More to the story: Questions about slave auction marker go back years

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.
Richard Allan in 2013. Photo courtesy Crozet Gazette.

Editor’s note: Last Friday, before being turned in to police, Albemarle County resident Richard Allan came to C-VILLE’s office to tell the story of why he had taken Court Square’s slave auction block marker in the early morning hours of February 6. He asked that we print an article he had written about the issue back in 2014 that explained his concerns about the marker. Below is a condensed version of that story, which was published in the Albemarle County monthly The Echo in December 2014. He adds: “I extend apologies to any fellow citizen who feels I dishonored them or their heritage by my act.’ 

On June 10, 2014, the following letter appeared in The Daily Progress, from a notable civil rights activist and senior member of the city’s African American community:

It appears that to Charlottesville’s government, black history does not matter. I have not seen one letter or heard any concerns raised about the historic marker that was removed from 0 Court Square. The slate plaque, which marked the site of Charlottesville’s slave auction block, disappeared at some point—even though other plaques on buildings on Court Square remained.

Recently, the plaque—with white text in a large font that was easily visible from a distance—was replaced by an unobtrusive marker set into the sidewalk and a dark-brown marble plaque on the wall. The plaque is difficult to see, let alone read.

These questions come to mind:

When were the slate markers put on buildings on Court Square? Who decided to remove the “Site of Slave Block” slate, and why? When was it taken down? Were the City Council and city manager informed that the slate had been removed?

Slates on other buildings on Court Square can be read from a distance — but the replacement plaque, because it is nearly the same color as the surrounding brick, is almost invisible unless a person is already close to the building.

As for the marker in the sidewalk, I doubt that people walking past even notice it. Are any other historic markers in the city relegated to the sidewalk?

Finally, were any African-Americans or the University of Virginia history department consulted before a marker that documented slavery — such a shameful chapter in Charlottesville’s and Albemarle County’s history—was eliminated?

Eugene Williams—Charlottesville

As a writer/researcher concerned with issues surrounding enslavement of Native and African Americans in our region, the letter piqued my attention. I know that how we remember history directly affects how we live together today. I waited for journalistic follow-up on the questions Mr. Williams had raised. None occurred.

I interviewed Mr. Williams several times. He felt that the original grey sign should be restored, and was disturbed that it had been replaced by a marker on the sidewalk. “No one knows to look down and see that,” he said. “It is like our people’s history is still something to be ignored. To just to be walked on top of.”

Exactly what became of the antique grey plaque? Who decided to remove it? And why replace it with a tiny plaque easy to trample underfoot?

Civil rights activist Eugene Williams stands in front of Charlottesville’s former, more prominent, slave auction marker in the 1970s. Photo courtesy Richard Allan.

I contacted Mary Joy Scala, then the city’s preservation and design planner for the City of Charlottesville. She told me that the grey slate plaque reading “Site of Slave Block” was removed at some time before 2002, and that she didn’t know why it was removed or who removed it. “Since the plaque had been installed on private property, there would have been no need for the owner of #0 Park Street to notify city officials about its removal,” she wrote in her response to me.

“When a citizen expressed concern about the removal and asked that the sign be restored, we approached the property owner, who did not want it placed back on the building. Therefore, our department had a bronze sign installed in the City sidewalk near the building,” her response continued. “You are correct that the black granite plaques are hard to read. The City’s Historic Resources Committee is currently working on a new series of Court Square markers to replace the hard-to-read granite ones.”

Ms. Scala did not reply to my follow-up query about who was responsible for this project or what the timetable was for completion.

There is a small brass marker in the sidewalk, unnoticeable; it mocks enslavement by placing it underfoot. To this writer, this issue is an embarrassment to our community.

Court Square is still dominated by the 25-foot-tall column and statue commemorating a Confederate soldier, which reads: “Lest We Forget—Warriors, your valor, devotion to duty and fortitude under privations teach us how to suffer and grow strong.”

I found myself thinking of a new marker to replace the present, unnoticed ones. It would be erected at Charlottesville’s historic Court Square, on a monument equally as large as that memorial to rebel courage.  It would read almost the same:

“To Albemarle’s Enslaved and Original Builders—Lest We Forget—Warriors of Labor, your valor, devotion to duty and fortitude under terrible privations teach us today how to suffer and grow strong.”

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