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ASHEVILLE — A coalition of local groups, led by UNC Asheville’s Center for Diversity Education and a local historian, are pushing for an “iconic” monument to be erected in Pack Square that recognizes the achievements, sacrifices and histories of Western North Carolina’s African Americans.
A presentation held on Sunday by the WNC branch of Carolina Jews for Justice at Congregation Beth HaTephila, officially kicked off a petition drive directing the governments of Asheville and Buncombe County to work with the local African-American Heritage Commission to put a monument near the Vance monument in downtown Asheville. More than 200 people attended as the organizers gathered signatures and detailed their case.
“How we remember things is very important,” UNCA professor and historian Darin Waters said. “We have a responsibility to speak for those who are not able to speak for themselves. I feel the fire of those people to speak and to make sure the experiences they had are remembered, and, hopefully, we’ll be able to construct something in the not too distant future to commemorate that.”
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The petition, which the organizers plan to present to Asheville’s Public Arts and Cultural Commission, alludes to and offers support of current efforts to raise funds to repair the Vance Monument, but adds that “we are concerned that we, as a community, not continue to perpetuate the long-standing pattern of commemorating only parts of our shared history while ignoring the experiences and contributions of others in our community.”
To that end, it asks that “plans be made now to work with the newly created African American Heritage Commission to create in Pack Square an equally significant monument to recognize the enormous sacrifices of African Americans during the periods of slavery and segregation and also to celebrate the many contributions of African Americans to the physical, economic and cultural life of Asheville and Buncombe County since their arrival here in the 1700s.”
“There are Confederate monuments all over the state. The one thing about these monuments, when you see them, is that they are always in places of power,” Waters noted. Many of the monuments were erected as part of a determined movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The corresponding exclusion of monuments to African-Americans, he added, is a problem in places like Raleigh and Elizabeth City, as well as in Asheville.
“After 1898,” he said, “there was this effort to create monuments to a white supremacist past, because you wanted to create a certain message.”
Waters gave the address at the event, was one of the main organizers of last year’s history symposium on African Americans in WNC and is an active advocate of increasing attention and reckoning with this part of the history of the city and region.
Historically, he said, those stories have remained ignored. As he was pursuing his doctorate and dissertation, he recalled, some academics told him there was little history of African Americans in the area to study at all.
“I focused on Asheville after fighting my dissertation committee for the right to do that,” said Waters, whose family’s history goes back to the 1850s in Henderson County. “There was a myth that existed that there were no African Americans in Western North Carolina.”
Contrary to the popular conception, Waters said, slavery was alive and well here. He said famous locals like Augustus Merrimon and Nicholas Woodfin were slave owners, and slavery was expanding in WNC up until its end.
“This is the reason why uncovering this history is so important,” he said, noting that Woodfin purchased slaves throughout the state and that “many were working in the early tourism industry. Many of the hotels established in the region were run exclusively by African Americans who were slaves.”
Now, he added, it is time to bring the experiences of those African Americans to the fore.
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Deborah Miles, the Center for Diversity Education’s director, passed around a copy of a slave deed signed by Woodfin for Sarah Gudger — who lived to tell her story to a federal archivist in 1937, at the age of 121 — and noted that despite the many Confederate monuments in the area placed during the establishment of Jim Crow, including a marker for an armory that used slave labor, “we have no marker that says ‘this is where Sarah Gudger was sold.’
“We have evidence from the newspapers that people were taken to the courthouse and sold on the courthouse steps. We have evidence that there was imprisonment of slaves in that building and that behind that building, punishments took place. And 150 years later, there is nothing that says any of that story.”
Rabbi Batsheva Meiri tied the effort to the necessity, in the Jewish tradition, of keeping memory alive and dealing with the reality of history.
“Our memories reveal who we are and who we need to become,” she said. “This endeavor is about more than setting history straight, it’s about making ourselves, citizens of this city now, more whole. Remembering that fellow human beings were ever treated as property, right here, by people just like us, is both a cautionary tale of conscience and the unfinished business of our own time.”