Within a few days of the August 2017 white-supremacist riots in Charlottesville a petition calling for the removal of the slave auction block in nearby Fredericksburg, Virginia, began circulating on social media. Shortly thereafter, the local NAACP chapter asked the city to move the block into a local museum. In reaction, government officials fielded an online survey and held public meetings to garner public opinion and, later that fall, City Council voted 7 to 1 (the only African-American council member dissented) to keep the block at its current location but to “focus on better telling a more complete history” at the site.
As a tourism destination, Fredericksburg markets itself as a charming, historic small city (Hanna et al 2004). While the region’s Civil War battlefields attract a large portion of those who might be labelled “heritage tourists,” Fredericksburg’s “Old Town” – about two dozen city blocks in size – has probably become the city’s biggest draw. Here carefully preserved 18th and 19th century buildings hosting popular restaurants and curio shops front brick sidewalks that, on most weekends, are crowded with visitors – some from neighboring counties and others from farther afield. Those seeking to learn a bit of local history as they shop can pause to read some of the scores of historical markers describing selected events, locations, and people from the city’s past.
The slave auction block is centrally located this heritage tourism landscape. It stands in front of a butcher shop on the busy corner of Charles and William Streets. Both visitors and local residents pass the block as they walk to the restaurants lining William Street. To most of these, the block is an almost unnoticed obstacle – their bodies swerve to avoid tripping over it as they talk with their companions or think about their destination.
Fredericksburg appears to stand out from many other Southern cities and towns since the racialized politics of heritage tourism has focused the community not on the city’s Confederate monuments – of which there are several – but on a rare artifact that has the potential to recall the painful and dehumanizing history of enslavement. I argue that the slave auction block has failed to do so and became the center of racialized commemorative politics in this community for two reasons. First, the block is located in a heritage tourism landscape that, for most of its history, has been written and practiced as a white space. Second, there’s an almost complete absence of respectful commemorative practices a site where humans were bought and sold requires.
While in recent years, Fredericksburg’s historic downtown business area draws an increasingly diverse crowd, its “Main Street USA” ambiance developed during the Jim Crow era when many of the establishments near the block had a whites only policy.
Additionally, throughout the 20th century, signs’ and guides’ interpretations of the Battle of Fredericksburg were similar to those found at most Civil War battlefields. Thus tourists – overwhelmingly White – learned about the order of battle and could reflect on the valor of soldiers on ‘both sides’ without thinking about slavery as the Civil War’s cause or emancipation as its most significant result. Indeed, the United Daughters of the Confederacy as well as local groups worked hard to ensure this. Five UDC markers are scattered through the town and the Fredericksburg Ladies Memorial Association created and continues to maintain the Confederate Cemetery located just outside of the Old town business district. Thus, the slave block was part of a heritage tourism landscape in which Black history was all but written out of the narrative (Hanna and Hodder 2015).
The block’s history reinforces this. While slave sale advertisements found by John Hennessey, chief of Interpretation at the Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Military Park, strongly suggest that the block’s location was Fredericksburg’s principle slave auction site between 1846 and 1862, the historical record makes it clear Whites in Fredericksburg were divided on whether to make the block an object of commemoration. In 1913, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities asked City Council to place a plaque at the site describing the block’s use in slave auctions. In 1924, however, Fredericksburg’s Chamber of Commerce sought to symbolically annihilate (Eichstedt and Small 2002) memories of enslavement from the landscape. The Chamber asked City Council to remove the block both denying its use as an auction block and arguing that its presence “may serve to keep alive the sectional feeling which has long ago disappeared.” Oral history, however, was used to counter this narrative. During the debate, the story of once-enslaved man who stated that he had been forced to stand on the block during sales was entered as evidence against the Chamber’s argument. In addition, several prominent White men argued against the block’s removal stating that it was, indeed used during slave sales. These testimonials, apparently, were enough for City Council to leave the block in place.
Between the 1920s and the 1980s, there is little evidence of efforts to turn the block or the site into a commemorative space. At some point, a small metal plaque was attached to the block’s street-facing side identifying it as an auction block. This was replaced in 1984 with the larger plaque that still stands today which simply states “Auction Block. Fredericksburg’s Principal Auction Site in Pre-Civil War Days for Slaves and Property.” Finally, a black history tour, established in the 1990s, includes the block on its itinerary.
What is clear from oral history, however, is that when white townspeople and visitors took notice of the block, they did not treat it with respect. People I know continue to describe how tourists – invariably white –take pictures of their kids while standing on the block. Historian John Hennessy’s account of the block notes that “it has been backed into by trucks and hacked at by vandals.” For many Black residents, such disrespectful actions helped the block became associated with white supremacy. In an interview I conducted a decade ago, a local African-American woman who grew up in the 50s and 60s recalled that “the slave block – that loomed as a symbol of oppression and…anybody would get beat if got near it, your mommas would spank you if you got near that block”
Over the last decade, the city, the National Park Service, and other actors have made concerted efforts to increase the visibility of African-American history in the landscape. Where once the slave auction block stood all but alone in potential contradiction to a landscape that symbolically annihilated slavery from the city’s history, now 26 markers, many of them located in Old Town, contain information on slavery or emancipation and several more mark historical Black churches and Civil Rights era sit-ins.
Yet, these efforts seemed to have little effect on those rallying for the block’s removal. While this may be due to the fact that these newer markers featuring Black history remain overwhelmed by those focused on Confederate troops (Hanna and Hodder 2015), I believe the absence of a tradition of respectful commemorative practice plays a role as well.
