Slave Block (copy)

A small bouquet of flowers adorns the auction block at the corner of William and Charles streets on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2018.

Fredericksburg native Gaye Adegbalola said that walking past the city's controversial slave auction block used to "fuel my fire. It stoked my energy."

But the blues singer and former teacher who helped lead lunch counter sit-ins downtown in 1962 said that she has a different reaction since taking part in the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience's public brainstorming sessions about how the stone at the corner of William and Charles streets could be better interpreted.

"My attitude has changed because I've heard from so many black folks about the pain that they felt," she told City Council Thursday during a special work session to hear ICSC's final report. "I want it gone or moved, and I want the whole story told."

Like Adegbalola, many of the 250 people who've taken part in ICSC's numerous public sessions since last spring have said that their understanding and appreciation of different points of view about the auction block has grown, ICSC staffers Dina Bailey and Braden Paynter said during their presentation.

Equally important is that participants' ability to work collaboratively has also improved, they added, because there are still unresolved issues, including disagreement about the auction block's location, what aspects of its story to focus on, and who will be in charge of making those decisions.

"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," their 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."

City Council hired ICSC a year ago after the 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.”

A key issue that emerged in the first phase of ICSC's work—and continued through the remaining two, was the desire to tell the whole story. Participants said that's what they wanted, but each person had a slightly different understanding of what the truth is and which parts to prioritize, the staffers said. Should "the whole story" include the lives of the enslaved, for example, or just focus on slave auctions and enslavement?

"This is the tension that you all are going to have to wrestle with," Bailey said.

She and Paynter said the way to tackle it is to focus on three aspects: the scope of what's told, how the actions of those included are portrayed, and whose voices are included. The trends nationally are to acknowledge that slavery was brutal, but that it is also a story of resistance and survival, they said. Trends also lean toward acknowledging that slave owners made a choice, not that they were merely a product of their time and place.

Since the auction block location at the corner of a busy street is so small, it will be hard to tell its whole story there, Paynter said. He and Bailey recommended that the city issue a request for proposal for applicants to develop an initial concept that would redesign the area surrounding the block and work with the city and community to finalize the design.

In the meantime, they said that the city should place a clear Plexiglas case over the auction block temporarily to protect it until a decision is made to keep it there or move it as some, including the Fredericksburg Branch NAACP, have requested.

The city should also immediately schedule additional conversations to discuss how the community feels about ICSC's report, gather more ideas about what next steps they want to pursue, and how they envision pursuing them, according to the report.

This will help allay what people who took part in the brainstorming sessions said was their greatest fear. "Almost to a person, it was that nothing would happen," Bailey said.

Other recommendations included forming a content committee to research the facts and stories that should be told; revise local tours, brochures, websites and other media to include more African American history; involve more young people in future discussions; and come up with a way to reaffirm the community's commitment to the lessons learned from stories about the slave auction block. These could include an annual vigil, performance or art competition.

Council member Matt Kelly said that he agreed that telling the auction block's history at the site is impossible, and that the broader story around it needs to be told. He said compromises will have to be made, but the community needs to be united as it moves forward.

"I’m hopeful that the conversations that we’re having will help us to go forward in a way that we are more arm in arm, more sensitive," said Council member Tim Duffy. "I believe I’m getting there. I believe this process has changed me, and I hope it will change the city to be a more just place. Despite the difficulties of the challenges, I am heartened by the eloquence of your presentation. I am very hopeful about the destiny of this great little city."

Council member Chuck Frye Jr. said that the slave block issue is a personal one for him because he grew up in the Mayfield neighborhood hearing stories about it from his parents and grandparents.

"The block, from everyone I was around, was the most horrific thing ever," he said.

Frye said that he'd still like to see the auction block moved, and thanked the community for being involved in the recent discussions. He said that a number of African Americans have told him that they are glad to finally share their feelings about what it meant to them.

"Now that people are talking about it, it is a big deal," he said. "We did it together as a council."

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Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407

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