Fredericksburg Slave Block
tourist postcards highlighted the slave sale site in Fredericksburg
Source: Boston Public Library, Old Slave Block, Fredericksburg, Va. (ca. 1930-1945)
At the corner of William and Charles streets in Fredericksburg, a sandstone block was placed originally outside the United States Hotel. That hotel was built in 1843; when sold to a new owner in 1851, the hotel name was changed to the Planter's Hotel. The stone was a carriage step that enabled people to get in and out of horse-drawn carriages, but its other use is why the stone has historical significance.
In Fredericksburg, sales of enslaved men, women, and children were held in front of the hotel. According to eyewitness reports and local tradition, people were placed on the "slave rock" to provide potential buyers a better view, with the last sale in 1862. A 1908 history of Fredericksburg stated:1
- The slave to be sold was required to stand on this block in the presence of the gathered traders, when he or she was "cried out" by the auctioneer to the highest bidder. Those slaves who were publicly hired out for the year also took their stand on this block and were hired out at the highest price bid. There is probably no relic in Fredericksburg that calls back more vividly the days of slavery than does this stone block.
enslaved people were sold in front of the hotel once located next to the stone
Source: Boston Public Library, The Slave Auction Block at William and Charles (from Richmond Whig, December 24, 1847)
In 1913, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities requested the city place a marker at the site because it was historic. In 1924, the chamber of commerce proposed removing the slave block because it was a deterrent to tourism, and claimed the stone was just a carriage step and never used for slave auctions. A vigorous local response disputed that claim, and the stone was not removed.2
Starting in 1984, a plaque at the site provided a small part of the context via the words "AUCTION BLOCK, Fredericksburg's Principal Auction Site in Pre-Civil War Days for Slaves and Property."
Vandals damaged the slave block in 2005, smashing chunks of sandstone from the top with a hammer. The city repaired the damaged stone. A local guide who led black history tours in Fredericksburg described the significance of the slave block to residents and visitors:3
- You can hear a pin drop, no matter who's on the tour with me... It evokes emotions in people just to stand there.
the slave block was located at the corner of Charles and William streets
Source: City of Fredericksburg, Slave Auction Block
In 2017, after a counter-protestor was killed at the white nationalist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the city started another community dialogue on how to deal with the relic of slavery within the city's vision statement of "Sharing Our Past, Embracing the Future." One of the city's responses to Frequently Asked Questions about the slave block addressed directly the benefit of keeping it in place vs. moving a painful reminder of the past to the nearby Fredericksburg Area Museum:4
- Why is it thought to be important to keep the slave auction block in place?
- The place where slaves were sold has a spatial relationship to other downtown locations, such as the Market House and the Market Square. It also sits in front of the building that was there at the time. In 2005, when the slave auction block was vandalized, there occurred a lengthy public discussion. Mary Washington University professor W. Brown Morton, III noted at the time that the slave auction block was potentially eligible for an individual listing on the National Register of Historic Places. He explained that moving the slave auction block would separate it from its historic and physical setting, thereby diminishing its significance.
The community dialogue did not produce a consensus. City Council decided in June, 2019 to relocate the block to the Fredericksburg Area Museum.5
The local newspaper, in an editorial in support of leaving the block in place, made clear how the reminder of slavery compared to other monuments in the area commemorating the Civil War:6
- Unlike the many Confederate monuments in the South, the slave auction block is one of the few historical artifacts that forces residents and visitors to contemplate the evils of slavery - and Fredericksburg's key role in the slave trade. That's the main reason the Fredericksburg City Council wanted to remove the block back in 1924 - when black people were still being lynched in Virginia.
- Removing the block from its current location will also remove this daily conscience-pricking reminder.
Even after the decision by the City Council, the Architectural Review Board was unable to concur. The group split on a motion for a certificate of appropriateness for the change in the city's Historic District, and ended up making no decision before the 90-day window for action expired. The City Council then approved moving the stone to the Fredericksburg Area Museum for public exhibition there, and placing an interpretive wayside panel at the corner of William and Charles streets where the stone had been located. A medallion with the outline of the stone would be placed in the sidewalk.
The mayor commented about the lengthy decision process:7
- I am so proud that we talked to each other and we listened to each other. We did it the right way. We listened to each other. I've lived here all my life and I learned things I never knew... We're going to do a much better job and continue the dialogue...
