The controversy over Fredericksburg’s slave auction block led to a community discussion about its fate, but participants never reached a consensus on whether to move it, which aspects of its story to focus on and who should make those decisions.
But the more than 250 people who participated in the International Coalition of Sites of Consciousness’ public forums last year did agree on one thing: They want the whole story of both the auction block and the African–American experience in Fredericksburg to be told.
Earlier this month, the City Council unanimously accepted ICSC’s third and final report, which recommended that a committee be created to do just that by evaluating the brochures, website materials, signage and language used in telling Fredericksburg’s history. The committee will also recommend specific edits and new signage. The city’s Memorials Advisory Commission will be asked to oversee the effort.
In addition, the report advised that the controversial auction block be protected if it remains at the corner of William and Charles streets, and that its location be redesigned to better tell the story of the block and its surroundings.
The council also unanimously approved allotting $250,000 to carry out the report’s suggestions.
“The strongest recommendation, the strongest single repeating comment that came out of our discussion with the community was that we do not do a good job of telling our history,” said Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw. “We cannot move forward as a community without understanding our history in full, and how it informs our actions and our very attitudes today. So we are very sincere in moving forward with this recommendation of doing a better job of telling our history.”
The council hired ICSC after the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville sparked pleas to have the auction block moved. Based on input from a public forum and a community survey, council members voted to leave the auction block where it is, but offer more details about its history. The only plaque identifying the block describes it as “Fredericksburg’s Principal Auction Site in Pre-Civil War Days for Slaves and Property.”
ICSC staffers Dina Bailey and Braden Paynter held more than a dozen public meetings to give the community a chance to share their views and discuss ideas for what should be done with the slave auction block.
Their final report said that participants’ understanding and appreciation of different points of view about the auction block has grown, and their ability to work collaboratively improved. But unresolved issues remain, including whether the stone should be left where it is or moved.
“These remaining challenges are significant and real, but they are not unexpected or unaddressable. They are also not problems that are unique to the block or can be confined to it,” the 20-page report notes. “The block, as the best historical artifacts are able to do, helps make larger ongoing challenges from throughout the community more tangible and understandable.”
Councilman Chuck Frye Jr. said that ICSC’s forums gave everyone in the community a chance to have an open dialogue about race, and that the city now has a unique opportunity to fill in important gaps in its history.
He gave as an example the story of how students at Walker–Grant, an all-black school until integration in 1968, wanted to hold their graduation ceremony at what’s now the Dorothy Hart Community Center. Told that they’d have to enter through a side door, they refused to use the building.
Frye said that there are residents who remember that and don’t want their grandchildren to go in that building to sign up for activities such as baseball or basketball.
“It makes them feel that they’re not a part of this city where you have a community facility that they paid taxes to have, but yet they couldn’t go in the front door,” Frye said.
Greenlaw, who grew up in Fredericksburg, said that the incident happened in the 1950s, but she didn’t know about it until recently when she told an African–American woman that there was going to be a meeting at Dorothy Hart.
“She said, ‘We don’t go there,’ ” Greenlaw said. “That, for me, was a turning point in this whole process. It was like, wow, we are really missing the story here.”
Frye said that including incidents such as that in the city’s history are long overdue, and pointed out that the council now has money set aside to do it.
“I am very proud of our community that we were allowed to have this conversation,” said Councilman Matt Kelly, who credited Frye and Greenlaw for helping make it happen.
Kelly said the forums focused on one period in time, and that discussion needs to move from the time when people were brought to this country as property to where Frye is able to sit next to him as an elected representative of the city of Fredericksburg.
“That’s a long story, and an important story to be told, not only for us to understand, but for future generations to understand how far we’ve come and what it took to get us here and what we may be called on as individuals because it’s an ongoing story. We have not reached the last chapter. There is definitely more to do,” he said.
Council member Tim Duffy said he thinks everyone who participated in ICSC’s forums learned something and was changed by it.
“I know I certainly was,” he said. “And I think something that’s going to be critical to our future is to have these conversations that the whole community gets involved in. I think that’s still a problem. Without having voices heard and engaged, we will not be able to create a more just Fredericksburg without these kinds of efforts.”
Council member Kerry Devine also thanked Frye and Greenlaw, along with City Manager Tim Baroody, for recommending that the city hire ICSC.
“Race is a difficult subject to talk about, to address. We sometimes skirt around it, and it can be uncomfortable,” she said. “It was a good discussion for our community, and it came after a rather explosive time in our state and the nation. We started, we weren’t sure where we’d end up. But we are, I think, in a good place as far as we’re headed in the right direction.
Council member Billy Withers said that he hopes everyone will read the report, which is available on the city’s website, fredericksburgva.gov, because it lays out a road map for how to move forward.
“It lays it out loud and clear,” he said. “It says government can’t do it all. We’ve got to enlist the help of our neighbors, of our whole city. You can focus on atrocities in the past or the resilience of the folks that suffered through this and how they broke through.”
He said the reports suggests the Memorials Advisory Commission be asked to form several committees to tackle ICSC’s recommendations.
According to the memorandum the council approved, the commission will be expected to pull together a diverse group of participants to craft a mission, set goals and finally make recommendations on short- and long-range priorities. They should include representatives from the Fredericksburg Branch NAACP, National Park Service, Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc., the Fredericksburg Museums Council and city staff.
Nancy Moore, who chairs the commission, said this week that she will meet with Baroody to clarify what’s involved.
“I’m just so glad that you guys got this group,” Withers said of ICSC. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to do it overnight. It’s going to be a long process.”
Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407