Slave Block

A bouquet of flowers adorns the slave auction block at the corner of William and Charles streets.

Local residents are still divided over whether to leave Fredericksburg’s controversial slave auction block in place or move it to a location where its story can be more fully told.

But participants in the second phase of community discussions regarding the stone at the corner of William and Charles streets did find some common ground.

Over and over, they used the words “truth” and “truthful” to describe which aspects they felt must be front and center in the process for figuring out how to present and portray it, according to the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience’s latest report.

“This shared desire cuts across differing visions for the future of the auction block, its location, and the space around it,” wrote ICSC staffers Dina Bailey and Braden Paynter, who led the discussions in August and September.

City Council hired the organization, which worked with Montpelier on its exhibit about the Orange County plantation’s slaves, in March after pleas in 2017 to have the block removed sparked discussions about its fate. Council members wanted help in determining how to tell a more complete story of the stone after they voted to leave it where it is, based on input from a public forum and a community survey.

ICSC divided its work in Fredericksburg into three phases.

Phase I focused on finding out through interviews and two focus groups what stories the community is already telling about the auction block. They found that African–Americans are rarely included in public history brochures and other materials; and many people, including members of the Fredericksburg branch of the NAACP, want City Council to reconsider its decision and move the auction block.

In Phase II, Bailey and Paynter held six brainstorming sessions in September and October that asked participants to envision how the slave auction block could be better interpreted. The only marker on it is a plaque that identifies it as “Fredericksburg’s Principal Auction Site in Pre-Civil War Days for Slaves and Property.”

The sessions featured a number of activities, including one where participants were asked to pick five to 10 words that would describe a successful design for the auction block. “Truth” and “truthful” tied with “reflective” as the most often chosen words.

Asked to elaborate, they made such comments as “Truthful—to be accurate and acknowledge its history from many directions” and “Truthful—education, real story, not sugar coating,” according to the new Phase II report.

“This spoken desire for truth in the future implies an unspoken belief that some truths have been left out in the past,” it added. “Throughout conversations, people regularly added ‘untold’ or ‘hidden’ to describe the truth they want to see shared, indicating that those stories had not been widely shared in the past.”

Participants’ desire for truth mirror “a widespread anxiety” that it might be omitted in the future, according to the report. People in favor of leaving the auction block in place often spoke of its removal as “erasure,” “white-washing” and “forgetting.” Those who pushed for its removal, on the other hand, said that they believe a different location would allow more room to tell a more complete story.

“If we really want to move forward, it would all be in a museum where we truly learn history ...,” the report quotes one anonymous participant saying. It noted that no matter where the stone is located or relocated, no space will be sufficient to tell everything.

There was also widespread interest in having a design for the auction block that encourages reflection, and enables and encourages people “to grapple with the facts and experiences of the block and to consider the implications for themselves and the wider world,” the report said. It found that participants want a design that tells how devastating slavery was, and how important it is that it never be repeated.

For some, the hope is that new signage for the auction block will invite people to reflect on it in a “meaningful way,” while others want it to encourage people to work toward making “a just society,” the report said.

Two other words that popped up frequently during the word exercise were “dignity” and “resilience.” Participants said that they wanted information about slavery and the auction block to be presented in a respectful way and to stress the resilience of those most adversely affected.

“These ideas, their presence and their absence, are consistently intertwined in the way history has been told in the U.S.,” the report said. “Many of the initial public narratives of slavery were ones that deemphasized the dignity, agency, humanity and resilience of enslaved people and their descendants. While needing to be recognized within a uniquely Fredericksburg context, these ideas are in line with wider ‘best practice’ around current memorialization of slavery in the U.S.”

Participants also frequently mentioned that they’d like to see the auction block used in connection with other locations in the city that will help tell the larger story of the African–American experience in Fredericksburg.

One example given was to create a trail to freedom that would lead from the auction block to a freedom monument that could be built next to Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) on Caroline Street. Others said that if the block were moved, it could still be the center of a wider story.

“Regardless of the location of the block, people share a sense of geographical focus for the storytelling, primarily highlighting downtown and waterfront locations,” the report said.

Both the Phase I and Phase II studies are available on the city’s website, fredericksburgva.gov. The Phase II report found that while the community still has concerns about the city following through with telling a more inclusive story about the auction block, participants were more apt to say that they had a better understanding and respect for those whose views differed from their own.

“This represents some of the positive potential for the continued work on this project,” the report said. “The community of Fredericksburg should be commended for doing the hard work of coming to recognize that success in Phase II does not mean that each individual’s point of view would be represented in its entirety, but that success has come from the ‘give’ and ‘take’ of creating new thoughts together.”

Phase III, which asked the community to zero in on which truths are the most important to tell about the auction block, was conducted in November and December.

Bailey and Paynter will give their report to City Council in the first quarter of this year. It will not include a recommendation about the final design for the auction block. Instead, they will offer guidelines developed by the community for the designers to use.

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Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407 cjett@freelancestar.com

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