Slave Auction Block
It is often said that the City of Fredericksburg is a microcosm of the American story, the good and bad. The City has an exceptional record and reputation in working through the most challenging chapters in our American history, especially in the later parts of the 20th Century. Most often we have proven to be a model for citizen engagement, civil discourse, and a place where the competition of ideas is embraced - and becomes the precursor to action.
Council Moves Forward on Auction Block Preservation, Interpretation
The City Council voted on June 11, 2019 to relocate the block from its original location at the northwest corner of Charles and William Streets to the Fredericksburg Area Museum. As the block is an historic object located within the City’s local historic district overlay, a certificate of appropriateness (COA) must be granted for removal from the original site. The Architectural Review Board received an application for a certificate of appropriateness to relocate the Slave Auction Block from its original site to the FAM on July 22, 2019. The Architectural Review Board initially considered the application in a public hearing on August 12, 2019. At that time, the Board did not take action due to concerns over the procedure for an application predicated on a vote of action by the City Council.
At the September 9, 2019 meeting of the ARB, the City Attorney requested a work session with the ARB to continue discussion and seek consultation on the proposed action. The work session was held on September 23 and, at that time, the City Attorney gave a brief presentation providing background on the City Council’s process since 2017, including the extensive community outreach conducted in partnership with the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, and a number of considerations for the ARB. A thorough discussion was held regarding Board members’ individual views on the matter, the relevant criteria contained in the City Code, and possible courses of action.
At the October 14, 2019 ARB meeting, a motion to deny the relocation was made, but failed with a vote of two in favor, one opposed, three abstentions and one disqualification under COIA. No other motion or vote took place, so the ARB took no action on the application. Public comment was received at all four meetings of the ARB that included this topic. City Code §72-23.1(C)(5) states that the ARB shall act within 90 days of the official submission of the application. As no action was taken, the application was transmitted to the City Council for a decision on appeal.
The City Council voted on November 12, 2019 to approve the COA for Relocation of the Slave Auction Block, as well as approval of the Plan for Relocation and the Loan Agreement to the Fredericksburg Area Museum.
These decisions by Council followed the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience Final Report. This report, the final of three phases of community engagement work in the City conducted throughout 2018, was received by Council in March 2019.
Future Site Interpretation
Interpretation of the block site after relocation is proposed to occur in several phases:
- Phase 1 – complete by December 31, 2019
- Phase 1A – complete by July 1, 2020
- Phase 2 – complete in approximately one to two years
Permanent interpretation of the block site will be developed through the efforts of the Memorials Advisory Commission and will take some time to design. This Phase 2 design work is part of an extensive collaborative process that builds on the work of the ICSC and will include many community stakeholders, as well as a liaison from the ARB and technical assistance from the National Park Service. The Phase 1 design is intended to mark the location of the block in the interim and improve the infrastructure (Phase 1A) of the site.
Phase 1: At the time of the block’s removal, a bronze medallion approximately the same diameter as the block will be placed in the sidewalk to mark the location. This medallion will be level with the sidewalk surface and its surface will be blank, allowing for inscription, reuse, or replacement later. Additionally, a wayside panel will be placed at the block site. The panel will be the same design as those throughout the downtown so that it can be reused after the permanent interpretive materials are installed. The panel itself will highlight some aspects of the site’s history and describe the current process in which the City is engaged. It is not intended to be comprehensive, but to ensure that the site remains visible and that information is readily available to the public. This work is planned for December 2019.
Phase 1A: By the end of the fiscal year, the City will complete infrastructure improvements that include creating sidewalk bump-outs at each of the four corners of the intersection. This effort will result in an expansion of the sidewalk surface and narrowing of the pedestrian crossings, improving the safety of the site and allowing more space for the Phase 2 interpretation efforts.
Phase 2: Within the next two years, the Memorials Advisory Commission will oversee a process to design permanent interpretive materials for this site.
Future Display at the Fredericksburg Area Museum
The auction block will be relocated two blocks from it's current location to the Fredericksburg Area Museum for purposes of display to the public in a museum exhibit located in the “River Gallery.” FAM has agreed to continue to provide opportunities for free admission and after-hours access to the exhibit. They plan to engage a professional in the field of museum interpretation and design to ensure the final exhibit meets accepted standards for scholarship, accessibility, and design, as well as seek and consider input on exhibit content and design from the Fredericksburg Memorials Advisory Commission and other community organizations as appropriate. The museum display will maintain the association of the block and the larger Planter’s Hotel site at 401-405 William Street.
Community Dialogue About the Auction Block from 2017 - 2019
It is important to recognize that the City Council decision-making process, specific to the future of the auction block, has been taking place within the larger context of a community dialogue about race, history, and memory. The residents have been integral to these discussions since 2017 and Council’s actions have sought to reflect the voice of our community.
