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City committee works with descendants of enslaved laborers to plan Court Square memorial

Members of the Charlottesville Historic Resources Committee are meeting with descendants of enslaved laborers to discuss what an appropriate memorial in Court Square where a slave auction block once stood should look like.

Enslaved laborers were bought and sold in Court Square at a slave auction block in front of the Albemarle County Courthouse throughout Charlottesville’s history through the Civil War. The block is no longer in place. A plaque that read “Slave Auction Block” and “on this site, slaves were bought and sold” previously was installed in the sidewalk at the site.

In February 2020, the plaque was stolen by Richard Allan, an Albemarle resident and amateur local historian. He was charged with grand larceny and possession of burglarious tools, but accepted an agreement from the commonwealth after helping to relocate the plaque and pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor destruction of property.

Allan was sentenced to 90 days in jail, all suspended, and 25 hours of community service.

Allan said he removed the plaque and disposed of it because he felt its wording and placement were offensive.

“I did not remove the plaque for any reason other than that I thought it was offensive to a significant section of the community, which I have been told in no uncertain terms by community leaders,” Allan said.

Though it was recovered, the marker was not put back in place.

Since the incident, the city has discussed both temporary and permanent replacements for the plaque, and the City Council voted to install a temporary marker shortly after the theft, but the process was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some community members have placed homemade, temporary markers at the site.

Jalane Schmidt, member of the Historic Resources Committee and a professor of race and religion at the University of Virginia, and city planner Robert Watkins have been meeting virtually with a group of descendants of enslaved laborers to discuss options for a memorial.

Schmidt said during a meeting of the committee on May 14 that while many of the descendants would like to see a permanent marker sooner rather than later, they also have urged committee members not to rush the process and to make sure they get it right.

Some of the descendants Schmidt and Watkins spoke to have ancestors who were enslaved in the Charlottesville and Albemarle County area and others come from outside the region.

A lot of the discussion with descendants has been about how to effectively reach out to the community to gather public input about the memorial.

While descendants supported online outreach, such as Survey Monkey, they also encouraged the committee to go door to door to engage with older people and those who may not have internet access.

They suggested scheduling public forums at multiple times throughout the day to give plenty of opportunities to include people who work.

The committee plans to organize in-person forums at Washington Park now that state COVID-19 regulations on public gatherings have eased.

The committee discussed how to prioritize voices and opinions when having these discussions.

“It seems to me that prioritizing those who can trace their ancestry to Albemarle County … since this is the county courthouse, should be the priority,” Schmidt said.

Watkins said it is important to contextualize the history of the slave auction site when advertising the public forums.

“One of the descendants who joined the call … didn’t know what the slave auction block site was and she said that it was important as we plan and conduct this engagement to really explain what was there and explain exactly what we’re memorializing and why we’re kind of conducting this process because people still might want to engage and want to participate, even if they don’t presently,” Watkins said.

Schmidt said she plans to work with leaders of Descendants of Enslaved Communities at UVa to get in touch with more descendants who can provide their perspectives moving forward. She and Watkins will meet with the group of descendants they have been consulting with again prior to July’s committee meeting.

Watkins said there should be more solid details for these engagements at that meeting.

As Charlottesville grapples with its history, other localities have had to make similar decisions regarding slave auction sites and how to properly memorialize them.

After three years of community debate and discussions with the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, the Fredericksburg City Council voted in December 2019 to remove a slave auction block located in the downtown area of the city. The block was removed in June 2020.

The city consulted with its Memorials Advisory Commission to design a temporary panel called “A Witness to History” that was installed at the auction block’s original site. It includes a 1910 photo of a Black man standing next to the block and a photo of the stone as it was being removed in 2020.

In November, the block was professionally cleaned and loaned to the Fredericksburg Area Museum for a temporary exhibit while the museum works to create a permanent exhibit to contextualize the block, which is expected to open in 2022.

While the block was cleaned, the museum chose to keep graffiti that was spray-painted on it during Black Lives Matter protests intact to provide context.


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