Steven E. Nash: Riot, Reconstruction, and Racial Politics in Asheville

Reconstruction's Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains, by Steven E. NashWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Steven E. Nash, author of Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains (April 2016). In the book Nash chronicles the history of Reconstruction as it unfolded in the mountains of western North Carolina. He presents a complex story of the region’s grappling with the war’s aftermath, examining the persistent wartime loyalties that informed bitter power struggles between factions of white mountaineers determined to rule. For a brief period, an influx of federal governmental power enabled white anti-Confederates to ally with former slaves in order to lift the Republican Party to power locally and in the state as a whole. Republican success led to a violent response from a transformed class of elites, however, who claimed legitimacy from the antebellum period while pushing for greater integration into the market-oriented New South.

In today’s post, after a second incidence of vandalism of the Zebulon B. Vance monument in Asheville, N.C., occurred on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday yesterday, Nash considers the contemporary racial politics of this Confederate memorial in the context of the racial politics of Reconstruction-era Asheville. 


A roughly seventy-foot tall obelisk honors North Carolina’s Civil War Governor Zebulon B. Vance in Asheville’s Pack Square. At the monument’s cornerstone dedication in 1897, the featured speaker praised Vance’s wit, character, and statesmanship. Almost 118 years later, a rededication of the Vance Monument showed how historical memory evolved in this Appalachian town. Several themes permeated both ceremonies. But in the 2015 rededication ceremony, one speaker directly acknowledged Vance’s legacy as a slaveholder and white supremacist within a larger plea to “look at the whole picture” of history in order to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Although the 1897 keynote speaker did not directly address race, both ceremonies occurred amidst significant racial strife. After a decade of class and racial unrest within the state, North Carolina approved a state constitutional amendment greatly restricting African Americans’ voting rights in 1900. In 2015, violent clashes between police and African Americans in Ferguson, Missouri, and other sections of the nation have forced Americans to confront their racial history. Controversies surrounding historical landmarks, school and university names, and street names have arisen. These issues became visible in Asheville when someone painted “Black Lives Matter” on the base of the Vance Monument just weeks after its rededication in 2015 and again on the 2016 Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Still, the picture remains far from whole. Through centuries of slavery followed by Jim Crow segregation, white Americans have claimed public spaces—like Pack Square—through naming or regulated access. But those claims were never complete or total. Perhaps that is one reason why the commemorations and memories—such as those surrounding Vance—neglect the region’s complicated Reconstruction history. After all, the war may have ended slavery, but the struggle for freedom intensified after the soldiers stacked arms in 1865.

Too often, people ignore Reconstruction or dismiss it as an aberration in American history best forgotten. This historical amnesia is especially acute in the Appalachian South where the popular misconceptions remain that whites were overwhelmingly Unionist and that black highlanders are rarely seen and seldom heard. For that reason, it may seem odd that the most influential governmental organization in western North Carolina’s post-Civil War reconstruction was one created by Congress to aid the South’s transition from slavery to free labor: the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Freedmen’s Bureau agents formed a direct and tangible connection between North Carolina’s mountaineers and the federal government. And no western North Carolina town felt the Bureau’s influence more keenly than Asheville where a Union veteran from New York, Oscar Eastmond, aligned the full weight of his position with African Americans’ efforts to define freedom after emancipation. When landowners refused to pay their African American workers, African Americans reported the offender to Eastmond and the agent called them to account. He did the same with county courts. In one instance, the county superior court convicted a local African American for crimes allegedly committed near the war’s end. Rather than go to jail, the court allowed the man to bind himself to a white employer willing to pay his costs. The fact that the black man could not testify on his behalf—which state law then prohibited—and that he was bound to the judge’s brother-in-law struck the local agent as perversions of justice. His intervention against the so-called “best men” of the community sent a clear message that African Americans’ rights would be protected.

White Conservatives bristled at this affront to their power, coupled as it was with the registration of African American male voters and the disfranchisement of leading whites by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Voter registration left whites with a clear 86.4 to 13.6 percent edge in registered voters, but divisions within the white population and the addition of black voters invigorated mountain Republicans. In Buncombe County, the Republican gubernatorial candidate carried the county by less than two hundred votes in the summer of 1868. If less than half of the 418 registered black men voted for the Republican, they more than accounted for his local electoral edge.

Republicans’ electoral success in the state masked the backlash growing across the state. In April 1868, the Ku Klux Klan made their presence known within the mountain counties. Black citizens no longer went out in public unarmed. A full-blown race war, Eastmond warned, appeared on the horizon. Tensions erupted in violence during the national election in Asheville on November 3. An African American man, James Smith, who lived with a prominent local Republican family was at the center of it all. Accounts differ over exactly what precipitated the shooting. Some versions state that white men from the Patton, Merrimon, and other prominent families rallied to the defense of a black Democratic voter. Others say that shots rang out shortly after election officials refused to let Smith vote. Whatever the cause, the results of the riot were decisive. The casualty list suggests that reports of armed African Americans may have been exaggerated. Eighteen African Americas suffered wounds—including Smith, who was killed in the melee—compared to not more than two white men.

The Asheville riot marked a climactic moment in western North Carolina’s history. Black and white Republicans had built a biracial political coalition supported by federal governmental power and capable of wresting power from the region’s white elite. Unable to defeat them at the polls, their opponents resorted to violence. The Asheville riot was one of the first and most notable examples of the violence that plagued the state into the early 1870s. Fueled by the racial rhetoric of white leaders like Zebulon Vance, the Democratic Party struck back. So it is understandable that current Asheville newspapers like the Mountain Xpress highlighted Vance’s complicated history. It was a moment in time, representing an alternative path for the region that deserves recognition as part of a larger struggle to define freedom and democracy. Still, the whole picture—one in which white and black western North Carolinians fought for a greater say in local, state, and national affairs after the Civil War—remains hidden in the shadow of a Confederate’s obelisk.

Steven E. Nash is assistant professor of history at East Tennessee State University. His book Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains will be published in April 2016.


[Ed. note: Post updated 1/21/2016 with the following corrections: in paragraph 6, the correct number of African American registered voters was 418, not 218; in paragraph 7, the penultimate sentence was corrected to state that “reports of armed African Americans may have been exaggerated,” instead of “may not have been exaggerated.”]