From John Hennessy. [A note: we have written about the slave auction block extensively over the years, but have been asked to bring together the research in a single post, easily accessed. To do that, we have drawn on four other posts, as well as some new research. If you want the full background–especially as it relates to the 1924 debate about the stone–you can find the first of the other posts here, and then click through.]
The shaped block of stone sits at the corner of Charles and William Street in Fredericksburg, directly in front of the building that was once the Planter’s Hotel. Over the years it has been backed into by trucks and hacked at by vandals. Mostly, until recently, it has been unnoticed. But to some people it is one of the most compelling urban artifacts in America–a site of conscience, one of those places that requires us to recall past failures, injustice, and, in this instance, the struggles of people to overcome and ultimately reverse them. To others, the block rubs like a burr. It is, for them, a painful symbol of white supremacy and oppression.
However you view it, the stone is in the news and the subject of important conversations. Here is what we know about the stone block at the corner of Charles and William.
By most accounts the block came to be as a common carriage step, intended to serve guests at the adjacent hotel. The hotel rose in 1843, the work of local entrepreneur Joseph Sanford. For its first eight years, under Sanford’s ownership, he advertised the place as the United States Hotel. When he sold it to James Chartter in 1851, it became known as Planter’s Hotel.
Bear in mind, I have not attempted an exhaustive search for ads related to slave sales or hires at the United States or Planter’s Hotel, but I have identified thirteen sales that took place on the corner. The earliest ad appeared in the November 20, 1846 edition of the Richmond Enquirer–for the sale of 40 enslaved people “near the United States Hotel” in Fredericksburg.
[A side note: this sale was likely from the estate of William Jones, the owner of Ellwood and (for a time) Chatham, both today managed by the NPS.]
Over the next 16 years, sales or hiring of enslaved people took place regularly at the Planter’s Hotel, usually around the first of the year. The biggest of all involved the sale 46 individuals on January 3, 1854.
The Fredericksburg News of January 6, 1854 trumpeted the “success” of the sale:
Fredericksburg seems to be the best place to sell slaves in the State. On Tuesday, at Charter’s [Planter’s] Hotel, forty-three slaves were sold for $26,000. One bricklayer brought $1,495. One woman and child, 5 or 6 years old, brought $1,350. Several were quite old servants. It was a considered a tremendous sale.
I have posted most of the known ads for sales at Planter’s hotel at the bottom of this post.
None of the advertisements for sale or hire reference the block specifically, but several place the sales “in front of the hotel” while others (Richmond Whig December 24, 1847, Fredericksburg News, August 28, 1850 and December 21, 1851) place the sales specifically “before the front door” of the hotel. Notably, I have been able to find no other advertisement (beyond estate sales) for the sale of enslaved people at any location in Fredericksburg other than Planter’s Hotel. This corner was clearly THE place to sell slaves in Fredericksburg in the 1840s and 1850s (land and other items were also occasionally offered for sale at the site).
What were these sales like? Brutish, inhuman affairs, as former slave Fannie Brown recalled in the 1930s. She did not specify the location of the sale she witnessed in Fredericksburg as a 10-year-old, but it seems likely it took place at the corner of Charles and William Street. Her account is from an interview she did with government workers in the 1930s. Click here for the full account:
“I recollec’ one day I… went up close among de white folks gathered roun’ de warehouse peepin’ in through de windows to see de slaves. Den after a big crowd come roun’, I heard a nigger trader say, “Bruen…let my niggers out….” Jim, a big six-foot, tall slave, come out smilin’, and his shirt was took off, and den dey start exzaminin’ him. Dey jerked his mouth open an’ look at his teeth an’ den slapped him on his back, an’ den dey said, “Dis is a prime nigger. Look at dose teeth.” Somebody say one hundred dollars, another two hundred an’ so on ’till one thousand dollars was reached. Den Jim …. was handcuffed an’ put in de coffle wid de other slaves dat had been sol’.
