Civic

Council on Obelisk: Risks Outweigh Benefits

Photo of the Vance Memorial before the controversy. The old BB&T building can be seen in the background.

Asheville – “Sneaky” was the word one caller used to describe the way Asheville City Council keeps rearranging its published agenda. Another noted that, in addition to changing the agenda, council is needlessly strict about making people wishing to comment abide by ever-changing and inconvenient rules and conditions, among which was her inability to listen to what council said on a topic while in the holding queue for five hours.

On the current agenda, Mayor Esther Manheimer had moved discussion of what to do with the Vance Monument from “Presentations and Reports” to “New Business.” She explained the Buncombe County Commissioners had voted on the matter Monday, and, since the city and county would be partnering on the project, she wanted the city’s procedures to mirror the county’s. As an added bonus, the public would be allowed to comment, theoretically if not practically.

Words have multiplied over whether the landmark should stay or go. Most agree slavery and racism are wrong; but there is no consensus on whether the monument is a stack of stones, a beautiful structure of historic significance, or a harmful weapon of oppression restraining people of color from reaching their potential.

Councilwoman Sandra Kilgore had a refreshing perspective. She said she didn’t want to “deepen the existing divide” as this country suffers “a lot of unrest and divisiveness.” She thought there were “better ways to bring the community together” than taking controversial action on a statue.

Kilgore said she used to walk past the monument on her way to UNC Asheville. She’s an artist who majored in art history. She found it, “a tremendous piece of art,” a relic of a bygone era, and one of the few architectural pieces from that period of Asheville’s history surviving. It had been designed by R.S. Smith, the architect in residence at the Biltmore Estate, and sponsored largely by George W. Pack.

It became more special to her when its time capsule was opened, and an issue of the Colored Enterprise was found inside. That told her people were being inclusive about setting the time capsule, the monument itself having been built by people of color.

“It was a dark time in our history,” she said, “but it was our history.” What was done was done, but the dedicatory plaque could be removed and the obelisk rededicated to somebody or something that didn’t own slaves. She suggested making it “the Unity Tower in the Freedom Plaza.” Instead, 120-130 years after the monument’s erection, society was still grappling with issues of equity and inclusion.

With a little more effort, she didn’t see why the community wouldn’t be able to find a way to use the statue to “build broader inclusion and togetherness.” She added she thought it had been her message of unity that had won her enough votes to be seated on council.

Comments from others on council reflected the same fallacy that would lead a cop to believe very few drivers break the speed limit. As elected officials, councilors are magnets for activists, so their experience is saturated with passionate, polarized conversations, while large swaths of the population likely couldn’t care less either way. Councilwoman Kim Roney, however, said she supported the monument’s removal, “as a matter of public safety.”

For some making public comment, the obelisk had been, “erected to terrorize blacks.” And Nicole Nickle, a descendent of Zebulun Vance and a restorative justice advocate, said whether or not one feels harmed is a personal experience that nobody else has the right to confirm or deny. She said she was white and still reaping the “privilege and access” afforded by her slave-owning ancestors. She recommended that leaders, instead of worrying about the cost of removing the monument, consider the societal costs of the harms inflicted by the monument every day it remains standing.

Two other speakers equated the effect of the monument to what a descendant of Holocaust survivors would endure walking past a statue of a Nazi every day. Rob Thomas, in not so many words, said the monument was an image for slaveholders who committed atrocities for the thrill of throwing their weight around and satisfying their needy egos. A handful of callers sounded like they’d been drinking the five hours they’d been on hold.

Among other callers, one, observing nobody was calling for the wrecking of buildings or roads named after slaveowners, favored swapping the plaque to a full dismantling. In follow-up, another said that, unlike the monument, roads and buildings have functional value. Some said the city should know what it was going to put in a hole before creating it, and others said that didn’t matter; people will continue to gather in that spot regardless of what is or isn’t there.

Robert Glenn suggested dismantling the obelisk and hauling the granite blocks to the “Pit of Despair” to create an artistic bridge. Besides being a symbol of connecting diverse communities, it could be a bridge to the past. And the present would “own” the past by repurposing the stones that once honored racial subjugation into a welcoming message of inclusivity.

The joint city-county Vance Monument Task Force, after conducting two virtual town halls and four education sessions and receiving over 700 public comments, recommended removal of the statue with an 11-1 vote. Council concurred with a 6-1 vote, Kilgore opposed.  Manheimer said this was just the beginning in a long process.

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