Asheville – The city is facing a reckoning of history and memory at the steps of the Vance Monument in Asheville. The 65-foot granite obelisk in Pack Square is arguably the most central and recognizable location in the city. As part of a reexamination of history and memories, the Western North Carolina Historical Association (WNCHA) in collaboration with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of North Carolina at Asheville (UNC-A) held a virtual symposium focusing on Asheville’s monuments and commemoration on Saturday (Oct. 17).
The granite giant has loomed over Asheville’s chronicle of protest and unrest, the most recent being the June 2020 George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests which were tainted in part by rioting. According to Dr. Dwight Mullen, professor emeritus of political science at UNC-A 2016, nearly 10,000 attended the Women’s March, filling Pack Square under the shadow of the obelisk. The last rally of the Klu Klux Klan in Asheville used the site as part of its rally point. They were greeted by a thousand Asheville residents protesting against their demonstration.
“This is the kind of community dialogue that the Zebulon Vance [Monument] if it could speak, would remember and tell us about,” said Dr. Mullen.
The symposium aimed to facilitate community engagement and dialogue in advance of the Vance Monument Task Force’s anticipated report at the end of October. The task force was established by Asheville City Council to make recommendations for the legacy of the Vance Monument and Pack Square. Scholars from neighboring institutions spoke on the man behind the monument.
The obelisk honors former Colonel, Governor, and US Congressman Zebulon B. Vance, of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Born in Buncombe County, Vance was a Confederate military officer, a proponent of succession, and later North Carolina’s 37th and 43rd governor. His most troubling legacy is his connection to slavery.
“In talking about Vance’s views of honor both state and personal, he saw the preservation of slavery as a central part of that honor. When confronted with defeat and reconstruction, Zebulon Vance was defiant. He accepted slavery’s demise, but not black equal citizenship, never equality. In fact, he worked as diligently to overthrow reconstruction as he did to secure Confederate independence,” said Dr. Steve Nash, professor of Civil War & Reconstruction history at East Tennessee State University.
The City of Asheville, like many others, wrestles with the fate of controversial monuments. Vance has been immortalized in stone on the grounds of the US Capitol and in Raleigh on State Capitol grounds. A building at his alma mater, UNC, and a monument in Charlotte all bear his name.
Dr. Nash argued that the simplified version of Vance’s accomplishments as governor, which is often immortalized in monuments, does not convey the complicated past of the man and his state.
Vance’s often illustrious legacy, “Is a vision that initially, is rooted in a history of controversy that cannot ignore race…The celebratory positioning of the memorial is out of place with its actual history and symbolism,” said Dr. Mullen
Dr. Mullen spoke about the long legacy of white supremacy that the monument and its home in Pack Square have, even apart from Vance. Pack Square has hosted slave markets, segregated