'Contextualizing' The Vance Monument - What That Might Look Like

Oct 25, 2017

Of all the options for the future of the Vance Monument in Pack Square, putting it and its namesake into context might be the most difficult to imagine.  Not because it isn’t a viable solution, but because it’s such a broad yet vague idea.   A trip to Zebulon Vance’s birthplace north of Asheville shows what 'contextualizing' the monument could look like.   

It's in Reems Creek near Weaverville, on a farm in a valley tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains where one of North Carolina’s most important historical figures was born in 1830.  Zebulon Vance would go on to become an influential speaker, governor during the Civil War and U.S. Senator during Reconstruction – a time when he fought to stop full civil rights from being granted to African-Americans.  But don’t expect to see a lot of that history told here because Vance didn’t live here for very long – only until he was three says Kimberly Floyd, the manager of the Vance Birthplace historic site.  “What we do here on a daily basis with our tours and school programs is we interpret early mountain life and culture”, she says. 

There is a self-guided exhibit that focuses on Vance's life and political career.  But the real focus is the farm.  Floyd says the Vance family owned 18 slaves.  Put in context, that was a lot for a poorer area like Western North Carolina. The buildings on site are mostly re-creations or originals that were moved from other places.  One of those originals moved here is the slave quarters, which were built in the 1790’s in the Swannanoa Valley.

Slave quarters at the Vance Birthplace
Credit Matt Bush BPR

“I can’t tell you exactly how many enslaved people were living in this building", says Floyd.  "People will come in and say ‘wow this looks really nice’.  Well…yeah it has wooden floors now.  But if you had two families here, it’s a really small space.  And it’s still extremely different living quarters from the main house we were just in.  Just look at the fireplace.  That’s not going to keep you as warm.”

Learning more about the slaves who lived here has been a slow painstaking process according to Floyd, because census records from the time provide little information.  Wills and deeds at least contain names according to Floyd, and that has allowed those at the birthplace site to start telling the story of Richard and Aggy.  “Richard and Aggy are two of the enslaved people we know we here initially on the property.  Likely, Richard is helping to build that 1790’s home.  We know there was a blacksmith on the property.  They were definitely cooking, taking care of the garden, looking after the children, sewing – anything that you can think of that would be needed in an early farmstead or homestead was being done by the enslaved people here.”

As these stories are told to visitors, questions always arise.  Two are very common.  One Floyd says gets a very quick and easy answer – could the Vances have made this farm profitable without slave labor?  “No.  You couldn’t have done that here without the enslaved people.  There’s no way.  There’s too much land, and there’s just too much to be done.  The Vance’s could not have succeeded the way they did without (slave labor).”

The other common question she says is - “People will ask were the Vance’s kind slave owners?  That phrase alone I struggle with.  Because the idea of a kind slave owner doesn’t make sense to me.  If you were a kind slave owner, then you would free your slaves.”  Floyd says the full answer- like so much else - needs a lot of context.  “They tried not to break the families up, but families were still broken up.  (The Vance) family as far as I know did not try to educate their enslaved people.  They could have.  It wasn’t until 1830 in North Carolina that it became illegal to teach enslaved people how to read and write.”

So if contextualizing is the way leaders decide to go with the Vance Monument in Asheville - leaving it in place in Pack Square but telling a more complete story of its namesake through interpretive signs or other measures around the obelisk – those who’ve studied the Vance family might be able to show them the way.  Kimberly Floyd notes it wouldn’t be simple though, because history is far more than just knowing what happened – it’s knowing how what happened has, is, and will be interpreted.  “Interpretation can be complicated.  You really have to think through and make sure you’re doing a thorough all-encompassing story.  Our job here is to tell the full story and be objective about it as possible.  Present all the facts and let people take away from it and feel whatever they want to feel about it.  And hopefully when they leave here we’ve encouraged further research, and further discussion and further dialogue.”

The other likely options for the Vance Monument – do nothing, rename it, or remove it.  If it’s removed, a likely destination for it would be the Vance birthplace – where you can bet it will get contextualized.