After the decision, owners of two buildings next to the slave auction block, 401 and 402 Williams Street, sued to keep the city from moving it. They feared that replacing the historic feature with a wayside panel would reduce tourist traffic and affect their businesses. The lawsuit argued that under the Dillon Rule, the City Council had authority to act only after the Architectural Review Board had issued a certificate of appropriateness.
owners of two buildings next to the stone (red X) sued to block its removal to the Fredericksburg Area Museum
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
In response, the Fredericksburg Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) started a boycott of the businesses in 401 Williams Street. The owner of 402 Williams Street had rented it to a restaurant that was not associated with the lawsuit, and the NAACP was careful to note that no boycott was proposed of that restaurant. The owner of one of the buildings responded that the lawsuit reflected local politics and he was seeking to preserve history, while the NAACP stated that it:8
- ...finds it offensive the petitioners seek to profit from the vestiges of slavery.
A Circuit Court judge ruled in February, 2020 that the city council had the authority to move the slave auction block. The council's action, after failure of the Architectural Review Board to grant a certificate of approval, did not exceed the authority granted to the city and thus violate the Dillon Rule. The city charter allowed local officials to manage and dispose of city property.9
the NAACP called for a boycott of businesses associated with the filer of a lawsuit trying to stop removal of the slave auction block
Source: Fredericksburg NAACP Branch
Despite the ruling, objections to moving the slave block continued. An architectural historian and former member of the Virginia State Review Board, Department of Historic Resources wrote a commentary published in the local newspaper, describing the slave block as:10
- ...one of Fredericksburg's most important cultural sites for black history...
- ...When historical incidents occur, it is most important for people to be able to visit the exact sites to have a sense of what happened there. The only way to really understand what happened here in Fredericksburg is to keep what remnants of the historical site still exist and interpret them. The location of the auction block itself is of ultimate importance in the city. You cannot put a site in a museum. If it is the only one that still exists in Virginia, then it is of extreme importance to the city, the state, and the nation.
The Supreme Court of Virginia upheld the Circuit Court Ruling in April, 2020. The City Council acted in June, 2020, soon after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis led to widespread demonstrations and at least a temporary shift in public attitudes towards symbols systemic racism. Governor Northam and Richmond officials announced plans to move statues of Confederate leaders off Monument Avenue, generating nationwide news, and marches in Fredericksburg even blocked highways for short periods of time.
On June 5, the 800-pound Aquia sandstone block which had been installed in 1843 was excavated and moved to storage. City officials announced it would be loaned to the Fredericksburg Area Museum, which planned to incorporate it in an exhibit once the museum reopened after the COVID-19 pandemic.11
City officials decided to leave the red, white and green graffiti which had been spray-painted on the stone during Black Lives Matter protests, prior to its removal. The president of the Fredericksburg Area Museum stated:12
- It is our goal to use the stone as a springboard for community conversations.
When the museum first displayed the object in 2021, the initial interpretation noted that 18 auctions of enslaved people occurred at the location of the slave block between 1847 and 1862. The block was placed in an obscure location, since the interpretive context had not been finalized. Due to its weight, the slave block had to be exhibited on the first floor.13
removal of the 800-pound slave auction block on June 5, 2020
Source: City of Fredericksburg, Photos of Auction Block Removal
graffiti added during Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 will remain on the slave auction block
Source: City of Fredericksburg, Photos of Auction Block Removal
an interpretive panel was installed at the site of the slave auction block
Source: City of Fredericksburg, Photos of Auction Block Removal
