before the court and – whether or not you have a claim, an injury, or an injury that can happen – that you can go to court and ask them to solve that problem,” Phillips told BPR.

The plaintiffs also alleged the City of Asheville committed a breach of contract when it decided to tear down the monument after it accepted a $115,000 payment in 2015 from the 26th Regiment to restore the century-old monument.

“When you couch it in terms of restoration, it’s kind of hard to say that you don’t intend a restoration to last well into the future,” Phillips said. “I mean no one undertakes a restoration just for the heck of it, you know just so it lasts another five years. That was never the intent.”

"Homesick" takes over the site of the former Vance Monument Saturday nights through Nov. 30.
BPR News
The art exhibit "Homesick," which took over the site of the former Vance Monument, last year.

Possible outcomes

Edgerton told BPR that after the oral arguments, it could take the NC Supreme Court anywhere from “one month to one year” to issue a written opinion. “I have seen six months pegged as the average time for opinions to issue, and that seems like a fairly reasonable estimate,” he said.

Phillips, citing the state’s Monument Protection Act, told BPR that he and his clients hope to see the monument reinstated at Pack Square Plaza.

According to North Carolina law, Phillips asserted, a monument that gets relocated “shall be relocated to a site of similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability, and access that are within the boundaries of the jurisdiction from which it was relocated.”

“Is there really anything in Asheville that's of similar prominence to Pack Square Park, which is basically the highest point in the city?” he said.

“We think the only place that meets those requirements is Pack Square Park. If the city believes there's another place that meets those requirements, we can talk about that, see if we can reach a resolution,” he said. "But otherwise, you know, we would like to see it reunited with the base and put back together and, you know, cleaned up.”

Since the demolition, the city has continued to reshape the legacy of Pack Square Park. It has hosted various art exhibits and performances – dubbed the Art in the Heart series – in the location where the obelisk once stood, as a way to “unite, heal, and strengthen the community.” And in September, Asheville City Council approved a formal plan to redesign the surrounding park with a mind towards racial equity.

Regardless of what happens with the case, the city plans to continue its renovation of Pack Square Park.

“The project scope is obviously much larger than the site of the former monument, so much of the plan could proceed regardless of the outcome of the Vance litigation,” City Attorney Brad Branham wrote in an email to BPR.

“In either case, the city intends to move forward with the project, and will adjust as needed based upon the court's ruling and any potential future litigation involving the monument.”

How to tune in

The arguments will be live-streamed starting at 9:30 a.m. on the NC Supreme Court’s Youtube channel. BPR will update this story as it develops. 

Correction: Eric Edgerton represents the City of Asheville. Buncombe County was a named defendant in the complaint but did not have an active role in litigation following the trial court's dismissal of the initial suit.

Laura Hackett joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in June 2023. Originally from Florida, she moved to Asheville more than six years ago and in that time has worked as a writer, journalist, and content creator for organizations like AVLtoday, Mountain Xpress, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has a degree in creative writing from Florida Southern College, and in 2023, she completed the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY's Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program. In her free time, she loves exploring the city by bike, testing out new restaurants, and hanging out with her dog Iroh at French Broad River Park.