Fredericksburg Slave Auction Block Site
The Slave Auction Block, located on the corner of Charles and William Streets in Fredericksburg, Virginia, is one of the few surviving relics from the slave trade in the city. The block was most likely placed at the site as a carriage step or signpost in the early 1840s. However, this corner became the primary auction site in Fredericksburg between that time and the Civil War; hundreds of slaves were sold there in at least twenty separate sales over that period. While the block’s direct connection to slave auctions has been long debated, testimony from area residents and former slaves suggests some purpose for it in the sales that occurred there. The block has been vandalized several times over the years as well as used for “mock slave auctions” and otherwise disrespected. As a result, and with the intent of preserving the block in a place where its tragic past can be more completely dealt with and interpreted, the City Council voted to relocate the block to the Fredericksburg Area Museum (after several years of public meetings and discussions). It was removed on June 5th, 2020, and will be placed in a new exhibit in the museum sometime later in the year.
Backstory and Context
The Slave Auction Block, at the corner of Charles and William Streets in Fredericksburg, Virginia, is a 3.4-foot-tall, 800-pound block of Aquia stone—the same stone used in the White House and United States Capitol. It dates back to the early-to-mid-1800s and was most likely placed as a carriage step in concurrence with the opening of Joseph Sanford’s United States Hotel in 1843 (known as the Planter’s Hotel starting in 1851). The block was probably intended to help guests mount horses and disembark from carriages. However, the site also became notorious as the center of the American domestic slave trade in Fredericksburg. This trade, which sold approximately 1.2 million individuals from 1760 to 1860, was a brutally inhumane but profitable business. There were at least twenty slave auctions in front of the Planter’s Hotel between 1846 and 1862 (as well as the occasional property auction), many of which sold well over forty individuals and brought in tens of thousands of dollars. This corner was the main, if not the only, site for organized slave auctions in Fredericksburg, a town the local newspaper called “the best place to sell slaves in the State.”
The block was recognized as the community’s chief auction site in 1984 with a plaque placed by the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, Inc (after a prior marker was stolen). However, its authenticity has been a controversial topic since at least 1924, when the Fredericksburg Chamber of Commerce petitioned City Council to have the stone removed. The Chamber maintained that it would stir up ill sentiment and that its sole historic purpose was to allow women to mount horses; they contended that the stone was never used to present humans for sale. This view was emphatically endorsed at the time by John T. Goolrick, a local historian and Confederate veteran. Shortly thereafter, a local auctioneer, N.B. Kinsley, emerged with an 1857 newspaper article that advertised a slave auction to take place in front of the Planter’s Hotel, where the block is located. He also collected several accounts of the block’s use in slave auctions and presented the story of George Triplett, a deceased former slave widely believed to have been the last man sold at the site (in 1862, to Fredericksburg’s mayor). Kinsley argued that the block was indeed used for mounting horses, but that it was also used to exhibit slaves for auction. His counterargument silenced the Chamber, and the block remained.
The original advertisement that Kinsley cited has been lost, but at least nineteen other advertisements for sales at the hotel have since been discovered; while none mention the block specifically, several are as precise as “before the front door.” The block was first tied to slave auctions in the historical record in 1893. It is also mentioned in the official History of the City of Fredericksburg in 1908, and, five years later, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities expressed interest in marking the site. Further evidence for its use in slave auctions is the story of Albert Crutchfield, who is seen behind the block in a 1920s postcard. He was a former slave who contended he was sold there around 1859 when he was about fifteen. (However, he was most likely born around 1854 and sold sometime after 1860.) Debate over the block’s usage has continued to this day; some argue that, while slave auctions were certainly held at the site and the block may have been used for some connected purpose, it was too small to be practical for displaying slaves. More recent research and archaeological excavations have suggested that it was a signpost, noting the square hole in its top, and never a step or a true “auction block,” but that it is still tied to the slave auctions held there.
In recent years, the block has again become an object of controversy. A vandal broke several large pieces off the stone in 2005. After the death of Heather Heyer during the events surrounding the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, locals held a prayer vigil at the auction block and called for its removal. The Fredericksburg City Council discussed the issue and took public comments over the next month, ultimately deciding to preserve the block in its current location. However, in March 2018, they hired the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience to study the auction block, how it was portrayed in local history, and how it was viewed in the community. The Coalition ultimately recommended either removing the block to a museum where it could be displayed with more context or preserving it in place with signage that told its whole story. The community and City Council debated these proposals—arguments varied from viewing the block as a racist shrine and symbol of brutal oppression in need of immediate removal; an important but painful artifact better kept in a museum where it can be protected from disrespect and damage and its tragic past can be fully examined and interpreted; and a rare intact historic site that is a necessary reminder of evil and should be preserved and kept in the public eye. In June 2019, the City Council voted to remove the block; this decision was followed by several public meetings and administrative actions. In December, the City Council was sued on a procedural matter by businesses located near the site. The lawsuit, which made it all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court, was ultimately dismissed in April 2020. The removal was further delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, on June 5th, 2020, the block, which was a centerpiece of the George Floyd protests in the Fredericksburg area during the summer, was removed in preparation for relocation to the Fredericksburg Area Museum. The city funded the removal, an exhibit for the block in the museum, and a new sign for the original location as part of a larger project to emphasize the community’s African-American history, including a Civil Rights Trail and new historic markers.
