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State's highest court considers future of Vance Monument

Noel Nickle, a descendant of the Vance family, speaks about the harm to the community from the confederate monument in downtown Asheville.
Screenshot from press conference at North Carolina General Assembly press conference room
Noel Nickle, a descendant of the Vance family, speaks about the harm to the community from the confederate monument in downtown Asheville.

On Wednesday morning, the NC Supreme Court heard arguments centered around the 2021 removal of the Vance Monument from Pack Square Park in downtown Asheville. The case involves a claim by the 26th North Carolina Regiment, a group dedicated to preserving the history of the confederate unit, asserting that the monument must be reinstalled.

Counsel for the City of Asheville said the Regiment did not have standing to bring suit, citing precedent from the United Daughters of the Confederacy v. City of Winston-Salem, a 2022 case where the court found a similar group lacked standing to challenge the removal of a Confederate monument.

Eric Edgerton, an attorney for the city of Asheville, cited prior examples of the Regiment’s arguments that their case was similar to the United Daughters case. He said the plaintiffs now wanted to distinguish their case from the prior case because the court decided there was no standing.

Even if the seven justices found that the group had standing, the city argued that the removal of the Vance monument was permitted under law.

The attorney for the Regiment disagreed, arguing that because the group helped restore the monument, the city is obligated to reinstall the obelisk. The plaintiffs also said the state’s Monument Protection Act requires the reinstallation.

What effect does the 2015 donation have?

The city accepted a $115,000 payment in 2015 from the Regiment to restore the century-old monument.

The Regiment’s lawyer, Edward Phillips, argued that the formal agreement for the donation obligated the city to maintain the monument, and the subsequent removal then constituted a breach of contract.

He urged the court to consider two other pieces of evidence that he argued indicated an intent for the city to preserve the monument: a plaque on the monument and a time capsule originally meant to be opened on the 100th anniversary of the monument’s 2015 restoration.

“So if they didn't have an intent to preserve it going forward into the future— that distant into the future— at least 100 years, then what was their intent?” Phillips argued.

“Are you saying that the contract that was signed by the City of Asheville obligated the city to keep this monument in place for 100 years or what term of years?” Democratic Justice Anita Earls asked.

Phillips said conceivably, if it was restored, “they could keep it even longer.” He said the contract did not have to specify an amount of time.

“Restoration by definition is something done to preserve and conserve an object going into the future,” he said.

Edgerton said “contract issues are no longer a part of this case given the unambiguous conclusions of the trial court and Court of Appeals.”

Republican Justice Trey Allen asked Edgerton whether the plaintiffs would have made the donation if they had known the monument would be taken down. Edgerton said he had no way of being in the minds of the plaintiffs.

“Isn’t the very nature of the monument that it is going to last?” Allen asked.

A donation does not give a group an everlasting or permanent right to challenge what happens to a monument, Edgerton replied.

Does the Monument Protection Act apply?

Months after the Regiment made the payment to restore the Vance Monument, the state passed the Monument Protection Act in July 2015. The law limits the removal and relocation of “a monument, memorial, or work of art owned by the State.”

Justice Earls questioned whether the law applies to the Vance monument case, given that it was passed after the payment was made.

“You’re asking us to read into this contract, a law that was passed after this contract was signed.” Earls said.

The law makes an exception for “an object of remembrance for which a building inspector or similar official has determined poses a threat to public safety because of an unsafe or dangerous condition.”

Legal counsel for the Regiment and City of Asheville offered different interpretations of what constituted “a threat to public safety.”

Phillips argued that a building inspector or similar government official must declare a public threat. He also said a public threat means the “monument is so deteriorated” and is “basically collapsing in on itself.”

Edgerton argued that a threat to public safety is not expressly limited to building safety issues or the determinations of building inspectors.

He said the monument raised a safety risk, noting “it was the target of a bombing that was severe enough that the FBI was required to investigate.”

The community response and next steps

“We have come to understand that a symbol in the center of our community which shouts out every day that some people are less than others is not a value we embrace any longer,” Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said at a press conference after the proceedings in Raleigh. “And so the removal of this monument is one of the first steps in healing our full community and moving together as one.”

One of Zebulon Vance’s descendants, Noel Nickel, also came to Raleigh to speak in favor of the monument’s removal.

“It wasn't until I moved to Asheville in 1996 that I began to learn about my family history, and I confess it took me more years to begin to fully understand the impact of the monument on my community and me,” she said. “I learned that both sides of my family enslaved people and that Zebulon Vance was my most powerful and racist ancestor.”

“I am ashamed of his actions. And I am determined to use my voice to help repair the harm caused by his words and deeds, all of which is memorialized by the monument bearing his name.”

There is no set time frame for a decision from the state’s highest court. Regardless of the outcome of the case, the city plans to continue its renovation of Pack Square Park, city attorney Brad Branham told BPR.

Last month, Asheville City Council approved a formal plan to redesign the surrounding park with a focus on racial equity.

Laura Hackett joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in June 2023. Originally from Florida, she moved to Asheville more than six years ago and in that time has worked as a writer, journalist, and content creator for organizations like AVLtoday, Mountain Xpress, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has a degree in creative writing from Florida Southern College, and in 2023, she completed the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY's Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program. In her free time, she loves exploring the city by bike, testing out new restaurants, and hanging out with her dog Iroh at French Broad River Park.