When Asheville, North Carolina’s City Council passed a resolution in favor of reparations for its Black citizens in July of last year, the initiative gained national attention. Multiple thinkpieces from national media outlets pondered if the city – the first in Appalachia and the South to address reparations and the second nationwide – could be a model for other municipalities facing calls for reparations in the wake of the marches that followed George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020.
Outsiders weren’t the only ones imagining that this historic resolution could have a major impact.
“We were talking about how this could potentially change America,” said Rob Thomas, an Asheville native and community liaison for the Racial Justice Coalition (RJC), a collaboration between 17 local nonprofits and grassroots organizations.
A clear deadline appeared to give the resolution some teeth: Within a year, the city manager’s office was to form a Community Reparations Commission and give it the resources needed to recommend short, medium and long term actions for restoring lost generational wealth to the city’s Black residents.
But that deadline quietly passed earlier this month, without a clear explanation as to why from City Manager Debra Campbell. Real movement toward actually providing reparations is only beginning to take shape after months of inaction in this Appalachian city often seen by outsiders as a bastion of progressive politics and policies.
The Call for Reparations
The reparations resolution was the culmination of six pivotal weeks in Asheville in 2020, spurred by Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis.
It started in late May with a week of rallies and marches against police violence and racial injustice that turned ugly when city police destroyed a medic table holding water, food and first-aid for activists hit by rubber bullets and exposed to teargas, a heavy-handed response that made national headlines.
Next, an online petition to remove Vance Monument, a 19th century downtown landmark named for a local Confederate slaveholder, quickly garnered widespread public support. Just days after the peak of the demonstrations, City Council introduced and unanimously passed a resolution to consider removing the monument.
At the same time, however, Black-led grassroots organizations demanded more substantial reforms that included redirecting police funds into the Black community and reparations. By continuing to rally both in the streets and on social media, activists succeeded in getting City Council to unanimously pass the reparations resolution on July 14.
In the weeks immediately following the resolution’s passage, Thomas and other community members met with staff from the city’s Office of Equity and Inclusion and Buncombe County’s Equity & Inclusion Workgroup to brainstorm potential frameworks for reparations.
That work experienced a major setback, however, when the OEI’s founding director, Kimberlee Archie, unexpectedly resigned in August 2020, citing “an unsupportive and/or hostile work environment.” Two more staff members shortly followed.
For Thomas, however, it was the defeat of Keith Young, one of the council’s Black members, in November’s election that had the greatest impact on the reparations process.
“This was Keith’s brainchild, and he was going to provide the most energy towards making this work,” Thomas said.
During a November council meeting before he left office, Young urged the outgoing members to set aside at least $4 million for reparations before their last meeting that month. Instead, the mayor tabled discussion of the resolution until the new council sat, and no further action on reparations was taken for more than three months.
“I felt [the delay] was exactly what would happen if Keith didn’t get [re-]elected,” Thomas said.
Assistant City Manager Richard J. White III, speaking on behalf of City Manager Campbell, offered a different perspective.
“We just had a number of things going on at one time,” he said of the slow progress on the reparations resolution. White cited not only the Vance Monument removal work but also the Reimagining Public Safety (RPS) process in September that redirected 3 percent of the police budget after six public input sessions. “It [wa]s an issue of capacity more than anything else.”
It was February 2021 before Campbell laid out a three-phase plan for city council about how to establish a reparations policy, one that would create generational wealth, increase homeownership, increase business ownership and close racial equity gaps in housing, economic mobility, education and the justice system for Black people in Asheville. Phase 1 of that plan – three two-hour public forums – was carried out in early June.
Since the reparations process began last year, Black Asheville elders, leaders and youth alike have expressed everything from cautious hope to considerable reservations about the history of top-down decision making in Asheville without input from affected communities.
For some, the June forums – officially titled Information Sharing and Truth Telling sessions – were further examples of those top-down processes. Campbell presented the forums to city council members as an opportunity to better understand past and present harms, identify barriers to generational wealth, hear directly from city residents and “inspire the community to identify collaborative opportunities to create a more equitable Asheville,” according to an RJC recap of the presentation.
The sessions used the city’s largest indoor venue, the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium at Harrah’s Cherokee Center, to enable in-person attendees to safely gather with social distancing measures in place. They were also live-streamed to give more people the opportunity to listen in without having to physically attend. However, the majority of the sessions were dedicated to presentations from experts and panel discussions; the opportunities for attending community members to give feedback or share their own ideas were brief, limited to 2-3 minutes.
