Holding court: Auction block memorial remains in flux as descendant engagement process continues

The original plaque marking the spot of the auction block was removed from Court Square in February, leaving the city with an opportunity to re-imagine the location. The original plaque marking the spot of the auction block was removed from Court Square in February, leaving the city with an opportunity to re-imagine the location.

Late on a rainy night in February, the plaque marking the location where enslaved people were bought and sold in Court Square disappeared. Shortly after, area activist Richard Allan came forward as the culprit, saying he removed the marker—and threw it in the James River—because it was an insufficient remembrance of the horrors that had occurred on the spot. Allan was arrested and briefly jailed. 

Nine months later, he’s among the leaders of a group of citizens advocating for the creation of a Court Square Enslavement Museum. They also want to see the installation of an immediate stop-gap commemorative marker on the site of the old auction block. (The spot is currently marked out with a paper replica of the original plaque and a few small flower pots.)

Last week, the city’s Historic Resources Committee urged patience, citing ongoing discussions over the future of the site.

The citizens’ group supporting the museum recently submitted a proposal to the state’s Department of Historic Resources, asking the state to place a commemorative sign on the location as a short-term solution. The proposal requires a sign-off from the city, however, and so a handful of citizens made their case at the meeting.

“We come to speak not about the museum, but about a basic yet highly important historic marker,” said Marvin Morgan, the interim pastor at Sojourners United Church of Christ. “Make haste in your response so this may be properly marked. Then current passersby—young and old and generations yet unborn—may be reminded of what happened on the space that is Court Square.”

Marie Coles Baker echoed those comments, noting that the spot had been inadequately marked for decades. “It’s certainly time, I think, to move very quickly and get the historic site recognized and a marker placed there,” she said.

The HRC declined to endorse the proposal, however. After the plaque was removed in February, the committee began engaging with descendants of those who were bought and sold in Court Square to determine the appropriate way to memorialize the space. That process was disrupted by the pandemic, and committee members felt it should continue before more decisions were made.

The engagement process so far has been “very deliberate,” said committee member Phil Varner. “That is the type of process that should occur with these types of things. Particularly with the people that are most affected by this.”

“This independent proposal has circumvented the community engagement process that was ongoing with the descendant community,” said committee member Jalane Schmidt. “What’s become standard in public history over the last decade or two is to do that community engagement work, to get the feedback from those most affected.”

Committee chair Rachel Lloyd noted that a larger, years-long joint effort by the city and county to reshape Court Square is underway. “The entire landscape of the Court Square block may be subject to a lot of changes,” Lloyd said. “We want to understand the whole commemorative context as we go forward.”

After the meeting, Allan said he was “flummoxed” by the committee’s decision. Baker is confident a new memorial will be placed one way or another. “It’s certainly a time to strike while the fire and the sentiment is hot, and I think they will,” she says.

The public engagement process isn’t over. “I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the process of the public, of people who took their own time and energy to come together, express their concern, and took collective action at a time when city actions were stifled,” said committee member Genevieve Keller. “I would welcome your continued participation in this greater process.”

The original plaque marking the spot of the auction block was removed from Court Square in February, leaving the city with an opportunity to re-imagine the location. 

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