Where did this discussion begin? The City had a lengthy community dialogue in 2017 about the slave auction block. Councilor Frye placed the topic on the City Council agenda for August 22, 2017 following the previous Sunday night, when a group of about 100 people had gathered downtown to pray for reconciliation and healing, at the site of the stone block. The Council directed staff to engage the community about the future of the slave auction block.
Community Survey and Public Forums 2017
In September 2017 online input was gathered on two options on the future of the slave auction block - for it to remain in place option A, or for it to be removed, option B. Here is the summary of the 602 responses to the questions. Public Comment Summary (PDF)
Council held a public forum on Saturday, September 23, 2017 for citizens to speak about the two options. Twenty-six citizens spoke at the forum. Approximately 100 people attended.
Community Collaboration Sessions and Reports 2018-2019
The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience led Phase 1 sessions were held during April and May 2018 with 140 individuals participating in small focus group settings. Staff from the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience gathered the stories that the community is currently telling about African American History and the slave auction block and how community members felt about those stories. The Phase 1 public report (PDF) details major themes extracted from the interviews and focus groups.
Community Collaboration Brochure (PDF) - mailed to every household in 22401 in early July 2018 informing residents of the upcoming community discussions.
Community collaboration continued in Phase 2 with a focus more specifically on the slave auction block through a series of public brainstorming sessions. Round 1 occurred on August 23 and 24 with several sessions at The Walker-Grant Center, at 210 Ferdinand Street. These sessions focused on reviewing the findings from the Phase 1 report (PDF) and what the reinterpretation of the slave auction block may look like based on these findings. Round 2 discussions occurred on September 24 and 25 with several sessions at Walker Grant Center. These sessions focused on a design and signage conversation and review of concepts. The Phase 2 report (PDF) was published in December 2018.
Phase 3 discussions occurred on October 23 and 24, November 13 and 14 and December 12 and 13 with all meetings occurring at the downtown Fredericksburg Library at 1201 Caroline Street. Topics were the following for October: Telling the Whole Story; for November: Creating Reflection and Connecting Past to Present; and for December: Education and Next Steps. These discussions delved deeper into topics that were heard during the first two phases including ways in which people talk about all facets of our history. The Phase 3 Final Report was released on March 13, 2019 at a special meeting of Council.
On May 14, 2019, Council accepted the final ISCS Report, and requested that the Memorials Advisory Commission be tasked to work to tell a more complete City story (which includes a review of City related tourism printed/online material, scripts, signage and to make recommendations as to how the story is told moving forward at Charles and Williams Streets). Community groups such as the NAACP, NPS, HFFI, UMW, Museum Council, City staff, among others, will be included as Council takes steps to put the ICSC recommendations into place.
On June 11, 2019, the City of Fredericksburg Council voted 6-1 in favor of moving the slave auction block from its current location at the corner of William and Charles Streets to the Fredericksburg Area Museum. Staff was directed to prepare a plan for removal of the auction block and to execute removal by the end of the 2019 calendar year. The Fredericksburg Area Museum agreed to accept the slave auction block, including coordinating logistics and planning interpretation. The Memorials Advisory Commission began working though materials delivered to them at their meeting on June 5, 2019.Their work is likely to take several years to accomplish.
History of Auction Block
There is not perfect certainty as to the history of the stone that we refer to as the slave auction block, and this must be acknowledged from the start. In 2010, John Hennessy, Chief Historian of the Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Military Park, published a three-part article (see below) that explores the known history of this "block of stone," which is generally regarded as authoritative from a historical standpoint.
Today, the block remains at the corner of William and Charles Streets, a busy downtown commercial corner. Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, Inc., installed a small, ground level, bronze plaque in 1984, reading: "AUCTION BLOCK, Fredericksburg's Principal Auction Site in Pre-Civil War Days for Slaves and Property."
City Council's 2036 Vision Statement, Sharing Our Past, Embracing Our Future: The people of Fredericksburg are building a 21st century urban center on the foundation of this historic city at the fall line of the Rappahannock River. Fredericksburg is the hub of regional economic activity, a city with a multicultural population and thriving cultural scene, a place that works for everyone, a community where the people are writing the next chapters of Fredericksburg’s history. City Council wanted to ensure that the decision-making process for the slave auction block location takes place within the larger context of a community dialogue about race, history, and memory. The community dialogue began, and it should continue, with leadership from the local religious community, business community, historians, academic institutions, and the local Black community and institutions. City Council members wish to support this larger conversation and to participate in it.
If you have any questions please contact:
Fredericksburg City Manager, Tim Baroody
Email Tim Baroody