The Future Of The Vance Monument Pt. 1 - A Closer Look At Zebulon Vance's Political Career

Aug 8, 2017

The Vance Monument in Pack Square is one of downtown Asheville’s most recognizable landmarks.  It honors Zebulon Vance, North Carolina’s governor during the Civil War and U.S. Senator during the Reconstruction period.  It has stood for over a hundred years.  But following the removal of Confederate flags and statues in Charleston and New Orleans, the discussion over the future of the Vance Monument in Asheville is becoming unavoidable.

In the first of two stories, BPR’s Matt Bush takes a deep look at the Confederate leader whose name adorns the monument.

The prominent placement of the Vance Monument on the high point of Pack Square in the center of downtown is no mistake says Darin Waters, a professor of history at UNC-Asheville (and co-host of The Waters & Harvey Show on BPR News).  “These monuments, especially those that commemorate the Civil War, they are all positioned in spaces of power.  Go throughout North Carolina, to any place, and it’s easy to find the Confederate monuments.  They’re all near the courthouse or city hall.  Which is where the power center of any city or any locale is”, Waters says.

Finished in 1898, the obelisk stands 65-feet tall, and resembles a smaller version of the Washington Monument on the National Mall in D.C.  “This was a concerted effort to perpetuate a certain memory into the future.  The perpetuation of a memory of power, of who was in charge and who was not."

The Vance Monument is also located at Asheville’s economic center, as evidenced by all the construction noise. It’s surrounded on three sides by three major construction projects, including the total remodeling of the former BB&T building, the tallest in the city.  "What narrative is more important?  Because we’re standing in Pack Square where the Vance Monument is.  But right across the street would have been the (old Buncombe County) courthouse.  And that is where African-Americans would have been sold.”

There is nothing memorializing the slave auctions that were held in the square, save for a sentence on an interpretive historical sign.  Zebulon Vance owned slaves.  His father owned even more on the family’s homestead in nearby Weaverville says Steven Nash, author of the book “Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge: The Politics of Post-War Life in the Southern Mountains”. “His father had about 17 slaves.  Which doesn’t put him in the planter class according to most historians.  But that’s kind of a relative scale”, Nash explains.  Since Western North Carolina was a poor region then, 17 slaves was a lot according to Nash.  Zebulon Vance he says owned six at the time of the Civil War’s start.  “He was not particularly of an introspective nature on slavery.  He was not necessarily someone who believed the institution needed to go away.  And certainly after the war, race is going to play a central part in his politics.”

Vance served as governor of North Carolina during the Civil War, even after he sought to keep the state out of the Confederacy before the fighting started.  After the war ended in 1865, Vance briefly served time in federal jail like many Confederate politicians did.  Once paroled, he returned to practicing law in Charlotte - and seeking political office.  “He by all accounts was a tremendous stump speaker – going before audiences, telling jokes, storytelling, and moving the audience.”  Nash says Vance's speeches often focused on race during the Reconstruction Period, as Democrats like himself pushed back against a Republican-led Congress and North Carolina state government that was seeking to grant strong civil rights for African-Americans.  “I’ve never seen any evidence that connects Vance as a leader so to speak of the Ku Klux Klan.  But he certainly encouraged its activities in terms of the rhetoric and vitriol that was placed on the Republican government of the state.”

For Steven Nash, one of Vance’s speeches stands out in particular.

“He created this fictional black militia captain, supposedly commanding the county militia in Rutherfordton.  It goes into great exaggerated, stereotypical detail of what this figure would look like.  (He) then placed all the leading white Republicans of the county behind this individual.  As if they were all taking orders and marching behind this over the top stereotypical black man.  Of course that was designed to shame the white men of Rutherfordton.”

Another of Vance’s speeches shows a different side to the man says Kevan Frazier.  He’s an historian and the owner and operator of Asheville By Foot Walking Tours.  The Vance Monument is one of the stops.  “He’s particularly noted for this one address called ‘A Scattered Nation’.  And it’s intriguing because it’s a very strong call against anti-Semitism", Frazier says.  He adds at the time there were only around 500 Jewish families in all of North Carolina, so there was no real political gain for Vance in speaking out against anti-Semitism.  But even so, Frazier finds the speech disappointing.  “When you read through the speech, he often times will put as the foundation of his arguments as being against ‘the Negro.’”

There is no likeness of Zebulon Vance on the monument – just his name and a small plaque listing when he was born and died and the elected offices he held.  A separate smaller marker in front of the monument has a likeness of Robert E. Lee, placed there by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  What isn’t anywhere in Pack Square is an equivalent memorial for the deep African-American history of Asheville says Darin Waters – including that this was the site of slave auctions.  “There’s nothing here that remembers the pain and suffering of really the people who labored to build what we have today.  It’s something that I find troubling.  Especially 150 years removed from the Civil War.”

For a city that prides itself on its progressive reputation, the absence is very noticeable.   

The second part of our two-story look at the future of the Vance Monument will be published Wednesday afternoon.