The first mention I have seen of the block as a slave auction block is by a veteran visiting Fredericksburg in 1893. By 1913, the stone had assumed significance enough that the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities sought to place a tablet at the site, recording the stone’s historic use (as recorded in the minutes of the City Council for November 1913).
The slave block entered public discourse again in 1924 when the local Chamber of Commerce argued, rather incongruously, that on the one hand the stone should be removed because its presence “may serve somewhat to keep alive the sectional feeling which has long ago since disappeared,” and thus dampen tourism in Fredericksburg. Besides, on the other hand, the Chamber argued, the stone had never been used as an auction block for slaves anyway. Confederate veteran and local historian John T. Goolrick jumped in to second the Chamber’s opinion: the block was “standing lie”–just a carriage step that should be “broken up and carried away.”
The suggestion prompted a small storm of response, led, ironically, by local auctioneer N. B. Kinsey, whose shop stood nearby. Kinsey produce a 1857 ad for the sale of slaves at the site. More than that, he produced the testimonials of at least three prominent local men who confirmed the use of the block as a tool for the sale of slaves. And finally, Kinsey asserted that former slave George Triplett (died 1910) had been the last enslaved person sold on the slave block, purchased by Fredericksburg’s wartime mayor Montgomery Slaughter. Even John T. Goolrick’s son later confirmed the story told of Triplett. A photograph of Triplett, preserved and provided to us by the late collector extraordinary Jerry Brent, includes a notation from James T. and Robert T. Knox, who owned the former Planter’s Hotel in the early 20th century.
“The Old Slave, George Washington Triplett, Born in Stafford County, Va., Dec. 27th. 1833. Copy of certificate. Robert T. Knox & Brother. GREY EAGLE MILLS. Fredericksburg, Va. Sept. 29th. 1903. This is to certify that Mr. J.E.Reid, on 29th of September 1903 took the picture of one of our worthy colored men, George W. Triplett by name, who was the last colored man sold on the slave rock.(1862). It is a well established fact and has never been controverted or denied, and that I was an eye witness to the taking of the picture. (signed) James T. Knox of R.T.Knox & Brother.”
Another former slave asserted his connection with the slave block. Albert Crutchfield, born in Spotsylvania in 1854, claimed that he and his family had been sold on the block. In the 1920s, Crutchfield posed next to the slave block for what would become an oft-produced postcard. The back of the card reads:
In the days before the Civil War it was used for the sale and annual hire of slaves. Albert Crutchfield, shown in the picture, was sold from the block about 1859, at which time he was a boy about fifteen years old.”
While some of the details are incorrect (Crutchfield was only 5 in 1859, and evidence suggests that the sale may not have taken place until after 1860), his story largely fits with what is known about his life. According to Crutchfield, he, his mother, and three siblings were purchased by local businessman Arthur Goodwin. Two of his brothers were sold south and would never be seen by the family again.*
I append here images of the ads we have (beyond those shown above) that reference slave sales or hires at the corner of William and Charles. Remember, the hotel was known variously as the United States Hotel, Sanford’s Hotel, Chartters Hotel (after the second owner), and Planter’s Hotel.
Finally, we also have the transcription of an ad, produced by N.B. Kinsey in 1924, that appeared in an unidentified local newspaper on October 14, 1857.
The advertisement stated “seven young and valuable slaves” will be sold for the high dollar by Thos. B. Barton and John M. Herndon, commissioners. Another sale of “three likely young negresses” by W.C. Downer, administrator.
(This ad does not appear in any of the surviving copies of Fredericksburg papers of the time–the News, Virginia Herald, and Weekly Advertiser. Likely it appeared in the well-circulated Christian Banner, edited by the ardent Unionist James Hunnicutt; no issues of the Banner are known to survive from 1857.)
If you know of other advertisements or have additional information, please do let us know.
* See Ruther Coder Fitzgerald, “Albert Crutchfield was a Well-Known Local Slave,” Free Lance Star, June 16, 2001.