“A lot of the folks that I have talked to have expressed interest in wanting to engage, but there’s just so many barriers to the way that government has conventionally and traditionally involved folks,” said Tre Williams, racial justice advocate for the local YMCA and core leadership team member of the Racial Justice Coalition.
Those barriers for Williams range from the immediate, like the imposed time limits during meetings, to things that are much more systemic, like physical and economic barriers that make even this limited opportunity to engage in the political process difficult.
“You need the time, and then also you have to have the tools. You have to have internet access, you have to have a phone,” Williams said. “When they’re in person, you have to have the transportation to get there.”
Perhaps most important, though, are what Williams calls the mental barriers. “After centuries and centuries of disenfranchisement and harm done to Black community members,” he said, “there’s no trust in the system.”
That lack of trust hasn’t grown solely from recent tensions in the community, but from the generational mistreatment of Black people in Asheville – and the region and country at large. Despite pervasive myths that Appalachia was too rugged to participate in the slave economy, people who were enslaved accompanied the first white settlers who came to this Eastern Cherokee and Yuchi land and established the city in 1792.
The 1860 census recorded 1,933 slaves and 111 free Blacks living in Buncombe County, making up 16 percent of the population. Though segregated, underemployed and underpaid, and denied business and home loans, Asheville’s Black population after Emancipation did own homes and businesses, built the YMI Cultural Center – one of the first Black cultural centers in the nation – in 1893, and established the celebrated Stephens-Lee High School in 1923.
Starting in 1957, however, the city seized Black neighborhoods over three decades of urban renewal. The East Riverside Urban Renewal Project alone captured 425 contiguous acres, demolishing more than 1,300 structures and displacing 5,000 individuals – more than half the Black population of Asheville in the mid-1960’s.
The repeated devastation of Black communities in the city at the hands of government leaders is why Rob Thomas of the RJC and other community organizers knew it was important to get to work as soon as the reparations resolution had passed.
“Now we have to change this from a black and white document to something tangible in reality that actually makes a difference to the disparities that we see within every system,” Thomas said. But so far, he hasn’t seen much success engaging Black community members in the process.
Since December, Thomas, Williams and other RJC members have been canvassing Asheville’s Black neighborhoods at least three days a week to gather residents’ thoughts on reparations. By Thomas’ estimates, the Walk the Walk campaign, as it’s called, has reached more than 300 residents in four public housing neighborhoods with plans to expand into other residential areas.
To his dismay, however, “nine out of every 10 people [we canvassed] didn’t even know that Asheville has anything going on pertaining to reparations.”
“You’ve got to bring these people to the table and create the plans with them, instead of creating [the plans] for them and implementing [the plans] on them,” Thomas said in an interview in May. The following month, he took those feelings directly to city leaders.
“A lot of decisions are based on ego, are based on getting these individuals over here paid,” Thomas said at the June 17 forum, gesturing to the city councillors sitting in the auditorium. “And it’s truly not based on what the best solution is for the community, or what best benefits the most vulnerable, the most impacted.”
“I think [City Council] really are looking to listen,” Tre Williams said. “But in order to do so they really gotta get outside the box on this one, and they have to get outside of how they traditionally engage with folks.”
Progress, Then a Halt
Where city leaders appeared to have some success over the past year in engaging with and acting upon calls for change from the Black community – and Asheville citizens more broadly – is the removal of Vance Monument.
The petition to remove the landmark named for Zebulon Vance – a local slaveholder, Confederate colonel, and Civil War governor – began circulating the same week in early June 2020 that Asheville citizens took to the streets to march on behalf of George Floyd and quickly gathered more than 9,000 signatures. At its next meeting, City Council allowed an hour of public comment on the monument before introducing and unanimously passing a joint resolution to repurpose, relocate, or remove the 75-foot obelisk. The county commission approved the resolution a week later, though by a vote of 4-3 that split along party lines.
By the end of July 2020, a 12-person taskforce was assembled to deliberate the future of the monument. The group solicited public input from invited speakers representing Black Asheville and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, as well as through direct outreach to community organizations and virtual town halls. Ultimately, the taskforce voted 11-1 for removal.
But if you go to the center of Pack Square today, you’ll see a short, squat structure slowly being covered with large pieces of plywood. Although the obelisk that pierced the sky for 123 years has been removed, the base remains.
