Slave Block

City residents have long debated the fate of the block at the corner of William and Charles streets.

The public will have another chance to weigh in on the fate of Fredericksburg’s controversial slave auction block, even though new research indicates that it was likely never used for that purpose.

The City Council voted July 11 to have it moved from the corner of William and Charles streets to the Fredericksburg Area Museum at 907 Princess Anne St., but the city’s Architectural Review Board still needs to approve a certificate of appropriateness since the block is an historic object in the Historic District.

Board members will hold the first of two public hearings at 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 12, in council’s chambers in City Hall, 715 Princess Anne St.

Kate Schwartz, the city’s historic resources planner, is recommending that the certificate be approved with several conditions. These include requiring the city to consult with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources on the relocation process, best practices for conserving the stone and the design of interpretive materials both for it and its current location at the corner of William and Charles streets.

New research indicates that the auction block, which is made of Aquia sandstone, was installed at the time when Joseph Sanford constructed the three-story brick building next to it at 401–405 William St. between 1843 and 1844. It was known first as the United States Hotel, and later renamed the Planter’s Hotel.

Today, it’s called the Knoxana Building. The building was the site of many public auctions in the mid-19th century, including those where enslaved people were sold or hired out.

Slaves, however, likely never stood on the block to be auctioned off, according to new research by John Hennessy and Dovetail Cultural Resource Group. The square hole in the center of top of the block most likely held an iron rod at some point, and it was used as a sign post rather than an auction block or carriage step. The missing portion of the block that gives it the appearance of having a step broke off during the 19th century.

“Though the current research indicates that the block was not intentionally installed as an auction block, it is an historic object that has come to represent the overall use of this street corner and building for the sale of enslaved people,” Schwartz wrote in her memorandum to the ARB. “It is distinctive and significant for its association with antebellum life and the practice of slavery, and is a singular symbol of these in Fredericksburg.”

Fredericksburg residents have debated what to do with the stone block several times over the last 150 years. The issue arose most recently after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, and was followed by two years of community-wide discussions.

City Council originally voted to keep the stone in its current location after a public forum and survey. But members reversed that decision after a year of discussions led by the International Council of Sites of Conscience found that participants never reached a consensus on whether to move it, which aspects of its story to focus on and who should make those decisions.

“History is not always comfortable, nor should it be, but the tight confines of the block’s current location create a public experience that is not purposefully or thoughtfully confrontational, but is instead perceived as cruel to members of the community,” Schwartz wrote. “Relocation is one component of the continuing community dialogue on race and remembrance, and it allows for physical protection of an historic object and multifaceted interpretation of the site.”

Other conditions she recommended before the certificate of appropriateness is approved are that an ARB member be designated as a liaison to the city’s Memorials Advisory Commission, which has been given the responsibility for coming up with the design of permanent interpretive materials. Schwartz also wants interpretation at the original site, and for the Fredericksburg Area Museum to maintain the auction block’s association with the larger Planter’s Hotel site.

Her final recommendation is that a second public hearing be required for review of the commission’s design for the permanent interpretive materials that will be installed at the corner of Charles and William streets.

City staff already are consulting with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources about relocating the stone, and are working with Dovetail Cultural Resource Group and the FAM on the logistics.

Once the stone is removed and cleaned, the city’s Public Works staff will stabilize the stone and lift it. It will be transported using a custom pallet to a temporary facility for environment conditioning before being installed in the museum.

Temporary markers will be installed at the auction block’s original site until the permanent interpretation is developed.

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Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407

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