After a prior plaque’s size and subtlety sparked controversy and ultimately led to its theft, Charlottesville may soon get a larger and more visible marker to acknowledge the 104 years of slave trafficking that occurred on the city’s Court Square.
“That’s great news,” 77-year-old Richard “Freeman” Allan told The Daily Progress. “It’s very important that something get placed on the courthouse square.”
Allan was the man who removed the original plaque in early 2020 in what he described as an act of civil disobedience, and he has a particularly close relationship with the prior marker. It was bronze, about the size of standard sheet of paper and sat embedded in the sidewalk in front of the Redland Club building.
“It was a symbolic and an actual historic insult, because it was practically invisible and you stood on it,” said Allan.
Allan’s act brought him national attention along with 36 hours of jail time and a misdemeanor conviction that required some community service. He has always maintained that his goal was to prompt a bolder marker than the one on the sidewalk.
“Slave Auction Block: On this site slaves were bought and sold,” was the entirety of that plaque’s text, and Allan was among those troubled by the omission of such words as “people” or “humans” to convey who was getting sold.
“It needs to be known and not whitewashed,” said Allan.
The plaque now being manufactured will be one of those state-issued “highway” markers that dot the roadways of the commonwealth. Such markers feature black letters against a silver background, similar to a marker for Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s former estate, that stands in front of the Albemarle County Courthouse just across the street from the plaque Allan removed.
“It was a long time coming,” said Jalane Schmidt, a University of Virginia professor who has been active in reframing local narratives around race and history and who is member of the city’s Historic Resources Committee, which made the proposal.
The committee seeks placement of the marker in view of East Jefferson Street within the city-owned Court Square Park. A small enclave of grass and trees beside the Albemarle Courthouse, the park housed a statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson until 2021.
“The marker will acknowledge the trafficking of enslaved persons within Court Square from 1762 through 1865, contributing to the City’s efforts to interpret and present a complete history of our community, including the difficult history of slavery and racism,” a city planner wrote in a recent letter to the director of the state’s marker program.
Contrary to popular lore that focused on a single surviving structure, a brick building whose address is 0 Court Square, Charlottesville’s slave trade took place throughout Court Square, a fact documented by historian Gayle Schulman in the 2000 edition of the Magazine of Albemarle County History.
“Sales of slaves took place at private farms and plantations, and in front of public buildings like taverns and the court house,” Schulman wrote.
Schulman’s article was illustrated with a trove of vintage newspaper advertisements showing slave sales at such locations as the Swan Tavern, what is now the Redland Club and an under-construction courts building; the Eagle Tavern, the building site to the left of 500 Court Square; the Jefferson Hotel, now the site of 500 Court Square; the Central Hotel on Market Street, between Fourth and Fifth streets northeast; and at the house of Mrs. Lucy W. Richards, whose location is not clear.
“Community activity centered on the Court Square area, especially during Albemarle court days; and slave sales conducted in the open air often took place in front of the court house, on its steps, or in its vicinity,” Schulman wrote.
Such history has been noted in the proposed marker which would be headlined: “Sales of Enslaved People in Court Square.” The text would read:
“Enslaved men, women, and children were sold between 1762 and 1865 at various Court Square locations: outside taverns, at the Jefferson Hotel, at the ‘Number Nothing’ building, on a tree stump, and from the steps in front of the Albemarle County Courthouse — wherein records of such sales were filed and are still archived. The largest auction in Court Square, at Eagle Tavern in January 1829, was that of 33 enslaved individuals from the Monticello estate of Thomas Jefferson. Enslaved Charlottesville residents Fountain Hughes and Maria Perkins recalled court day sales as dreaded occasions which resulted in the permanent separation of families.”
The manager of the Highway Marker Program at the Department of Historic Resources, Jennifer Loux, told The Daily Progress that the proposal was received in time for consideration by the department’s board in December. However, she noted that the board’s practice is to approve just five topics at each quarterly meeting and 14 applications will be vying for approval.
“The five approved topics will be announced after the Board of Historic Resources meets on Dec. 14,” she wrote in an email.
One person eager to see the marker is Alicia Lee, who was walking through Court Square Park last week.
“The marker should be bigger to represent what we went through,” the 48-year-old local told The Daily Progress. “This is a place where we were sold, and people need to know and acknowledge that slaves were sold here.”
As for the man who stole the sidewalk plaque, Allan recently released a book, “A History of Racism in Charlottesville—A Journey Toward Understanding.” Allan traces his interest in commemorating such history to a day nearly a decade ago when he toured Court Square with Eugene Williams, a renowned local civil rights leader. Williams had sent The Daily Progress a letter in 2014 bemoaning the lack of larger marker.
“It appears that to Charlottesville’s government, black history does not matter,” Williams wrote.
Now 95, and still living on Ridge Street with his 98-year-old wife, Lorraine, Williams is still interested in a marker. And while he said he’s gratified by the possibility, he suggested an additional paragraph.
“The marker should indicate that the city owes reparation for what they have done to Black folks from slavery,” Williams told The Daily Progress. “The marker should indicate that the time is now for that consideration.”
As for Allan, his theft of the sidewalk marker did seem to do what he intended: prompt a push for a larger one.
What happened to the sidewalk plaque?
“I gave it back,” said Allan. “Well, I informed the Virginia State Police or the sheriff’s dive team where it could be recovered,” he said in quick correction. “Where it likely is today is on an evidence shelf.”