Zeb Vance, governor of North Carolina during the Civil War, has been a polarizing figure in Asheville. On Tuesday this week, March 23, the Asheville city council voted 6-1 to take down the xx-foot monument that adorned the city center.
That Wednesday, I had my 2-year-old daughter with me, as my wife went to her 8-month checkup for our son. We’re about a month in Asheville now — moved cross country from Boulder on February 20, and I’m doing a crash course in Asheville culture (check out my Asheville Bibliography page, where I’ll chronicle all the cultural resources I encounter in my dive into this charmed corner of Appalachia).
Anyhow, Zeb was a slave-holder, fiercely advocated for slavery, so his monument in town caused conflict, part of the nation’s reinvestigation of its deeply racist past and present, and what to do about it. I, surprised, found myself conflicted inside as well, about how I felt. History, the people and issues that shaped the land and culture, are important, help provide perspective and understanding to a place, where it’s been and the forces residents push against as they/we decide its future. But it represents a divisive figure, one who represents ideas that can be dangerous.
I was pondering this, as I read the daily email from AVLtoday about the city council vote. I came home at about 7:30am from the office (working early to prepare for daughter time) to take over watching my daughter. I got her dressed, read her some books, made her cheesy eggs and cleaned up. Then we headed out.
I’m slowly navigating Asheville, and learning about where we are, so I drive east, south, north, west whenever I can just to get a lay of the land. Today, with Dylan, we drove north, toward the nice little town of Weaverville along a side road — no highway. Soon after we got started, I saw a sign on the side of the road announcing the Vance birth memorial site up ahead. It didn’t say how far.
I decided to keep my eye out gently. Dylan and I were going to check out downtown Weaverville, but if we passed the site, we may stop, especially since council just decided that his downtown memorial would be taken down.
I saw another sign a mile or so down the road, and then felt pulled to watch closely. Then there was a gentle Y in the road, Weaverville to the left and five miles to Zeb’s birthplace to the right up the Reems Creek valley. Not what my daughter would like, but it’s destiny.
We pulled in a little after 9am, when the site opened. The site, emerged next to the county highway with a cluster of old wood buildings, an old homestead on a beautiful, large piece of property with a field. (There’s so much soft, stunning land here — constantly shocked, as a person who’s always lived West. I never wanted to live east of the Mississippi, but family and circumstance brought us here, and it’s wonderful).
I wanted to talk with someone about the situation. I walked in with Dylan, and the caretaker was just opening up. Actually, he said he hadn’t unlocked any of the buildings yet, because he just got off a conference call discussing the council’s decision. A guy in his mid-50s, in a white short, a little bit of a belly, and some tells that suggested he may be gay?, he heard me ask him about what he thought about the decision.
He immediately started with PC speech, not saying anything, but then I said how conflicted I was and that I was genuinely trying to determine what I felt and why and listed some of both sides. He opened up, and as a long-time local, described some of the issues. He said he was genuinely pretty neutral to the decision, but in some ways he felt it was good, because those wanting to keep the monument up had a close-minded, aggressive stance, so the decision sent a signal that outright bigotry was not welcome. (My daughter attempted to take out some colorful lollipops from an entrance display the whole time, pretty bored out of her mind — sorry Dill).
That was an interesting meta take.
Anyhow, Dylan and I soon went through the memorial exhibit, learning more about Zeb. As the museum worker said, every word of the exhibit had been pored and debated over — supporters didn’t want him to appear as a bigoted, slave-monger and others wanted to make sure to provide the record as it stands. The worker and I both agreed — that we should just present the facts as they are, and let people feel what they feel.
We then walked the grounds, went and saw the dark, cozy? main house with a huuuuuge, two-sided fireplace, the meat-curing house, the spring house, the slave quarters. This was Zeb’s grandparents’ place. His grandfather served as a soldier in the Revolutionary War and this property was part of his compensation. The property, as the exhibit explained, was Cherokee land in pre-Revolution time.
The Cherokees, sensing the blooming manifest destiny, sided with the British. This brought the Americans against them in 1776 soon after the country won independence. This wonderful piece of property was part of that, and it nursed baby Zeb, who then became a charismatic, powerful leader who led North Carolina through the Civil War as a staunch Confederate, and whose memory the daughters of the Confederacy chose to honor with a birthplace state memorial site at the turn of the 19th century (The move interpreted by some as a protest of Reconstruction, preserving a symbol of what was and what some wanted to be), and a monument in Asheville in mid-1900s followed by a decision to take it down in early 2021. There you go.
After the third building, my daughter said “Back home, please.” She’s precocious and very aware. She was also bored out of her mind. I said we’d just finish looking at the buildings, and she put up with it and then said “Back home, please” again, and then again. And increased. We quickly finished up and then got in the car to head home, which led me to more contemplation about history, conflict, memory, meaning, family, futures and place.