Auction Block

February 27th, 2009

This sandstone auction block stands on the corner of William Street and Charles Street in downtown Fredericksburg, Va. The inscription below reads:

Auction Block; Fredericksburg’s principal auction site in pre-civil war days for slaves and property. Dedicated by the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation in 1984.

There is no record for an exact date of the stone’s construction. The block likely served many purposes in the town’s history, including use as a stepping stone for passengers coming in and out of their carriages at the corner which once was the site of the Planters Hotel. More importantly the stone was used to present individual slaves to the local crowd while they were auctioned off either for sale, or for annual hire. The block would have been primarily used in the traditions of the interstate slave trade after the closing of the Atlantic slave trade to America in 1808. The auctions would have been a regular event of community life. Newspaper advertisements in the Fredericksburg News indicate the site’s regular use in the sale of Negro slaves as late as February 1862. Later that year Fredericksburg became a center of military action in the civil war with the city itself under Union occupation. As a result evidence of slave auctions, and the use of the block for that purpose, cease after 1862.

While the venue at the corner of William and Charles would have been one of greatly varying emotions and endeavors for the many local population. White entrepreneurs would have waged their fortunes at the expense of black families. By the mid 19th century, with the aforementioned abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, nearly all of the slaves that were auctioned off while standing on this stone would have been born in America and thousands were exported from Virginia to growing plantations further south or the ever expanding western territories. This meant many families being split as properties sold individually to the highest bidder, newlywed couples were forced apart, and children were seen as great commodities to be sold from their mother as soon as they were old enough and strong enough to work. While the outdoor auctions were public affairs, which allowed anyone with enough cash to take part in the bidding, the state government was not uninvolved in the business that took place there. In one specific case, in 1857, a female slave and her five children were scheduled to be sold at auction after the Virginia Supreme Court ruled against their manumission by their late owner. In other instances individual owners would auction their slaves off for seasonal or yearly hire. In John Washington’s Civil War: A Slave Narrative he describes the sight of a slave sale and the subsequent breakup of families as the “first great sorrow” of his life. What would have been a horrific and dehumanizing experience for the thousands of blacks that were auctioned off from that block would have constituted economic opportunity for the white traders selling, plantation owners buying, and other financiers who had a financial stake in this human commerce.

The 20th century plaque which describes the stone as a place for the “sale of slaves and property” reverberates a perspective which was unvoiced during the decades in which those auctions took place, and met great conflict to bring them to an end. From the perspective of those Fredericksburgers who participated in the auctions personally, with the exception of the slaves themselves and only a few others, the plaque would read simply for the “sale of property.”Other stones of similar characteristics remain as a testament to the history the country has traversed as a nation, including in Virginia, Green Hill Plantation and Luray. Though the stone itself was vandalized in 2005 it remains in its original spot as a vivid reminder of America’s entire history.

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