Fredericksburg’s controversial slave auction block will remain at the corner of Charles and William streets.
City Council voted 6–1 Tuesday to leave the knee-high stone in place downtown after hearing overwhelming community support for that option. Chuck Frye Jr., who had made an unsuccessful motion to move the auction block, voted against.
Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw said that she was particularly moved by comments by descendants of slaves who were sold at the block, some of whom said that they wanted it to remain so that people would understand what happened there.
“We are challenged to make sure that it is presented appropriately and offers a prayer for the souls of those who were sold, that offers a prayer for reconciliation and healing in our nation, that offers a prayer for understanding,” she said.
Greenlaw said that City Council will need additional community input, especially from the city’s African–American residents, on how the block remains, how its story is told, and how the city faces “the horrible truth of the evil of slavery and the evil of treating human beings like property.”
Council’s decision was the result of a monthlong effort set in motion when Frye asked the Council at its Aug. 22 meeting to consider moving the auction block. He had witnessed a candlelight vigil at the auction block on the preceding Sunday evening, at which the Rev. Hashmel Turner prayed that City Council would remove the auction block.
Frye said what “took him over the edge” was a mock auction held at the block after the vigil had walked down the street to Liberty Town.
“It took my breath away, just to see that,” he said. “The only way that we can end that type of nonsense is if the block is not there.”
Frye said that he decided that he wanted to have City Council reach a decision on the auction block’s fate “before anything negative happened.” He asked if he, Greenlaw and City Manager Tim Baroody could come up with options to present to the Council.
They came up with three, which 26 people weighed in on during a public forum Saturday. Thirteen speakers favored or seemed to lean toward leaving the block where it is, while seven indicated a desire to move it. Another six did not take firm positions on either option.
City Council also accepted online comments until noon Monday. Greenlaw said that of the 602 people who responded, 363 said they wanted to keep the auction block in its current location and add interpretive panels and a buffer to protect the stone. They also wanted to improve the corner’s design for better pedestrian traffic flow.
The option to replace the auction block with a historic marker and directions to its new location, most likely the Fredericksburg Area Museum, received 127 responses, while 112 said they weren’t in favor of either option.
Gaye Adegbalola, one of about 30 people in the audience, interrupted to ask for the breakdown by race. Greenlaw said the online survey did not ask for commenters to give their race. She said that 209 of the online responses were from Fredericksburg residents and 322 were from those living in Stafford or Spotsylvania counties. The rest came from as far away as California.
Eight people spoke during the public comment section of the meeting, which was held before the vote. Of those, three asked for it to be removed, two asked that it remain in place and three said that they wanted the African–American community to have the strongest voice in the decision.
Eddie Hackler said that he has no evidence that his enslaved ancestors were sold at that auction block, and thinks it should remain where it is. He said moving it to the Fredericksburg Area Museum would be disastrous because it is devoid of African–American history.
“Removal would not remove the sins of Fredericksburg, but would lead people to believe that those sins have been forgiven,” he said.
Hackler said that African–Americans still make up the majority of prison inmates and their history isn’t taught.
“Could it be that slavery hasn’t disappeared, but it has evolved?” he said.
Hackler asked that resources that would have been used to remove the auction block be diverted to the Fredericksburg Area Museum “to bring awareness of the contributions of African–Americans to the building of Fredericksburg.”
Turner, however, said that the auction block is a barrier to efforts to unify the community and should be removed.
“How can we unify if a reminder of what people who don’t look like me did to people who look like me remains?” he said.
Councilman Matt Kelly said that many people who see the auction block feel revulsion, pain and shame, but leaving it in place is critical for showing future generations about slavery, the fight to end it and what they can do to move forward.
“Hopefully, from those lessons we’ll become better people and move on,” he said. “If you move the auction block to the side, you detach it from the community.”