by Bernard K. Means
I live in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Whenever I walk into town, usually at least once a week, I walk partly down William Street and cross its intersection with Charles Street. When I do this, I pass a small stone block. Located at this same corner is the Olde Town Butcher Shop and across the street is one of my favorite restaurants in town, Kybecca. Its easy to pass this small stone block without giving it more than a cursory glance. After years of walking passed this very corner, I’m not sure the block always registers with me. But, it should.
This small stone block is known as the Fredericksburg Slave Auction Block and has long been controversial for a number of reasons. Following the horrendous actions of white supremacists recently in Charlottesville, there have been renewed calls to address this Slave Block. Should it be left alone, just sitting there, for the passerby to perhaps stop and read the plaque that sits just in front of the block? Should this unassuming plaque be replaced or augmented with additional interpretative text? Or, should the Slave Auction Block be removed and taken to a museum? After all, the Fredericksburg Area Museum is just a couple blocks further down William Street. Yesterday, September 23, 2017, a public hearing was held to debate this issue and help the City of Fredericksburg make a decision.
The Slave Auction Block is controversial for another reason. Some have claimed that it is not actually an auction block at all. Rather, some argue that this stone was once simply a carriage step allowing people to disembark at the hotel that once existed at this corner. The historical record on this issue is not clear. National Park Service historian John Hennessy, who has written extensively on this very topic, notes that history is often not that straightforward. I cannot improve on John Hennessy’s writings on this topic so I refer you to the Fredericksburg Remembered blog section on the Slave Auction Block.
You can see a 3D digital scan of the Fredericksburg Slave Auction Block here.