Commemorative landscapes are not merely written. While interpretative texts and impressive monuments represent intended historical narratives, these narratives only acquire meaning for residents and tourists through bodily practice and affective engagement (Shields 2005, Modlin et al. 2011, Waterton and Dittmer 2014, Tolia-Kelly 2016). In the most mundane sense, this includes stopping to read and reflect on interpretative texts. The most significant spaces in our community memories, however, are sites of repeated rituals born out of and reproducing affective and emotional relationships with past events and persons remembered in these spaces. On Memorial Day and holidays, for example, the Fredericksburg Ladies Memorial Association still decorates graves in the Confederate Cemetery. Somber ceremonies are performed annually at the city’s main war memorial as well as in the National Cemetery where Union soldiers are interred. No such practices occur regularly at the slave auction block. Memorial Day, Juneteenth, the anniversaries of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the ratification of the 13th Amendment come and go yet no one organizes observations involving this site.
The City Council’s initial actions in the wake of Charlottesville seemed more focused on the auction block’s status as a rare historical artifact than on an understanding of why so many Black residents came to view the block as a symbol of White supremacy. The 7 to 1 vote reflected the clear majority of White residents who seemed somewhat shocked to learn that the block could be seen as anything other than an object helping people regretfully remember slavery. And, while a sizable minority of black residents argued that the block should remain, the words of some of the majority who want it removed serve as a reminder of the blindness of white privilege. As one young black man tired of hearing how placing the block in “proper historical context” would ensure Whites do not forget history said, “Don’t seek your history on our backs. Seek it for yourself. Remove the block!”
Still, despite voting to keep the block in its current location, city council heard enough to seek outside help in how to proceed. By the beginning of 2018, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience had been hired to facilitate public discussions on the block, its meanings, and its future. It is important to note the Coalition was not charged with determining where the block should be located.
The discussions were organized into three phases occurring between April and December 2018. In the first phase, Coalition facilitators met with focus groups to collect stories that “the community is currently telling about African American History and the slave auction block” and to learn “how community members feel about those stories.” During the second phase, participants worked to develop “parameters and potential design ideas” for the auction block site that connect it to other sites and stories. Finally, in the third phase, community members reflected on what they had learned in the first phases and thought about potential solutions.
The coalition submitted its final report in March 2019 and City Council voted to accept it, the recommendations it contains, and to fund actions in fulfillment of these recommendations on May 14, 2019.
These recommendations include protecting the block by encasing it in a clear plexi shield, both to prevent disrespectful actions and to show that the community values the block. In addition, City Council will create a committee to issue a Request for Proposals for designing the Block’s site – either after its location is determined or to make determining the location part of the proposal. Other Coalition recommendations call for a “content committee” to research other areas around the city where African-American stories need to be made visible and could connect to interpretation at the block’s site. And, they recommended that African-American voices be given prominence when determining narratives featured at both the block’s site and in other locations. Finally, the Coalition called for an annual vigil, performance, or other event be established that “reaffirms the community’s commitment to the lessons learned from the stories of the slave auction block.
It is clear that the future of the auction block is far from being determined. It is equally clear, however, that the community – and hopefully city officials – have a better idea of how the block’s location combined with the absence of respectful practice produced a deep-seated conviction among many Black residents that the block was preserved to remind them of their place in a white supremacist society. Undoing this involves featuring African-American voices and, as the Coalition recommends, finding ways to connect the slave auction block site to other locations where stories of African American history should be told and establish commemorative practices/rituals involving the block.
Of course these rather general recommendations must be made real in Fredericksburg’s heritage tourism landscape. In terms of material/textual interventions, I would argue that new interpretative material at the block’s site must help visitors understand that they are standing on a site of violence and that the actions perpetrated here required Black women and men to develop resilience and undertake acts of resistance. Additionally, the story here should point back to the City Dock where enslaved people disembarked and forward to the Rappahannock River where people crossed into the uncertainties of emancipation during the Civil War. Sites in these places should point to the segregated schools, churches, and neighborhoods where Blacks forged resilient communities in the face of Jim Crow and the threat of lynching. And these sites should point to the lunch counters where young Black women and men protested during the Civil rights Era. Crucially, the voices heard in all of these spaces must help us understand why these stories still matter.
But, writing texts and installing markers will never be enough. Community members must create practices that transform the slave auction block and its site into a memorial landscape where it is possible to reflect on the violence of enslavement and the impacts it continues to have today. Given that three times in the past year, and for the first time residents can remember, someone has left flowers at the slave auction block, I think at least a few people are getting that message.
Eichstedt, Jennifer, and Stephen Small 2002. Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Press.
Hanna, Stephen, Vincent Del Casino, Jr., Casey Seldon, and Benjamin Hite 2004. Representation as work in ‘America’s most historic city,’ Social and Cultural Geography 5(3): 458-481.
Hanna, Stephen, and Hodder, Fariss. 2015. Reading the signs: using a qualitative Geographic Information System to examine the commemoration of slavery and emancipation on historical markers in Fredericksburg, Virginia, cultural geographies 22(3): 509-529.
Modlin, E. Arnold, Derek Alderman and G. Gentry. 2011. Tour guides as creators of empathy: the role of affective inequality in marginalizing the enslaved at plantation house museums, Tourist Studies 11(1): 3-19.
Shields, Rob 2005. Political tourism: mapping memory and the future at Quebec City, in Mapping Tourism (Hanna, S.P. and Del Casino Jr., V. editors). Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 1-27.
Tolia-Kelly Divya P. 2006. Affect – an ethnocentric encounter? Exploring the ‘universalist’ imperative of emotional/affectual geographies. Area 32(2): 213-217.
Waterton, Emma, and Jason Dittmer. 2014. The museum as assemblage: bringing forth affect at the Australian War Memorial. Museum Management and Curatorship 29(2): 122-139.