THE Fredericksburg City Council’s 6–1 vote Tuesday to remove what is believed to be a slave auction block from the corner of William and Charles streets came after months of discussion and deliberation.
The council rightly rejected demands last year for its immediate removal, and instead hired consultants from the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience to lead a wide-ranging discussion on its future that sought to include all members of the community.
Although John Hennessy, chief historian at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, has concluded that there is “no direct evidence that establishes a slave standing atop the block,” oral history supports the idea and there is documentary evidence that at least nine slaves were auctioned off at the same corner during the mid-1800s.
So the block is a tangible and concrete connection to the time when it was legal to enslave human beings and auction them off like livestock in downtown Fredericksburg.
The ICSC found that while city residents remain divided on whether the slave auction block should stay or be moved to the Fredericksburg Area Museum—the option the City Council eventually endorsed—most people agreed that the city needed to do a better job of telling the history of its African–American residents.
But it’s difficult to see how moving the block from its current downtown location to the museum—where fewer people will see it—advances that goal.
Unlike the many Confederate monuments in the South, the slave auction block is one of the few historical artifacts that forces residents and visitors to contemplate the evils of slavery—and Fredericksburg’s key role in the slave trade. That’s the main reason the Fredericksburg City Council wanted to remove the block back in 1924—when black people were still being lynched in Virginia.
Removing the block from its current location will also remove this daily conscience-pricking reminder.
But after hiring the ICSC to gather community input, and hearing that the sight of the block was hurtful to many African–American residents, the council finally agreed to relocate it to FAM. Hopefully, the museum will use this opportunity to add the necessary historical context and expand the conversation beyond the usual us-vs.-them narrative that will lead to true racial reconciliation.
Although we still believe the slave auction block should be left on site as a daily reminder of the darkest chapter in Fredericksburg’s long history, the deliberative process the council undertook to arrive at its decision will hopefully serve as a model for other jurisdictions to emulate.