The demolition work that began on May 17 was halted following an order by the North Carolina Court of Appeals. The Society for the Historical Preservation of the 26th North Carolina Troops, the Confederate regiment led by Zebulon Vance, alleges that the city is in breach of contract by removing the monument after the society contributed most of the $150,000 spent on the 2015 restoration. The city and county had contributed $30,000 and $7,500, respectively at the time, which Sasha Mitchell, chair of the City-County African American Heritage Commission in 2015, had adamantly opposed.
“It was placed [in 1898] with an intent and by a people who were all about promoting white supremacy and really celebrating the failure of Reconstruction,” she said. “For the city to stand by that…[was] truly a slap in the face.”
But the city’s willingness to consider removing the monument, much like the debate over reparations, is perhaps a measure of how much the political conversation around institutional and cultural racism has changed in Asheville.
“I felt like [the city] made a great effort to capture a lot of people’s thoughts about what the Vance Monument meant to our community,” Mitchell said. “They appeared to have city resources and somebody on staff guiding that process.”
Other members of the Black community, however, felt little investment in the decision. “Problems still plague the Black community: poverty, homelessness, underemployment,” local business owner Stephen Smith said. Of the monument, he said, “That’s just a symbol.”
It wasn’t until the city opened its bidding process for the actual work to remove the monument that Smith found a concrete reason to care. He had started MS Lean Landscaping in 2012 to increase employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated Black residents of Buncombe County.
“Lack of employment is one of the barriers people face after incarceration,” he said, “[so] the focus of [my business] was re-entry.”
Bidding on the Vance Monument removal contract, he explained, was “an opportunity I can use to create more work for people.”
Smith and his crew – two-thirds of which are people who were formerly incarcerated – were chosen to provide post-removal landscaping and a year of maintenance at the former Vance Monument site. MS Lean is the only Black-owned business participating in the work to remove Vance Monument through a new business inclusion policy that took effect on January 1 this year.
That policy was also the result of changes city officials are attempting to make – successfully or not – after a history of inequitable practices. A 2018 study found less than 1 percent of city contracts were being awarded to Black-owned businesses.
MS Lean’s work will make up 20 percent of the total project cost, but Smith doesn’t see it as much progress toward equitable hiring.
“Asheville, especially the government, they play a lot of games,” he said. “If we are waiting for them at the top to pass something down to the Black – to my community – then that’s not going to happen.”
After Setbacks, What Does the Future Hold?
Despite setbacks in the completion of the removal of Vance Monument and the passing of the one year deadline for city leaders under the reparations resolutions without much explanation as to why it’s delayed, Asheville has made some progress.
On June 8, City Council voted to earmark $2.1 million from a sale of city land, including land seized from Black families by post-WWII urban renewal projects, for future reparations payments. Council members have also voiced the possibility of setting aside some income from the sale of another city-owned property – estimated to be worth $13 million in total. Some city leaders see that as a sign of significant change.
“If, 10 years ago, you have told me I’d be sitting in Thomas Wolfe auditorium [in the Cherokee Center] listening to a presentation about systemic racism and reparations, I’d say, ‘what?’” Mayor Esther Manheimer said. “One of the big takeaways for me from this whole process is the transformation of becoming a community where we’re now having these conversations in the white community.”
However, setbacks remain. The lone permanent staff member in the Asheville Office of Equity and Inclusion left on July 9, and Interim director Richard White will vacate this post and his job as Assistant City Manager in August. While City Manager Campbell has said a new director will be hired soon, questions remain about how much support the reparations commission will have when the city office dedicated to equity and inclusion has serious staffing concerns.
Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith also expressed disappointment in the lack of outreach in phase 1 of the reparations plan, questioning whether “we had enough representation from the larger Black community in order to move forward.”
The vice mayor’s words echo Rob Thomas’ deep disappointment in the city’s approach to reparations. In an RJC video from April 2021 that recounts the plan, RJC members question whether the process will offer real reparations to Black communities members or only re-traumatize people who participate. They question the ability for the city to address centuries of human rights violations in a process that will only last just more than a year and finally, question whether all of Asheville’s Black neighborhoods are being heard in this process controlled by city and county leaders.
“What I see is bureaucracy and then also [government] trying to figure out how to do this as easy as possible,” Thomas said.
Nevertheless, he also made it clear that he and other community organizers like Tre Williams and Sasha Mitchell are not going to stop working to put Asheville’s Black community at the heart of the reparations process.
“I want to inspire us to truly dig into this process,” he said, “and not sit back and watch it happen. Get involved.”
Sara Murphy is a freelance writer living in the mountains outside of Asheville, North Carolina. Her work has appeared in Folks and Supermajority News.