Standing on the slave auction block in downtown Fredericksburg at 5 a.m. more than a half-century ago, Laura Montgomery could catch a glimpse of the Rappahannock River, hear the cry of a crow flying above her and smell the sweet scent of honeysuckle.
Then, she recalled last week, her bare feet started burning.
“The reason I wanted to stand on that block at 5 o’clock in the morning is because I wanted to associate with my brothers and sisters who stood on that block,” Montgomery told participants at one of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience’s last community sessions about the controversial stone at the corner of William and Charles streets. She also said she had been a Freedom Rider.
“I felt it. I did. That rock is not about us and how we feel,” the 80-year-old said. “It’s about them. It’s about my ancestors. That’s where they stood, whether it’s a politically correct place or not. That’s where they stood and that’s where they experienced their lives. That’s how I was able to move from Georgia to blossom and grow here now. You know when you sing, ‘My soul looks back in wonder how I got over?’ That’s how we got over, because of those people standing on that rock at that particular place. Amen.”
Montgomery, whose grandmother was 11 years old when slaves were freed, is a college graduate who worked at H.H. Poole Middle School in Stafford County. Her late husband also had a college degree and helped to integrate Dahlgren, she said.
She said that she thinks the auction block should stay where it is so people can touch and respect it, although she noted that her children and grandchildren don’t feel the same connection to it that she does.
Denise Quinn, a University of Mary Washington sophomore, said that she had a much different reaction when she stood on the auction block during rush hour last summer.
“I didn’t feel pride or proud to stand on the slave block. I felt the shame, the embarrassment, the disappointment that my ancestors must have felt to be shackled there. I felt grief,” she said. “It was a grave disappointment to have it still standing in the middle of a very busy area that most people would walk by and they wouldn’t know the history of it or anything like that.”
She said, in her opinion, the auction block should be moved to a place where it can be appreciated as a memorial, monument or artifact.
“I do get that’s where it was originally,” she said, “but it does affect a bunch of people in a negative way.”
Dina Bailey, one of two ICSC staffers facilitating the session, said that while both stories were vastly different, they were equally valid.
“In order for all of us to move forward, in terms of this Fredericksburg community, we all have to share our stories,” she said. “Just from those two stories, we are still talking about location. It is going to continue being talked about for a long time, I think.”
Fredericksburg’s City Council hired ICSC in March after pleas last year to have the block removed. Based on input from a public forum and a community survey, council members voted to leave the auction block where it is, but offer a more complete story about it.
Currently, the stone simply bears a plaque that identifies it as “Fredericksburg’s Principal Auction Site in Pre-Civil War Days for Slaves and Property.”
ICSC staff divided the project into three phases and began work in April. Phase I focused on finding out through interviews and focus groups what stories the community is already telling about the auction block. Staff listened to more than 140 people recommended by city officials, the Fredericksburg branch of the NAACP and some of the participants.
Printed and online materials, along with tours, podcasts and videos that mention Fredericksburg’s history, were reviewed, as well.
Findings are on the city’s website, fredericksburgva.gov. In the report, ISCS noted that there is “still a significant amount of discussion within the community about the slave auction block remaining or being removed,” and most participants felt it was “very important to emphasize their generational connections to Fredericksburg.”
In Phase Two, Bailey and fellow ISCS staffer Braden Paynter facilitated community discussions on the best way to tell a more complete story of the auction block since there’s so little space surrounding it. That report will be posted on the city’s website soon.
Bailey and Paynter used some of the findings from both phases to spark discussions during the final two community sessions in Phase Three last week. The goal, Bailey told the 32 participants, was to brainstorm steps the community can take in the future.
She started by having those sitting around tables in the Central Rappahannock Regional Library’s third floor rate their agreement on a scale of 1 to 10 with quotes taken from the first report. One dealt with people’s greatest aspirations and disappointments about the auction block. It said, “If it was still kept the way it is now. If we are still talking about it a year from now. If people are still able to touch it and disrespect it. If people are still ‘chit chatting’ that wouldn’t work for me.”
That got a 10 from the table sitting closest to the quote, which was taped to the wall.
“It would be like a sick child standing on the corner and we did nothing for a year,” said Bill Hayes.
Papers containing the quotes where then unfolded to list obstacles or challenges that had been mentioned by people taking part in the Phase Two discussions. Participants were asked to brainstorm steps the community can take after ICSC leaves. A number of ideas were mentioned, including holding an annual ceremony at the block, doing a documentary about its history, and protecting it with a barrier inscribed with the story of its past and the present controversy.
Bailey and Paynter ended the session by asking participants to stand in a circle and share what they were thankful for about their involvement in the project, and to make a commitment to see the process forward.
“Braden and I got you started, but you don’t need us anymore,” Bailey said. “It has started with you, and it will continue.”
Several UMW students who’ve taken part in the discussions have already taken up the torch. They’re organizing “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Discussion on the Slave Auction Block.” It will take place at 6 p.m. Feb. 7 in Chandler Ballroom A & B, University Center.