slave auction block

The slave auction block at the corner of William and Charles Streets in downtown Fredericksburg. 

A Fredericksburg judge refused Monday to grant an injunction to stop the city from removing a slave auction block from a downtown street corner, but did give the building owner challenging the move time to file an appeal.

Circuit Judge Sarah Deneke agreed to a 15-day stay of her order so the attorney for E.D. Cole Building LLC could ask the Virginia Supreme Court to take the case. The 15-day period should start by the end of the week, after the judge files the paperwork. The city has agreed not to move the block until the judge’s order is official.

Attorney Joseph Peter Drennan filed the motion for a temporary injunction on the behalf of E.D. Cole Building last week after the city placed traffic cones around the stone block at the corner of William and Charles streets and informed nearby businesses that it was about to be excavated and removed.

Drennan argued that an injunction would allow the case to remain “status quo” while the appeal is heard. The judge’s order only gives Drennan time to ask the state Supreme Court to intervene.

E.D. Cole Building LLC and Local Holdings LLC lost their initial bid to keep the slave auction block in place Feb. 14, when Deneke ruled that the City Council had the authority to relocate the stone to the Fredericksburg Area Museum. E.D. Cole owns the building across the street from the block.

Local Holdings owns The Olde Towne Butcher shop and The Butcher’s Table restaurant in the Knoxana Building next to the auction block. Local Holdings did not take part in the motion seeking the injunction.

Drennan has argued that the city’s Architectural Review Board had to initiate the move, and its members failed to reach a decision within the 90-day time limit. City Attorney Kathleen Dooley argued that the council has ultimate say in the matter and could not be thwarted by the ARB’s inability to reach a decision.

On Monday, Drennan backtracked from his previous statement that the stone was the last known surviving slave auction block and acknowledged there are a few others known to still exist. But he noted that the stone has been on the corner for 175 years and stood by his argument that moving it would cause “irreparable” harm to his clients.

Drennan also said he believed the case has a good chance of succeeding on appeal.

Research indicates the auction block, which is made of Aquia sandstone, was installed between 1844 and 1845, when Joseph Sanford constructed what’s now known as the Knoxana building at 401–405 William St.

Dooley said the corner where the block stands is what is historic, not so much the stone itself, because that’s where the slaves were auctioned. She detailed plans the city has instituted to put a marker at the spot once the block is removed.

She said she thinks the judge’s decision upholding the move will stand on appeal, and if it is reversed, the block could be returned to the site.

Dooley told the judge that in dealing with the auction block, the council made the decision to both “preserve a historic artifact” and to remove “a grim and painful reminder” for area residents.

Fredericksburg residents have debated what to do with the auction block several times over the years. The issue returned to the spotlight most recently in 2017.

After a public forum and survey, the council originally voted to keep the stone in its current location. But following a year of discussions led by the International Council of Sites of Conscience failed to produce a clear consensus from city residents, the council reversed that decision.

Since then, city staffers have been consulting with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources about relocating the stone and working with Dovetail Cultural Resource Group and the Fredericksburg museum on the logistics. FAM is continuing to move forward on an as-yet-unnamed exhibit about the auction block, which will be located in its River Gallery sometime after the museum reopens March 1.

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436

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