Hal Herzog, GUEST COLUMNIST
Published 12:11 p.m. ET June 28, 2020
Local protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police has rekindled the long-running debate over the future of Asheville’s Vance Monument. Increasingly, monuments and statues celebrating the lives of slave owners and Confederate soldiers have become civic embarrassments.
There is also a growing movement to erase linguistic remnants of our racist past. For example, retired general David Petraeus argues that military bases bearing the names of Confederate generals should renamed. (This list includes Georgia’s Fort Gordon, where I served three years as an Army medic). Universities are giving new names to campus buildings named after slave owners, and cities and towns are reconsidering the names of public schools.
The bitter truth is that slavery was more common in Western North Carolina than most people realize. In 1860, 1,907 slaves lived in Buncombe County, as did 283 slave owners. Some of the owners have been memorialized in place names. Merrimon Avenue was named after slave-owner Augustus Merrimon, and Patton Avenue is the legacy of James Patton, also a slave owner. Chunn’s Cove was named after slave dealer Samuel Chunn. In 1859, Chunn and Patton jointly placed an ad in the Asheville News stating, We want to buy 100 to 500 likely negroes for whom we will pay the highest cash prices.
By far, the biggest slave owner in the region was Nicholas Woodfin, who, in 1860 owned 122 slaves. On July 8, 1843, he announced in the Asheville Messenger newspaper that he would be offering a public slave sale at the Buncombe County courthouse for “sixteen likely negros, men, women, and children. More likely property of this description is not to be found in any market.”
The town now named after Woodfin is a charming yet unassuming little place nestled between Asheville and Weaverville. It has a wonderful YMCA, a handful of excellent restaurants, one of the best places around to buy tires, and even a store that sells magic tricks. It is also one the few places close to Asheville that still has affordable housing.
But because of its namesake, Woodfin, in the words of the town’s Facebook page, “has a complicated legacy.” Like slave owners George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Nicholas Woodfin had some admirable attributes. He was a noted lawyer, and as a state legislator he promoted public education, agricultural science, and regional economic development.
But the town’s webpage notes, While a successful and upstanding member of the community in his day, Nicholas Woodfin’s actions were, at times, wildly at odds with the standards of our own. A legislator who worked to promote the interests of the common man, Woodfin had no compunction with being Buncombe County’s largest slave holder.
The question raised by Woodfin is, what should we do about Western North Carolina’s linguistic racist legacy?
Hal Herzog is professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at Western Carolina University.