The city of New Orleans earlier this year removed statues of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee. Asheville has its own monument to a Confederate leader – Zebulon Vance, who served as North Carolina’s governor during the Civil War and U.S. Senator during the post-war Reconstruction period. The future of the prominent landmark in Pack Square - home to two other monuments honoring the Confederacy - is now under debate, as is the lack of equivalent commemoration of Asheville’s deep African-American history.
In the second of two stories (part one can be found here), BPR’s Matt Bush looks at not just the Vance Monument itself, but all Pack Square and the little known history of the city’s most prominent public space.
The Asheville municipal building sits at the other end of Pack Square from the Vance Monument. It’s home to the city’s police and fire departments - and a new plaque that honors the man who designed the building, James Vester Miller. “Mr. Miller was the son of a slave and a slave master”, says historian Kevan Frazier. The owner and operator of Asheville By Foot walking tours says Miller is a crucial figure in how Asheville looks today. “When he was in about 5th grade he got bored with school and was very interested in construction, notably brick masonry. He apprenticed with brick masons and became an extraordinary brick mason himself. He opened his own construction firm and most of our most beloved buildings here in Asheville were done by his firm.”
What’s notable about the Miller plaque installed on the municipal building late last month is that it is one of the few if any commemorations of Asheville’s African-American history on its most prominent space, Pack Square. UNC-Asheville political scientist Dwight Mullen writes the annual “State of Black Asheville” report. He says the lack of memorials and commemorations adds to the issues the city’s dwindling black population already faces. “It’s very difficult when we can’t point to specific things that you’re roots are in. To tell you this is what you have been about. This is where you come from and look at where you might go. For a lot kids here, a lot young people, and even adults – they’re without purpose.”
Mullen says a lot of the history for African-Americans in Pack Square is painful. Not only was it the site of slave auctions before the Civil War - “But after slavery it was the site of the domestic servitude that African-Americans and particularly African-American women (endured) in terms of being day laborers for the wealthy class here.” Mullen explains during the Jim Crow era, day laborers – mostly black women - were picked up on nearly the exact some spot slaves were auctioned off a century before. They did chores for wealthy families such as washing and ironing before being dropped back off at the square. Nothing right now in Pack Square points to this history at all. “We’re at a stage, and I really do think this is evolutionary, I think it takes time to work people to it. A more mature approach includes not just some of our positive accomplishments but also some of our failings.”
So - what of the Vance Monument? Named for a Confederate leader, slave holder, and politician who stoked racial animosities to stop full civil rights from being granted to African-Americans following the Civil War? The discussion of the future of the monument has focused on removing or renaming it, or contextualizing it by placing interpretive signs around the monument that tell the full story of Zebulon Vance. Professor Dwight Mullen has a thought, prefacing it with how he is not an elected official which might allow him to speak more freely. “I think that a proper commemoration would be to let it fall down. Let it lay where it drops. Because it is a monument to the Confederacy. And we can’t forget that historic element of Asheville, it participated in the Civil War on the losing side.”
Asheville mayor Esther Manheimer is an elected official, and her thoughts on the future of the Vance Monument are more measured. “I think that’s a fairly complicated issue. I think that is not something that one person can unilaterally make a decision about. I think it will require a community conversation.”
The city may not be able to remove the monument even if it wanted to, thanks to a state law passed two years ago. The Historic Artifact Management and Patriotism Act of 2015 forbids local governments from removing permanently statues like the Vance Monument without the approval of the North Carolina Historical Commission. So, the Vance Monument isn’t going anywhere for now. And to UNC-Asheville history professor Darin Waters, that presents an opportunity. “I’m not necessarily advocating the removal of these (monuments) but I am advocating for us to re-imagine how the monuments are interpreted. Because they provide objects from which we can learn and from which we can talk about deeper things. Not just surface level things regarding history and memory.”
There’s also a statue of Zebulon Vance on the grounds of the North Carolina state capitol in Raleigh, as well as in the U.S Capitol’s Statutory Hall, where each U.S state gets to memorialize two citizens with statues. So Asheville isn’t alone on the Vance question, nor on whether Confederate leaders should still be memorialized. All of the South is still answering that question.
UNC-Asheville will host a 2-day symposium called 'Zebulon B. Vance Reconsidered' on September 14 & 15th. The event is free and open to the public.