1) Associated Press. Virginia High Court Rejects Bid to Keep Slave Block in Place, Radio IQ/WVTF Music: Virginia's Public Radio. April 19th 2020. Accessed September 3rd 2020. https://www.wvtf.org/post/virginia-high-court-rejects-bid-keep-slave-block-place.
2) Bailey, Anne C. They Sold Human Beings Here: For hundreds of years, enslaved people were bought and sold in America. Today most of the sites of this trade are forgotten. (1619 Project), The New York Times Magazine. February 12th 2020. Accessed August 31st 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/02/12/magazine/1619-project-slave-auction-sites.html.
3) Branscome, Jeff. Opinions divided on fate of slave auction block in Fredericksburg, The Free Lance-Star. September 23rd 2017. Accessed September 3rd 2020. https://fredericksburg.com/news/local/opinions-divided-on-fate-of-slave-auction-block-in-fredericksburg/article_a2c428d3-933b-5173-9d6c-6c8f40417971.html.
4) Editorial Page Staff of The Free Lance-Star. EDITORIAL1: Removing the slave auction block, The Free Lance-Star. June 15th 2019. Accessed September 3rd 2020. https://fredericksburg.com/opinion/editorial1-removing-the-slave-auction-block/article_df01fa2a-e069-507e-9369-0078c55228e4.html.
5) Fitzgerald, Ruth Coder. Former slave pictured in postcard was well-known and respected in the Fredericksburg area, Richmond Times-Dispatch. August 26th 2017. Accessed August 31st 2020. https://richmond.com/news/virginia/former-slave-pictured-in-postcard-was-well-known-and-respected-in-fredericksburg-area/article_a3180485-2ca9-5e07-ba54-4c89743460e3.html.
6) Fox, Peggy. 'It's like a trophy for racist folks' | Why a historic slave auction block is moving from its Fredericksburg street corner, WUSA 9. June 14th 2019. Accessed September 3rd 2020. https://www.wusa9.com/article/news/local/black-history/its-like-a-trophy-for-racist-folks-why-a-historic-slave-auction-block-is-moving-from-its-fredericksburg-street-corner/65-4cf6ca1e-20f4-4872-97d0-4d8f5a2753d1.
7) Hennessy, John. The disputed auction block, part 3: what now?, Fredericksburg History: Remembering. June 6th 2010. Accessed August 31st 2020. https://fredericksburghistory.wordpress.com/2010/06/06/the-disputed-auction-block-part-3-what-now/.
8) Hennessy, John. Fredericksburg’s Disputed Auction Block, Part 1, Fredericksburg History: Remembering. June 4th 2010. Accessed August 31st 2020. https://fredericksburghistory.wordpress.com/2010/06/04/hello-world/.
9) Hennessy, John. Fredericksburg’s Disputed Auction Block, Part 2, Fredericksburg History: Remembering. June 5th 2010. Accessed August 31st 2020. https://fredericksburghistory.wordpress.com/2010/06/05/fredericksburgs-disputed-auction-block-part-2/.
10) Hennessy, John. “Fredericksburg seems to be the best place to sell slaves in the State”: More evidence on the Auction Block, Fredericksburg History: Remembering. June 11th 2010. Accessed August 31st 2020. https://fredericksburghistory.wordpress.com/2010/06/11/fredericksburg-seems-to-be-the-best-place-to-sell-slaves-in-the-state-more-evidence-on-the-auction-block/.
11) Hennessy, John. The Slave Auction Block at William and Charles, Mysteries & Conundrums (NPS Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park). August 14th 2017. Accessed August 31st 2020. https://npsfrsp.wordpress.com/2017/09/14/the-slave-auction-block-at-william-and-charles/.
12) Howell, Melissa. Fredericksburg moves to preserve centuries-old slave auction block, WTOP News. May 27th 2019. Accessed September 3rd 2020. https://wtop.com/virginia/2019/05/fredericksburg-makes-plans-to-preserve-slave-auction/.
13) Jett, Cathy. Controversial slave auction block to remain in downtown Fredericksburg, The Free Lance-Star. September 26th 2017. Accessed September 3rd 2020. https://fredericksburg.com/news/local/controversial-slave-auction-block-to-remain-in-downtown-fredericksburg/article_c6cdc980-3369-5c52-b5c9-4c69bb866026.html.
14) Jett, Cathy. Dig provides clues to history of Fredericksburg's slave auction block, The Free Lance-Star. November 17th 2018. Accessed August 31st 2020. https://fredericksburg.com/news/local/dig-provides-clues-to-history-of-fredericksburgs-slave-auction-block/article_81483bef-050b-5d85-9f83-ed3b5e452420.html.
15) Jett, Cathy. Fredericksburg aims to tell a more inclusive story of its history, The Free Lance-Star. August 12th 2020. Accessed September 3rd 2020. https://fredericksburg.com/news/local/fredericksburg-aims-to-tell-a-more-inclusive-story-of-its-history/article_5995f191-40d4-5a99-a3b5-53b8794447a8.html.
16) Jett, Cathy. Fredericksburg board to hold public hearing on moving controversial slave auction block to museum, The Free Lance-Star. August 9th 2019. Accessed September 3rd 2020. https://fredericksburg.com/news/local/fredericksburg-board-to-hold-public-hearing-on-moving-controversial-slave-auction-block-to-museum/article_8fc2e0e3-b352-5b67-b770-e4854dedc629.html.
17) Jett, Cathy. Fredericksburg's controversial slave auction block stirs differing emotions, The Free Lance-Star. December 15th 2018. Accessed September 3rd 2020. https://fredericksburg.com/news/local/fredericksburgs-controversial-slave-auction-block-stirs-differing-emotions/article_e1db0f57-e842-563b-8d3c-f361470e8b3b.html.
18) Jett, Cathy. Fredericksburg slave auction block has history of controversy, The Free Lance-Star. August 26th 2017. Accessed September 3rd 2020. https://fredericksburg.com/news/local/fredericksburg-slave-auction-block-has-history-of-controversy/article_7e4b5aac-798a-5d5f-91c2-030d6a132ed4.html.
19) Jett, Cathy. Lawsuit halts removal of Fredericksburg's slave auction block, The Free Lance-Star. December 19th 2019. Accessed September 3rd 2020. https://fredericksburg.com/news/local/lawsuit-halts-removal-of-fredericksburgs-slave-auction-block/article_c5cc7326-50f3-589c-87b5-7eced13a99c1.html.
20) Jett, Cathy. Local NAACP branch wants slave auction block removed, The Free Lance-Star. September 21st 2017. Accessed September 3rd 2020. https://fredericksburg.com/news/local/local-naacp-branch-wants-slave-auction-block-removed/article_56f8970c-51af-5e59-918f-9b08dae7344a.html.
21) Jett, Cathy. UPDATE: Fredericksburg's controversial slave auction block removed early Friday morning., The Free Lance-Star. June 5th 2020. Accessed September 3rd 2020. https://fredericksburg.com/news/local/update-fredericksburgs-controversial-slave-auction-block-removed-early-friday-morning/article_b07b24f6-fb99-5867-9377-728d520d4ea8.html.
22) Kerr, David. Kerr: The importance of Fredericksburg’s slave auction block, Inside NOVA. November 19th 2018. Accessed September 3rd 2020. https://www.insidenova.com/opinion/stafford/kerr-the-importance-of-fredericksburg-s-slave-auction-block/article_83cf0ce8-c8d7-11e8-aa4d-5f71f67c1579.html.
23) Moyer, Laura. Slave auction block vandalized, Fredericksburg.com. May 6th 2005. Internet Archive Wayback Machine. September 7th 2014. Accessed August 31st 2020. https://web.archive.org/web/20140907112033/http://www.fredericksburg.com/News/FLS/2005/052005/05062005/1757761.
24) Mullane, Mia. Why my Virginia town's 'slave block' should be removed from our sight, The Guardian. September 9th 2017. Accessed September 3rd 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/09/fredericksburg-virginia-slave-block-city-museum.
25) Old Slave Auction Block, Fredericksburg, VA: A Pictorial History. July 19th 2011. Accessed August 30th 2020. https://fredericksburgvahistory.wordpress.com/2011/07/19/old-slave-auction-block/.
26) Wrenn, Tony. COMMENTARY: Removing slave auction block will destroy an important historic site, The Free Lance-Star. February 27th 2020. Accessed September 3rd 2020. https://fredericksburg.com/opinion/commentary-removing-slave-auction-block-will-destroy-an-important-historic-site/article_1917ca6d-ff9b-5991-aa32-5e2a98af0f98.html.
By Sarah Stierch on Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Slave_Auction_Block,_Fredericksburg,_Virginia_-_Stierch.jpg) - CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)
Slavery Images (http://www.slaveryimages.org/s/slaveryimages/item/2226) - CC BY-NC 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/)