Community

Commissioners disagree about statues, agree love wins

Vance Memorial monument graffitied. Photograph by Anthony Abraira.
Vance Memorial monument graffitied. Photograph by Anthony Abraira.

By Leslee Kulba

Asheville – The Buncombe County Commissioners, along party lines, voted 4-3 in favor of the joint resolution with Asheville City Council to remove statues honoring heroes of the Confederacy on city/county-owned land. Commissioner Amanda Edwards read into the record the resolution that stated, in part, that the statues, “are widely perceived as offensive and painful public reminders of the legacy of slavery and present realities of systemic racism in our country.”

The resolution continued, “African-American residents of the City of Asheville and Buncombe County have issued a clear call to remove and/or repurpose these monuments as expeditiously as possible due to the harm they pose.” African-American voices, however, were conspicuously absent in public comment aired during the board’s meetings.

By way of contrast, Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara shared, “For years and years, I have been hearing from people across Buncombe County, especially from black people, that are calling for the monuments to be removed.” She said her faith teaches that struggles are part of the path to light and redemption and hoped the country was on that path. Removing the statues was just the beginning for the heavy lifting that would be needed for the full eradication of race-based injustice.

Commissioner Al Whitesides told of his years of experience on the receiving end of racism: how he’d been arrested for protesting; how Martin Luther King had told him and his college buddies, “Young men, you will be fighting for inclusion all your life;” and how his eyes had been opened in a history course taught by Dr. John Hope Franklin. Whitesides told how slaves had made America great through their labor and other contributions on plantations, for which they didn’t receive a dime. And yet, the country continues to have the same conversations it was having in the 1960s.

Whitesides said there was still much to do. People still suffer depression leading to alcoholism and mental illness because others continue to view their skin color as an invitation to treat them as inferiors. Americans couldn’t pay reparations, he said, because, “America doesn’t have enough money.” Instead, Americans should just start doing the right thing. Removing statues was a start, but Whitesides wanted to go beyond cosmetic changes to have the necessary, difficult conversations. On the bright side, he said, the youth protesting today are telling older generations what to do with the 800-pound gorilla in the room: Let it die with you; we don’t want it.

Commissioner Anthony Penland extended sympathy to Whitesides for suffering things he would never have to endure. “What’s going on in this country is horrible,” he said, offering, “You want to repurpose the Vance Monument? Put a 65’ cross in the center of downtown Asheville, because the only way we’re going to heal this land is to look to our Almighty God and pray to him that we change people’s hearts. I don’t look to that monument for my value; I look upward.” He added to this a call for everybody to take Genesis 1:27 to heart, as it applies to all people.

Regarding a call to come together with meaningful conversations, however, he said it had happened again. Last Tuesday, the Republican commissioners received an email letting them know the Democrat commissioners had coordinated with Asheville’s mayor on drafting a resolution about removing the statues. Penland said in his profession, people work together. They sit together in a room with charts and sticky notes to share perspectives for the best outcomes. He said he prayed that if the commission ever “flipped,” a Republican majority would not treat the Democrats as dismissively.

Commissioner Joe Belcher wanted to carefully communicate, in the current, hypersensitive environment, the sense of concern held by all on the board. He told of the pain he experienced listening to racist remarks as a child, and how it had changed his heart. And yet, there was always room for hearts to be broken more. He said he had spoken with African-American associates and ministers about what kind of response they wanted from the commissioners following the George Floyd incident and subsequent events, and they used the word “fluff” to describe purely symbolic responses.

Belcher said he had learned new historical perspectives from those participating in public comment; and, while history can be debated, the perception was the reality when it came to the statues. He said he would be fine removing them, but the commissioners would have to “go deeper” to deal with systemic racism. Like Penland, he believed the nation needed a change of heart, which he also receives when he looks to the Almighty.

Commissioner Robert Pressley said he believed racism was waning more and more with time; the country was making progress. But removing statues was symbolic, not strategic if eradicating systemic racism was the goal. He said he had received more emails about the statues than any other topic since elected. Acknowledging a lot were cut-and-paste or knee-jerk reactions to headlines, he said there still was a lot of passion on both sides of the issue. Even during the meeting, he was getting death threats, directed at him and higher-ranking political figures. He, therefore, suggested tabling the discussion and holding a referendum instead. Also appealing to the Almighty, he said, “We can fix this, but not with hatred.”

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