The shaped block of stone sits unnoticed by most 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. But to some people it is one of the most compelling urban artifacts in America. It is likely that more than a few women used the block to mount horses on the curb in front of the Planter’s Hotel. And it likely that many things–tools, furniture, and livestock–were sold at auction on this site. But today the stone is largely remembered for one thing: the sale of slaves. It is widely known as the slave auction block.
Since I came here in 1995, I have heard occasional rumblings from people that, no, the block on that corner is NOT an auction block where slaves were sold. I had assumed this was a modern manifestation of discomfort with an undeniably uncomfortable bit of history–history that seemed to me based on a solid documentary and oral history of the block as a site of slave auctions.
I have come to discover, though, that not only has the history of the block been disputed in Fredericksburg for nearly a century, but at times the wisdom of its continued existence has been questioned. In 1924, the local Chamber of Commerce petitioned City Council to remove the block. In reporting the request, the Fredericksburg Daily Star (July 9, 1924) recorded, “The communication stated that the rock was not a slave block but was used years ago as a base for ladies to mount horses.” Moreover, the Chamber argued, the portrayal of the stone “to tourists as a place of selling slaves… may serve somewhat to keep alive the sectional feeling which has long ago since disappeared.” Council referred the matter to the Public Interest Committee for further investigation.
A few days later, Confederate Veteran and local historian John Tackett Goolrick threw his support behind the Chamber’s request with an even more direct rebuttal of the traditional view of the auction block as place associated with slave sales. And Goolrick echoed the Chamber’s claim that the association of the block with slave sales reflected poorly on the community.
Goolrick wrote, “In those days many women and men came [to the Planter’s Hotel] on horseback; this block was utilized as a convenient place for them to mount their horses. It as never used and never intended to be used as a slave block, where colored people were put up, bought and sold.” Goolrick labeled claims to the otherwise as “flagrantly false.” “For many reasons,” he wrote (though he does not elaborate on those reasons), “it should be broken up and carried away.” He claimed the city was a “veritable show place for its cleanliness, for its good streets, and pavements,” and urged the block–“a standing lie”–be removed and “thereby correct the false impression which this block has made to the strangers who come within our gates.”
If the matter had dropped there, it seems likely that City Council would have acted to remove the block from the corner of Charles and William. But then, as in more recent times, local residents rushed in with a decidedly contrary view of the auction block, arguing urgently that indeed the block was what people claimed it was. In our next post we’ll look at the evidence presented then, and other documentation that speaks to the historic use of one of Fredericksburg’s most controversial landmarks. That post will appear at our new sister blog, Fredericksburg Remembered, which focuses on the challenges of interpreting history in the Fredericksburg region.