If all problems were all easy to solve, there would be no problems. This case is one that presents me with mixed feelings, mostly since I have been considering this for years. The centerpiece here is round block of sandstone at the corner of William and Charles Streets in Fredericksburg, Va. It stands in front of what used to be hotel, but is now a locally owned grocery and apartments. I have lived all over town in my long association with my home away from home, but I have never gotten to live in this building. It sits at the center of a great patch of Civil War era photography—in fact some of the town’s most famous pics were right there in a lot across Charles St. Sadly, no one took a photograph of this corner, and there is very little documentation about the stone as well.
But that does not mean it has no story. It has long been understood as having served as an auction block upon which enslaved Africans were stood so as to be presented to bidders. The warehouse down Charles St is also said to have served as storage area for enslaved Africans before sale. It is all plausible enough—there were enslaved people sold in town, and on this corner in fact. As NPS historian John Hennessy points out, there is not much else to lock in the story of the block. The local memory though is pretty strong, and needs to be given due weight—indeed, it has. There is a rival story that the block was a stepping stone for carriages and horses, but we can just push that aside since there is nothing about that role that would prevent the block from serving as an auction block as well at another time.
I am not going to take on the question of a thing being a thing. Let’s for the sake of argument say that it is. Or rather, even if it might not be, it certainly has been considered to be genuine long enough and widely enough to have entered the public discussion as what it purports to be (clear…?). What I am interested in though is the memorialization question. Long ago I began asking students, while standing at the stone, to give me reasons to keep it there or to move it. They were always creative and now I wish I had had them write the answers! The one thing that always bothered me though was a curatorial issue. Out in the open air, exposed to the elements, and with cars zipping by, I always felt that the stone was being treated with slight regard.
Take the LW stone at Mount Vernon (discussed in chapter six of the book I am writing now! plug plug). It maaaaay be a seventeenth-century survival, or it might not be. In either case, curators wisely moved it into storage and filled it place in the Mount Vernon cellar with a carefully matched and crafted doppelganger. I have always sort of wanted the same thing done for the Auction Stone—if nothing else just to protect it from a drunk driver.
But now something else has emerged. A group of citizens is asking that the stone be removed from where it seems to have stood (probably stood) since the middle of the nineteenth-century. I first learned of this movement on Facebook and I had a lot of questions. Significantly, the leadership of the group is African American—specifically the contemporary community theoretically most honored by what the Fredericksburg.com editorial rightfully calls an “ugly artifact from an even uglier era in the city’s history.” In this view, the stone is a chastisement and a grim reminder of bad things in an “ugly” past.
Its presence is an act of atonement of sorts in stone through an ever-present reminder of past sins. But what the people asking for its removal are saying is that, rather, the stone is a needlessly painful reminder of a past that is not so distant from some residents’ contemporary experiences. The people who do not bear the lingering social, financial, and perhaps genetic effects
of American Slavery I (1500—1865) and American Slavery II (1865–c1968) might need visible reminders of the past they have the good fortune to be able to otherwise forget. But others may be living more within other more immediate reminders, making some aspects of the past more present for them than for their neighbors. For those people, one stone more or less does not remove, forget, or erase the past. Instead, it might make the present
less painful on a daily basis. The editorial suggests an answer—a recontextualization of the stone. The current plaque by the stone is by all measures insufficient. Thus, something richer and more informative is a categorical good. I use the stone each year to spark student conversation, and making the site a more useful teaching tool for everyone appeals to me. But at the same time, moving forward on this will require listening long and carefully to some of the concerns raised by voices within the African American community. It will require walking into those discussions without a “remainer” fait acompli in place. City officials might hear of very real pain which some citizens feel over this, and that that pain is not about a distant abstract past that needs to be remembered, but rather about how that past’s shadow is visited unevenly on people in the present. I have no idea what the memorializing outcome might be, but if that discussion was real and given time to mature, it would be a huge step forward in and of itself. It could be the stone upon which a new consensus could be built.