As monuments to white supremacy around the world continue to fall, this might be a good time for North Carolinians to learn more about Zebulon Vance.
Vance was born in Buncombe County in 1830 to a family that owned 18 slaves. He served as a Confederate officer during the Civil War before becoming Governor of North Carolina and later a US Senator.
According to 1860 census documents, Vance himself owned six slaves, ranging in age from 26 to 2. Their names are not included on the records.
In letters he wrote shortly after the end of the Civil War, Vance revealed his feelings about emancipation:
“There are indications that the radical abolitionists … intend to force perfect negro equality upon us. Should this be done, and there is nothing to prevent it, it will revive an already half formed determination in me to leave the U.S. forever.”
In 1870, when Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner introduced legislation aimed at ending racial discrimination in juries, schools, transportation and public accommodations, Vance argued against the bill, claiming he was in favor of civil rights for Black Americans but concerned about what he termed “social rights”:
“There is no railway car in all the South which the colored man cannot ride in. That is his civil right. This bill proposes that he should have the opportunity or the right to go into a first-class car and sit with white gentlemen and white ladies. I submit if that is not a social right. There is a distinction between the two.”
Vance began giving a speech in 1870 called “The Scattered Nation,” which he would repeat hundreds of times. In it he called for religious freedom and tolerance among all Americans for Jewish people. “The Scattered Nation” made mention of
“…the African negro, the descendants of barbarian tribes who for 4,000 years have contributed nothing to though in close contact with civilization”
Despite his steadfast support for the institution of slavery and his consistent racist ideology, Zebulon Vance is celebrated in North Carolina through various monuments and public buildings that are named after him.
A statue of Zebulon Vance stands outside the State Capitol in Raleigh, and in downtown Asheville, a 75 foot obelisk bears his name. (A move is currently underway to remove or rename the Asheville obelisk)
North Carolina schools named after Vance include Vance High School in Charlotte, Vance Elementary in Asheville, and Zeb Vance Elementary in Kittrell.
Kittrell, NC lies in Vance County, a county which was formed in 1881 from Franklin, Warren and Granville counties in an effort to concentrate Black votes (which typically went Republican at the time) in one area and preserve surrounding counties as Democratic strongholds.
Zebulon Vance was absolutely tickled to have a North Carolina county named after him and thereafter referred to Vance County as “Zeb’s Black baby.“
It’s important to understand our history and to learn from it, but there’s a not-so-fine line between learning from our history and celebrating historical figures who fought for the right to own and brutalize other human beings.
If North Carolina is ready to do some soul searching, taking a hard look at the practice of making our students attend schools named for Zebulon Vance would be a good place to start.
Thank you to my friend and North Carolina Social Studies Teacher of the Year Rodney Pierce for pointing me in the right direction on historical documents.