Asked: The Vance Monument in Asheville, NC

Photo by @avltoday

As protests and vigils in Asheville continue after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others at the hands of police, an ongoing discussion around the Vance Monument at Pack Square has taken on a new dimension. 

The context

Zebulon Baird Vance was born in Buncombe County (in Reems Creek, where his home is now a historic site) in 1830. He studied law at the University of North Carolina, then moved to Asheville, where he became county solicitor

He was a member of the NC House of Commons (1854) and the US House of Representatives (1858-61). He supported secession but was a Unionist until President Lincoln called for troops and the Civil War began in 1861. At that time, he founded + served with the Rough and Ready Guards, a company that later became part of the Fourteenth Regiment in the Confederate Army. 

He was elected Colonel of the Twenty-sixth North Carolina infantry. In 1862 he became NC’s Civil War governor. He was arrested in 1865 for supporting Confederate troops more than any other governor, and after his release he returned to law, where he defended clients like the accused murdered Tom Dula (the inspiration for the song “Tom Dooley”). 

He was a US senator from 1879, where he was considered an effective mediator between the northern and southern US, until his death in 1894. He also led a party that supported segregationist policies during his time as senator. Vance was himself a slave owner and never spoke against slavery. He was in opposition to equal rights.

The monument

The monument was erected in 1897 and is 75’ tall. It was designed by architect Richard Sharp Smith, who fashioned it after the Washington Monument and built from granite blocks.

Originally, the name Vance and a Masonic symbol were the only inscriptions on the monument. The Masons also placed the cornerstone of the monument.

In 1938, the Daughters of the Confederacy added a bronze rededication plaque.

In 2015, the monument underwent a $150,000 restoration and was rededicated again.   

There are other monuments to Vance in NC and Washington, DC – on the grounds of the NC Capitol and in the US Capitol’s Statuary HallThere’s also a monument to Vance at Fletcher’s Calvary Episcopal Church in an area known as the “Westminster Abbey of the South,” 

Another historical note: enslaved peoples were sold near Pack Square Park, where the monument was placed.

The conversation

While removing or recontextualizing the monument has been on Ashevillian agendas for years, things are complicated. A 2015 state law prohibits the removal of monuments, memorials, or works of art owned by the state – or their alteration – unless approved by the NC Historic Commission. Objects on public property may be temporarily relocated. Exceptions may be made for construction, redesign of public areas, or when the object is “a threat to public safety because of an unsafe or dangerous condition” – but it must be deemed so by a building inspector or similar official to pose a physical threat (of falling over, for example).  

Last week, Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger suggested taking the monument down + moving it to the historic Vance birthplace, noting that it will continue to cost taxpayers money because vandalization requires cleanup. He also suggested that the monument is a danger to public safety and could be removed for that reason.

Local historian Kevan Frazier suggested removing Zebulon Vance’s name and the dedication panels, including the rededication plaque placed by the Daughters of the Confederacy, and potentially moving those to a museum where they could be contextualized. 

Here are some of the other ideas presented in these and other statements –

  • Establish a city commission with diverse membership to lead a conversation about what to do with the monument and make their recommendation to Council. 
  • Erect a monument nearby honoring black history in Asheville.
  • Add other monuments that invite recontextualization.
  • Create an area, like a park, specifically for Confederate monuments.
  • Remove and destroy it.
  • Leave it as is.

Since the protests began, the monument has been a target of protestors, who have defaced it and sprayed it with graffiti.

We’d love to hear from you about the monument’s fate. Plus, here’s what folks are saying over on our Instagram.