Mock slave auction prompts city action on historic Va. trade block

The old auction block -- concrete and not much taller than a fire hydrant -- is one of Fredericksburg's reminders of its history in the slave trade. The city council acted Tuesday to allow city officials to develop recommendations about what to do with the auction block. (WTOP/Dennis Foley)
The old auction block — concrete and not much taller than a fire hydrant — is one of Fredericksburg’s reminders of its history in the slave trade. The city council acted Tuesday to allow city officials to develop recommendations about what to do with the auction block. (WTOP/Dennis Foley) (WTOP/Dennis Foley)
The old auction block -- concrete and not much taller than a fire hydrant -- is one of Fredericksburg's reminders of its history in the slave trade. The city council acted Tuesday to allow city officials to develop recommendations about what to do with the auction block. (WTOP/Dennis Foley)
The old auction block — concrete and not much taller than a fire hydrant — is one of Fredericksburg’s reminders of its history in the slave trade. The city council acted Tuesday to allow city officials to develop recommendations about what to do with the auction block. (WTOP/Dennis Foley) (WTOP/Dennis Foley)
The auction block, seen in the bottom right at the street corner, still sits in front of the old Planter's Hotel -- a common site for auctions whether they were held on the block or out of the back of a wagon, according to Fredericksburg mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw. (WTOP/Dennis Foley)
The auction block, seen in the bottom right at the street corner, still sits in front of the old Planter’s Hotel — a common site for auctions whether they were held on the block or out of the back of a wagon, according to Fredericksburg Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw. (WTOP/Dennis Foley) (WTOP/Dennis Foley)
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The old auction block -- concrete and not much taller than a fire hydrant -- is one of Fredericksburg's reminders of its history in the slave trade. The city council acted Tuesday to allow city officials to develop recommendations about what to do with the auction block. (WTOP/Dennis Foley)
The old auction block -- concrete and not much taller than a fire hydrant -- is one of Fredericksburg's reminders of its history in the slave trade. The city council acted Tuesday to allow city officials to develop recommendations about what to do with the auction block. (WTOP/Dennis Foley)
The auction block, seen in the bottom right at the street corner, still sits in front of the old Planter's Hotel -- a common site for auctions whether they were held on the block or out of the back of a wagon, according to Fredericksburg mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw. (WTOP/Dennis Foley)

WASHINGTON — The City of Fredericksburg is seeking public input on what should be done with an old Virginia auction block that had been used for slave trade.

Right now, there are three options being considered:

One would see the old auction block be kept in its place, but the area around it would made into a more prominent public space that puts the block into context. It would include interpretive panels, protective measures for the artifact and improved pedestrian flow.

Another would have the block be moved to a new location — likely the Fredericksburg Area Museum. A historic marker would be left in the Block’s place telling people where they could find the artifact.

A third option would be to do nothing.

What prompted this discussion?

“A city councilor — Councilor [Charlie] Frye — asked that we consider moving the block,” Fredericksburg Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw told WTOP. “He said he had found it offensive and he wanted us to consider moving it.”

“I brought it to council the end of last month and added it to the agenda as slave auction block removal,” explained Frye.

The councilman said there was a specific recent incident that made him want something to be done with the historic block.

“There was a prayer vigil a few weeks ago, there was some folks out there and they left the area.”

Frye said he was across the street watching, noting that he often does that for events like that so he knows what’s going on in the city. After they had left, another group visited the auction block.

“There was some guys out there that did a mock auction on that block. Long story short, it was three white guys and one black guy. And the black guy stood around the block and the other guys did a mock auction. One of them yelled ‘Sold, sold, sold!'”

Seeing that disgusted him.

“If that’s what we have going on in the City of Fredericksburg based on the location of the block, the fact you can do whatever you want to do at the block — I’m speaking for myself — if that’s what happens, get it out of here,” Frye stated.

Currently, the block — which sits at the corner of William and Charles Streets in the city — stands alone with a small plaque explaining that it is an old auction block once used for slave trading.

Frye wants more to be done.

“To walk down a street and you come across that — things like that are usually in a museum or something like that. You can read the story, you can touch it,” the councilman said. “If it causes pain, if it takes your breath away — this is not an action movie. If you want that, go to the movies. Pay for it and sit down and watch the movie. That’s my opinion and I can only speak for myself.”

That’s why the city is looking for public input to see how other residents feel about the auction block and where it should be.

“What I am hearing, both with folks who speak to me personally and folks who send emails, is very thoughtful consideration of the significance of remembering the history and what’s the most appropriate way to remember the history,” Greenlaw shared.

The city will be taking comments from the public through its website until Sept. 25.

“Anyone can offer, but the form requires your name and your address,” the mayor said. “And if you don’t fill out the address, you can’t go any further. Anyone can respond, but we will know where those people live.”

Frye says this process — unlike many online petitions — is a concrete way for people looking to make a change in their community to actually make a difference.

“That’s also something that’s important about local government a lot of folks don’t know,” the councilman stated. “There’s folks saying go higher up in the government, in the state and request for ‘Hey, you need to do this, you need to pull that, you need to do that.’ I want folks to understand that that’s why your local government is important because whatever happens in your locale, it’s on your representative in how they react.”

Both Frye and Greenlaw would prefer to hear from city residents with the goal of having a formal proposal ready for Sept. 26.

“The open door policy is more or less how we communicate in the City of Fredericksburg — an open door of listening and allowing folks to voice their opinion,” said Frye. “We’ll come up with a date very soon and we will have an open forum where folks can come in as well as online. It’s just an opportunity for folks to chime in.”

Ultimately, though, these online comments are not an equivalent to a referendum.

“The decision will come from council, period,” stated Frye.

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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