NC Supreme Court declines challenge to Confederate monument's removal

North Carolina’s highest court declined on Friday to revive a challenge to the decision by Asheville city leaders to remove in 2021 a downtown monument honoring a Civil War-era governor.

The state Supreme Court agreed unanimously that it had been appropriate to dismiss legal claims filed by an historic preservation group that had helped raise money to restore the 75-foot tall Zebulon Vance obelisk in the 2010s.

In the months after the start of 2020 demonstrations over racial justice and the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the Asheville City Council voted to dismantle the downtown monument out of public safety concerns.


The monument, initially dedicated in 1897, had been vandalized, and the city had received threats that people would topple it, according to the opinion.

The Society for the Historical Preservation of the 26th North Carolina Troops opposed the removal and sued, but a trial judge dismissed the lawsuit. The obelisk was dismantled before the Court of Appeals told the city and Buncombe County to stop the demolition while appeals were heard, but the monument base has stayed in place. Friday’s decision is likely to allow the base to be removed.

In 2022, the intermediate-level Court of Appeals upheld Superior Court Judge Alan Thornburg’s dismissal. The three-judge panel agreed unanimously that while the society had entered an agreement with the city for the restoration project and had raised over $138,000, the contract didn’t require the city to maintain the obelisk in perpetuity.

The exterior of the North Carolina Supreme Court building, which is located in Raleigh, North Carolina. (North Carolina Supreme Court, official website)

Associate Justice Phil Berger Jr., writing Friday’s opinion, did take issue with the Court of Appeals ruling that the society’s breach of contract claim should be dismissed because the group lacked legal standing to initiate it. But because the society failed to argue the merits of its contract claim to the justices, the issue was considered abandoned, Berger added.

“Therefore, plaintiff has failed to assert any ground for which it has standing to contest removal of the monument,” Berger wrote while affirming Thornburg’s dismissal of the society’s remaining claims.

Vance, who was born in Buncombe County, served as governor from 1862 to 1865 and 1877 to 1879. He was also a Confederate military officer and U.S. senator. The city has said the monument was located on a site where enslaved people are believed to have been sold.

The monument was one of many Confederate statues and memorials removed across the South in recent years, including one in Winston-Salem. Litigation over that monument’s removal by a Civil War-history group also reached the state Supreme Court and was featured in legal briefs in the Asheville case.

Separately, a Court of Appeals panel this week affirmed the decision by Alamance County commissioners not to take down a Confederate monument outside the historic local courthouse there.

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