Fredericksburg’s controversial slave auction block will soon be moving from the corner of William and Charles streets.
Two local businesses filed a lawsuit challenging the City Council’s decision to relocate the block to the Fredericksburg Area Museum, and it has been decided in the city’s favor. City staff will begin working out a timetable for removal next week. A kiosk with information about the auction block will go in its place.
Fredericksburg Circuit Court Judge Sarah L. Deneke’s opinion, which she delivered Friday, said the council had the authority to approve removing the auction block last June, and the Architectural Review Board’s failure to then agree on whether or not to grant a certificate of approval for its removal didn’t bar City Manager Tim Baroody from filing an appeal of the non-decision with the council in November.
“We are very, very pleased and intend to move forward with our plan to move the slave auction block to the Fredericksburg Area Museum for proper presentation and to do a really good job of telling the story of slavery and slave auctions at that corner in front of the old Planter’s Hotel,” said Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw.
Local Holdings LLC, owner of the Olde Towne Butcher shop and The Butcher’s Table restaurant in what was the Planter’s Hotel building, and E.D. Cole Building LLC, which owns the commercial building across the street, filed a petition with the court in December to stop the city from moving the historic artifact from 401 William St.
The petition originally alleged they would lose business income from what they predicted would be a decline in both foot traffic and tourist visits to the corner if the auction block was removed. It also argued that City Council violated the Dillon Rule, which says a locality’s powers are limited to only those expressly granted by the state, and had no legal authority to order the removal of the auction block and its relocation to the museum.
The allegation of lost income, which prompted a boycott by the Fredericksburg Branch NAACP, was dropped before the case reached the court Monday. During the hearing, their petitioners’ lawyer, Fredericksburg attorney Joseph Peter Drennan, said that according to City Code, the ARB has to reach a decision before it can be appealed.
“City Council just went on to approve the certificate of appropriateness anyway,” he said. “That is the illegality of the decision.”
In her decision, Deneke said the city didn’t violate the Dillon Rule because Fredericksburg’s charter, which was granted by the state, gives it the authority to control, manage and dispose of its property. She added that Baroody had the right to appeal to City Council for the certificate of appropriateness, and it didn’t matter if this happened after the council had voted to move the block. The ARB still had 90 days to approve the application, deny it or approve it with modifications.
“The failure of the ARB to reach a majority vote on the options available to them and to allow the time for reaching a majority decision to expire is a decision within the meaning of the ordinance,” she wrote. “Any other interpretation of the application and appeal process would render the language of the ordinance meaningless.”
Council member Chuck Frye Jr., who first raised the issue of removing the auction block at a meeting in 2017, said the African American community has long seen the stone as a sign of disrespect, and Deneke’s decision comes as “a big sigh of relief for a lot of people in the city.”
“A lot of people have dealt with this pain for years. It’s way past time for it to be gone,” he said. “I think it’s a good day in the city, and of all days it happened on Valentine’s Day. It shows love in the city. That’s how deep I feel about it.”