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Virginia city removes 800-pound slave auction block after years of deliberation

2 years 3 months 3 weeks ago Monday, June 08 2020 Jun 8, 2020 June 08, 2020 10:45 PM June 08, 2020 in News
Source: CNN
Image via CNN

FREDERICKSBURG, VA- An 800-pound slave auction block was removed from a downtown corner in Fredericksburg, Virginia after nearly two years of deliberation among City Council.

In addition to those two years, months of legal action threatened to keep the stone in place and several weeks of postponement due to COVID restrictions pushed that timeline back even further.

Local traditions, records, and statements by African Americans have identified the elevated stone as a place where slaves were sold. 

"The institution of slavery was central to the community prior to the Civil War," John Hennessy said, chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. "The trauma involved in that passed through generations. The block became an embodiment of the present and past pain in this community."

Other similar sites that have been the subject of nationwide debate are being removed amid protests following the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has announced plans to remove a statue honoring Confederate General Robert R. Lee from Richmond's Monument Avenue.

Other statues have been toppled by demonstrators, including one in Birmingham, Alabama of Confederate sailor Charles Linn. It is now scheduled to be removed by city officials.

The slave auction block became a site for protests and was recently tagged with red, green, and white spray paint.

"I think it really hit home when there were hundreds of people at the block saying, 'Move it,'" Councilman Chuck Frye Jr. said.

Frye, the only African American on City Council, says he has childhood memories of people mocking or spitting on the stone as they walked by. He also recalls tourists taking photos with the block.

"I think racist folks loved it, historians understood it, and black people were intimidated," Frye said.

Frye proposed removing the slave auction block in 2017, shortly after the deadly "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

All consulting members of the community, all of City Council except for Frye, voted to keep the auction block in place while adding historical context to the site.

"It felt terrible," Frye said. "At that moment, I felt like I was on an island."

Frye said the votes against him only increased his passions. He decided to not "waste a cushion in his council seat."

A few months after the vote, two local businesses filed a petition to keep the auction block in place. A judge ruled in favor of the city, however, one business, E.D. Cole Building, asked the Virginia Supreme Court to block the stone's removal while the judge's decision was being appealed.

The legal obstacles were not cleared until April 1, weeks into Virginia's state of emergency due to COVID-19.

The auction block was not removed until Phase Two of its guidelines on easing public health restrictions.

Many were happy to see the slave auction block go.

Lee R. Lewis Jr., a 71-year-old retiree from a career in finance, grew up in Fredericksburg during segregation.

"It reminds us of a time when we were mistreated, we were property, we weren't considered human beings, we weren't equal," he said. "It brings back those memories," Lewis said.

The city's memorials advisory commission is developing a plan to commemorate the site with historical context. The slave auction block is on loan to the Fredericksburg Area Museum for the next 20 years.

President and CEO of the museum, Sara Poore, was in favor of the block's removal and says they are working with the community to tell the most accurate interpretation of the auction block.

She says that the site has been a "source of pain and suffering for so long."

"We need to pave the way to make changes, and we can't make changes if the slave auction block is sitting on the corner," she said.

Poore does not want to wash away the graffiti on the block from the protests as she says that would be erasing history.

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