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Slave Auction Block Prompts Lawsuit in Fredericksburg

Sandy Hausman/Radio IQ

Fredericksburg’s city council will be in court February 10th, defending its decision to move a slave auction block from a busy corner downtown to a local museum. 

Critics say the artifact isn’t given the respect it deserves at its current location, but neighboring businesses claim moving it would deprive them of customers.

On a windy weekday afternoon, a group of fourth graders is touring downtown Fredericksburg.  As they approach an auction block at the corner of Charles and Williams Streets, their teacher warns them not to climb on it.

“Many of you probably have walked past this a million times but not known what is right there," he tells the kids. " It’s not a happy thing, is it?  This is where humans – enslaved people -- were sold to the highest bidders.  That’s a tough thing.”

The children are respectful, but patrons of local bars not so much.  They’ve been known to do disgusting things on the rock.

“Urinated on.  Thrown up on.  People are not getting the message, and at this point it’s just degrading,” says Breezy Reaves, president of the NAACP's student chapter at the University of Mary Washington. “So yes, it does need to be in a more dignified place so that we can properly respect our ancestors.”

Fredericksburg’s mayor agrees.  Mary Katherine Greenlaw was one of six council members who voted to move the block to the Fredericksburg Area Museum.

“People stood there and had their pictures taken.  People stood there and held mock auctions," she says.  "We’ve got to go back to recalling the times we walked by the two water fountains – colored and white.  When was it that you realized how horrible that was?  It was part of your life if you grew up in the 40’s and 50’s in Fredericksburg or most other towns in Virginia.  It’s amazing that we ever, ever walked by that and were not horrified by it.”

But coming to that realization took time.  Soon after white supremacist groups rallied in Charlottesville, Fredericksburg began talking about its auction block – doing a survey of more than 600 residents and hosting a series of public discussions.

“I announced that we were going to hold these forums, and that we were going to hold them at the community center," she recalls. "The person next to me said, ‘We don’t go there.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And they told me the story.”

Credit RadioIQ
Critics say this historic monument gets little respect at its current sight and should be moved to a museum.

Back in the 50’s, when Fredericksburg’s high schools were segregated, African-American kids decided they should have their commencement at the community center.

“They wanted to march down the street and in the front door and hold the graduation ceremony.  They were told they could only enter by the back door, which had COLORED written on it," Greenlaw explains.

She had lived in Fredericksburg most of her life but was shocked.  Bringing black and white residents together to share such stories was, she said, the best thing the city had ever done.  Council went from voting 6-1 in favor of keeping the auction block in place to casting six ballots in support of moving it.

That vote, however,  prompted a lawsuit from area businesses.  They claimed tourists who came to see the block were an important part of their clientele.  At the University of Mary Washington, NAACP advisor Chris Williams was appalled.

Credit RadioIQ
Faculty advisor Chris Williams, President Breezy Reaves and Bilquiis SheikhIssa are with a student chapter of the NAACP at the University of Mary Washington.

“The institution of slavery profited off of people who looked like me, so now you’re wanting to continue that by profiting off the slave auction block that my people were sold upon.  You’re literally spitting in my face, and we’re not going to take that.”

The businesses argue city council does not have the legal right to move a historic monument. The city will argue it does, and the NAACP is calling on the public to boycott those who have taken the matter to court.  

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief