Slave Block

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

Fredericksburg’s Architectural Review Board has delayed voting on what one speaker during Monday’s public hearing called “a delicate hot potato.”

It was City Council’s second request for a certificate of appropriateness to move what’s colloquially known as the slave auction block to the Fredericksburg Area Museum, which the ARB had declined to vote on at its Aug. 12 meeting because council members had already approved the relocation.

When it became clear that no vote would be made at Monday’s meeting either, City Attorney Kathleen Dooley said the city could ask the ARB to hold a supplementary meeting for continued discussion and informal review with city staff.

No vote was needed, and the supplementary meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Sept. 23, most likely on the third floor of the Executive Plaza building, 601 Caroline St. The ARB customarily holds these kinds of meetings on the fourth Tuesday of the month.

“The goal here is to engage the ARB,” said Dooley during a phone interview Tuesday. “They are members of the community and have an important perspective, and City Council wants to hear from them. The supplementary meeting is a way to foster discussion and start to flesh out what the ARB’s thoughts are.”

City Code requires a certificate of appropriateness for the removal of any historic landmark, building or structure in Fredericksburg’s historic district. The procedure to get one begins by applying to the ARB, which then has 90 days to make a decision. An ARB decision can be appealed to City Council, but the council does not grant certificates of appropriateness except on appeal.

Fredericksburg residents have debated what to do with the controversial stone block at the corner of William and Charles streets 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.

Council also asked City Manager Tim Baroody to present a relocation plan, which contained such preliminary steps as applying for the certificate of appropriateness application. Other conditions included designating an ARB member 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.

Kate Schwartz, the city’s historic resources planner, also recommended interpretation at the original site, for the Fredericksburg Area Museum to maintain the auction block’s association with the larger Planter’s Hotel site, and 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.

The removal plan was approved in July, and the certificate of appropriateness was on ARB’s agenda at its Aug. 12 meeting. Following a lengthy public hearing last month, the ARB took a two-minute break and then Chairman Jon Gerlach read from a prepared statement saying, in effect, that the board’s hands are tied. Its members were not consulted before City Council voted on moving the block.

Gerlach, who is a lawyer, said that under Virginia law, the board can’t affirm, reverse or modify a decision made by City Council.

“There’s no wiggle room in that,” he said. “And so, we can’t decide the issue of moving the artifact. The issue is moot.”

Dooley sent a memorandum to the ARB Sept. 4 that said that the statement Gerlach read would be true only if City Council had granted an application for a certificate of appropriateness at its June 11 meeting. Instead, Baroody signed the application for the certificate on July 22, and sent it to the ARB.

“Every applicant, including the City, is entitled to due process before the ARB,” Dooley wrote. “ARB inaction does not terminate an application with a ‘no decision.’ ”

Robert Lamb, who had spoken against moving the auction block at the ARB’s August meeting, told the board during the public comment portion of its meeting Monday that he appreciated “that a delicate hot potato has been tossed your way.” He added that he found it odd Dooley had suggested the board could take no action on the certificate after saying it has the power to act.

“In fact, that gives everybody a very convenient fig leaf,” he said. “City Council would get what it’s wanted all along, which is to move ahead without much criticism.”

Historic Fredericksburg Foundation President David James, another of the five people who spoke during the public comment period, said removing the auction block will “have an adverse impact on its historic significance,” and urged ARB members to vote their conscience.

“To remain silent and allow a ‘no action’ and allow them to remove it? Wow,” he said.

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Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407

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