LAST September, after a conten- tious public debate, the Freder- icksburg City Council voted to leave the controversial slave auction block where it has stood for more than 150 years: at the corner of Charles and William streets.
Following up on its promise to provide a more comprehensive explanation of the stone’s role in the city’s history than currently offered by its minimalist placard, the council has hired a New York-based organization to facilitate this process.
International Sites of Conscience, which previously worked on a permanent exhibit about the use of slave labor at Montpelier—James and Dolley Madison’s plantation in Orange County—plans to hold a series of “community–centered dialogues” to help city officials add to the public’s understanding of the stone block, which is believed to have been used as a platform to buy and sell slaves from 1850 to 1862.
The ISC will eventually issue a report with recommendations on how to present the story of the block both at the site itself and at other venues around town. The hope is that this process will lead to healing and racial reconciliation, primarily between African–Americans who trace their family lineages back to slaves and those whose ancestors were part of the Confederacy.
The continuing controversy over the Confederate flag flying on private land in Stafford County, the legal battle over Confederate monuments in Charlottesville and elsewhere, and a white supremacist group’s ongoing efforts to march in defense of them are evidence that healing and reconciliation are in short supply, even though slavery was abolished in 1865 under the 13th Amendment and none of the participants in these contemporary skirmishes were ever slaves or slaveholders themselves.
But as the great Southern novelist William Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
American history has been revised numerous times over the centuries to reflect various eras’ prevailing views. Many practices we now view as barbaric were considered morally acceptable at the time, including the forced relocation of Native Americans; the compulsory sterilization of more than 60,000 people considered mentally “unfit;” the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the warehousing of the mentally ill in filthy state-run insane asylums.
But none cut as deep into the American soul as slavery, which was a direct contradiction of the nation’s founding principle embodied in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Furthered by Jim Crow laws and institutional discrimination, slavery’s corrosive effect on the nation’s body politic continues to this day. Fredericksburg’s $20,000 contract with ISC is a worthwhile attempt to engage the community in a long overdue dialogue about “race, history and memory.” Or, as Council member Chuck Frye Jr. put it, to “tell the rest of the story” about Fredericksburg’s participation in the slave trade. “It’s not rewriting the history books, it’s adding stuff that didn’t make the cut the first time,” Frye said.
The key to any reconciliation is brutal honesty about what happened and how it affected those involved. Descendants of slaves and slave owners must be allowed to speak freely. But the dialogue must also include those whose ancestors were neither, but who were nonetheless caught up in historical events over which they had little control.
The idea of holding a community dialogue to pursue reconciliation after national traumas is not new. In Rwanda, where 800,000 mostly minority ethnic Tutsis were brutally killed over 100 days by their neighbors, survivors and perpetrators were both encouraged to tell their stories in village courts (“gacacas”) set up by a national Truth Commission. Although many issues remain, perpetrators of the 1994 genocide and their victims now manage to live side by side in relative peace. Similar efforts at reconciliation, some more successful than others, have also been made in Cambodia, Chile, Ireland, South Africa and Spain.
There’s obviously still a lot of work to do to heal the still-festering wounds from slavery and our own bloody Civil War. Fredericksburg is to be commended for making a brave effort at racial reconciliation. We hope the city is up to the challenge.