1. John Hennessy, "'Fredericksburg seems to be the best place to sell slaves in the State': More evidence on the Auction Block," Fredericksburg Remembered blog, June 11, 2010, https://fredericksburghistory.wordpress.com/2010/06/11/fredericksburg-seems-to-be-the-best-place-to-sell-slaves-in-the-state-more-evidence-on-the-auction-block/ (last checked June 12, 2019)
2. "Slave Auction Block," City of Fredericksburg, https://www.fredericksburgva.gov/1287/Slave-Auction-Block; John Hennessy, "The Slave Auction Block at William and Charles," Mysteries & Conundrums blog, September 14, 2017, https://npsfrsp.wordpress.com/2017/09/14/the-slave-auction-block-at-william-and-charles/ (last checked June 12, 2019)
3. "Slave auction block vandalized," Free Lance-Star, May 6, 2005, https://www.fredericksburg.com/local/slave-auction-block-vandalized/article_268bde7f-5a89-5baa-814c-12d4cf08f5e3.html
4. "Slave Auction Block - Frequently Asked Questions," City of Fredericksburg, https://www.fredericksburgva.gov/Faq.aspx?QID=351 (last checked June 12, 2019)
5. "Fredericksburg City Council votes to move slave auction block to museum," Free Lance-Star, June 12, 2019, https://www.fredericksburg.com/news/local/fredericksburg-city-council-votes-to-move-slave-auction-block-to/article_7f3f585b-5789-5453-b558-43fdea11bfac.html (last checked June 12, 2019)
6. "Editorial: Removing the slave auction block," Free Lance-Star, June 15, 2019, https://www.fredericksburg.com/opinion/editorial-removing-the-slave-auction-block/article_df01fa2a-e069-507e-9369-0078c55228e4.html (last checked June 16, 2019)
7. "Fredericksburg approves plan to move slave auction block to museum," Free Lance-Star, November 14, 2019, https://www.fredericksburg.com/news/local/fredericksburg-approves-plan-to-move-slave-auction-block-to-museum/article_1d32d979-50e5-57a8-b246-2d1368cafb21.html (last checked November 14, 2019)
8. "Lawsuit halts removal of Fredericksburg's slave auction block," Free Lance-Star, December 20, 2019, https://www.fredericksburg.com/news/local/lawsuit-halts-removal-of-fredericksburg-s-slave-auction-block/article_c5cc7326-50f3-589c-87b5-7eced13a99c1.html; "Business owner calls boycott over petition to halt slave auction block removal 'unfortunate'," Free Lance-Star, December 21, 2019, https://www.fredericksburg.com/news/local/business-owner-calls-boycott-over-petition-to-halt-slave-auction/article_e49d6ff4-1390-5563-9c04-c556cacb3848.html (last checked January 2, 2020)
9. "Judge upholds Fredericksburg City Council's decision to move slave auction block," Richmond Times-Dispatch, February 15, 2020, https://www.richmond.com/news/virginia/judge-upholds-fredericksburg-city-council-s-decision-to-move-slave/article_2f6cc718-3fe7-53db-ae3a-e1b2eb45679a.html (last checked February 17, 2020)
10. "Commentary: Removing slave auction block will destroy an important historic site," Free Lance-Star, February 27, 2020, https://www.fredericksburg.com/opinion/commentary-removing-slave-auction-block-will-destroy-an-important-historic/article_1917ca6d-ff9b-5991-aa32-5e2a98af0f98.html (last checked March 1, 2020)
11. "Update: Fredericksburg's controversial slave auction block removed early Friday morning," Free Lance-Star, June 5, 2020, https://www.fredericksburg.com/news/local/update-fredericksburgs-controversial-slave-auction-block-removed-early-friday-morning/article_b07b24f6-fb99-5867-9377-728d520d4ea8.html; "After a long debate, Fredericksburg, Va., finally removes a slave auction block from downtown," Washington Post, June 6, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/06/06/slave-auction-block-fredericksburg/; "Fredericksburg Area Museum to exhibit city's slave auction block in November," Free Lance-Star, September 27, 2020, https://fredericksburg.com/news/local/fredericksburg-area-museum-to-exhibit-citys-slave-auction-block-in-november/article_2fe2045e-0e85-5a58-bb87-5f8146be51f3.html (last checked October 1, 2020)
12. "Fredericksburg's Slave Auction Block Will Be Moved to a Museum," Smithsonian, September 30, 2020, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/fredericksburgs-slave-auction-block-will-be-displayed-museum-180975936/ (last checked October 1, 2020)
13. "Downtown slave auction block on display at Fredericksburg Area Museum," Free Lance-Star, July 11, 2021, https://fredericksburg.com/news/local/downtown-slave-auction-block-on-display-at-fredericksburg-area-museum/article_e3f90121-c7f2-5a18-9d24-f069a1a78e18.html (last checked July 13, 2021)
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