A group of Asheville historians and activists examined the history of Confederate monuments at a panel discussion last week and considered the the place of those monuments in the U.S. as the country continues to struggle with racial division.
The discussion was wide-ranging, and there was no clear consensus among panelists about what to do with Asheville’s most prominent marker to a Confederate soldier: the Vance Monument in the heart of downtown. The stone obelisk was erected in 1987 to honor former North Carolina Gov. Zebulon Vance, who grew up in Buncombe County. The Confederate military officer was a great statesman of his time who led a political party dedicated to segregationist policies following the Civil War.
“I support removal” of the Vance Monument, said Asheville City Councilwoman Sheneika Smith, one of the panelists toward the end of the discussion. She said she views it as a monument to hatred, one that causes psychological violence to some who view it. That can’t be re-contextualized by adding plaques or new monuments as some have suggested, she said.
The talk, titled “Confederate Monuments: Their History and Their Future,” was organized by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNC Asheville’s Reuter Center. More than 250 people packed a meeting room for the free event on a Friday afternoon. The discussion was one in a series aimed at raising general community awareness of issues of concern to minority communities.
Darin Waters, an assistant professor of history at UNCA, hosted the event. It featured the following panelists: Deborah Miles, director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Diversity Education; Sasha Mitchell, chair woman of the African-American Heritage Commission for Asheville and Buncombe County; Dan Pierce, professor of history and National Endowment for the Humanities Distinguished Professor at UNC Asheville and the author of several books on Southern and Appalachian history; and newly elected Asheville City Councilwoman Smith, the founder of the 2013 Date My City program initiative to encourage cultural diversity in downtown Asheville.
Each panelist opened with an explanation of how they approached the issue, noting their own personal prospectives.
Mitchell, an expert in researching family histories, said she had recently discovered several Confederate ancestors in her family history. She encouraged listeners to delve into their personal histories. Specifically regarding Confederate monuments, Mitchell said that prominently placed Confederate monuments overshadow and displace the stories of others. It’s better to re-contextualize the existing markers by adding new ones that offer more explanation, she said.
Miles began by noting that she grew up in small Arkansas towns and attended segregated schools through the seventh grade. She said she was “schooled in the pathology of white supremacy,” something she’s worked hard to overcome. She emphasized that Confederate monuments are ubiquitous: aside from the more than 700 Confederate monuments across the U.S., there are Confederate holidays, cities name for Confederate leaders and 10 U.S. military bases named for Confederate heroes. She suggested looking at how other countries have dealt with monuments to a dark past. Leaders in Hungary took all the Soviet-era statues and put them in one place called Memorial Park, she said. Germany, which has long dealt “with these pathological symbols,” created a museum called Topography of Terror in Berlin, Miles added.
Smith noted that memories fade from one generation to the next. She encouraged listeners to consider our current time as a new age of reconstruction, and think about the issue from a spiritual and moral point of view. The “removal of monuments is a legacy we can leave to generations ahead as we imagine a United States of America,” she said.
Pierce also began by offering an extensive family background. He too grew up in small-town Arkansas. He said that he’s learned from family genealogical research that on one side of the family, he has a Yankee cavalryman has a descendant, while the other side of his family includes a “Confederate draft dodger.” He noted that many people have forgotten how torn the South was about the Civil War, and the “bitterness among white Southerners about what they were roped into.” He stressed that “we need to learn our history.”
Waters opened the discussion by asking panelists to consider questions about the core ideals that America was founded on, and that plays into consideration of Confederate monuments. He also asked panelists to weigh in on why the Civil War was fought, and how that might influence the monuments debate.
Mitchell jumped in by describing herself as an idealist. “The ideals of our country are beautiful and are worth protecting and honoring,” she said, but underlying ideals of white supremacy also formed the the foundation of the United States. “We’re protesting because we have failed to live up to the ideals” documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, she said.
Smith said the country’s ideals, “on paper, or spoken, would move anybody’s heart.” But the country’s founders “envisioned a pretty white country,” she said, that did not include “identities of today.” She again asked listeners to consider whether the country was in what some have termed a third Reconstruction age.
Pierce emphasized that the U.S. founding fathers, through their words in the Constitution and the Declaration, enshrined ideals that “created a space where in this country we could emancipate slaves, in this country we could welcome immigrants at one time, in this country we could have a Civil Rights movement, a Native American rights movement, a gay rights movement.” Pierce asked the crowd to consider the issue in a religious framework. “How many of you live by religious ideals, and how many of you, every day, live up to those ideals?” A key is to keep striving to meet those ideals, he said.
At Waters’ urging, panelists continued to mull over the issue of ideals and why the Civil War was fought in the first place.
Miles said she thinks about the institutional ways that racism remains embedded in the country. In talking about U.S. founders’ ideals, she said she also thinks about the paradox of how they came along with issues of “class and oppression and capitalism.”
Pierce explained that when it comes to addressing why the Civil War was fought, he considers two questions. The first is why did people fight for the Confederacy, Pierce said, answering that there were, in fact, many reasons. The second is why did the war begin, he said. Some people will answer by saying it was about “states rights,” Pierce said. “My response is: a state’s right to do what? The answer is to protect slave property.” When historians look at speeches given to the time to convince people to get behind the Confederacy, Pierce said, “invariably the argument came down to – we have to do this to protect slave property.”
Mitchell she believes that, by the end of the Civil War, both wealthy plantation owners and poor Southerners were united in believing “the most important thing was to keep black and white people separated.” That deep-seated fear of race-mixing is a big part of why the removal of symbols such as Confederate monuments scares so many people, she said.
“I know it’s ugly thing to think about … but it’s something America has not really grappled with or addressed, but I think is a big part of the resistance to removing symbols,” she said to the afternoon’s first round of applause.
After a brief round of addressing a few written questions submitted by the standing-room-only audience, Waters asked the panelists to address the following question: “What is the responsibility of our generation as we are considering this particular legacy?”
Mitchell said the biggest responsibility of listeners was to educate themselves about their own family histories as well as the history of the country. “It’s a responsibility to learn and reach out and come to the table with neighbors and find a way forward.”
Miles said “truth and reconciliation is work of this generation.” She added that she’s constantly moved by the ability of black women, in particular “to hold both love and accountability in their arms.” Thus, listeners should support black women in positions of leadership, she said.
Smith said that, in considering monuments, she was reminded of how the redevelopment of downtown Asheville was supported in large part by philanthropists “who had the conviction to see Asheville thrive.” There may be similar benefactors who might come forward with their time and resources to have the Vance Monument removed, she said.
Pierce said “I think we need a strong dose of empathy to think about the experiences of others.” In conjunction with that, people have a responsibility to look at history and understand that “maybe your experience is not someone else’s.”