THE news that the Fredericksburg City Council has decided to reverse its previous decision and move the 100-plus-year-old stone “slave block” from the downtown corner of William and Charles streets to the Fredericksburg Area Museum (FAM) concerns many of us.
The editorial in the June 16 Free Lance–Star [“Removing the slave auction block”] provides good reason that this may not be the best choice. It even suggests that the council’s previous stance—to leave the block where it is—is the better choice.
The editorial noted that a petition signed by thousands included the following statement: “… this vile monument does not belong on a public street corner as a constant reminder of the hatred that once filled this town, state, and country.”
I could add my name to this petition if it removed “vile” and instead read, “the monument belongs on a public street corner.”
The block is an inanimate object that has no capability of being “vile.” That must be left to those who used it, or knew about its use and did nothing about it.
Left where it is, the block reminds anyone who passes by of the bigotry and vileness it represents. Much more research is needed to share the significance of this historic artifact and determine how to best tell its story in situ.
The block is the property of the citizens of Fredericksburg, not the City Council, and more citizen input is needed to decide its placement.
If the stone is removed to the FAM, it should be installed on the first floor just inside the entrance. But that would be problematic, due to the size of the stone. The entire block would need to be moved from deep below ground; otherwise how does one decide where to cut, what is to be moved and what is left on site?
Additionally, if an FAM block tour is planned, would it begin at the current site, or would a tour guide say, “Later in the tour, you will visit the original site where the block sat from its original installation until July 2019?”
More than preservation of the block is involved. If it is moved, it should not be a gift to the FAM. There should be an agreement or easement to ensure that it remains the property of the citizens of the City of Fredericksburg. This would give the city, and the easement holder, the right to consider placement and use of the block.
One last important consideration: Does removal of the block, from a site where it is always accessible and free to the public to a place where it is only accessible a few hours a day to those who can pay for private museum admission, provide equitable access for all citizens?
Would moving the block equally serve the possibilities the stone now offers for viewing it on site, where it is always available?
The block’s current site is public. Those of us who see it have a chance to place flowers at its base or review what it means. If it is moved to FAM, it would never, as it does now, bring someone by chance to think about the lessons the stone block teaches us. Only the current site offers that opportunity.
Perhaps a good designer could work with the city to develop the present site as a monument worth viewing and always viewable. A young student, Maya Lin, was responsible for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, which has become the most visited monument on the National Mall.
Remembering the history of the block in ways that millions would find important and shareable through beauty, careful thought, and accessibility, could bring similar attention to historic downtown Fredericksburg.
Tony P. Wrenn served on the Fredericksburg Architectural Review Board and was honored for his work with the Virginia Board of Architectural Review and by the American Institute of Architects for his work with the National Register of Historic Places and his contributions to the field of architectural history. He authored “America’s Forgotten Architecture,” a book on vernacular architecture.