In the days since a 74-year-old white man confessed to the theft of Charlottesville’s former slave auction block, city residents and officials have sought to make sense of his actions.
On Friday, C-VILLE broke the news that Richard Allan, an amateur local historian, author, and environmental activist, claimed responsibility for prying the bronze marker out of the ground early in the morning of February 6. In an interview, Allan implied he had dumped it in the James River.
Allan said he considered the plaque’s placement in the sidewalk insulting to the enslaved laborers who built much of Charlottesville, and acted after years of frustration that the city had done nothing to create a more fitting tribute. On Tuesday, he was arrested and charged with two felonies: grand larceny and possession of burglarious tools.
When the plaque and a marker on the adjacent building disappeared, many residents initially speculated that they had been stolen by white supremacists. Some noted the irony that they had apparently been unguarded, unlike nearby statues of Confederate generals that have been under close police surveillance, and others decried the timing of the theft during Black History Month.
Allan told C-VILLE he confessed in part because he was worried someone else would be blamed.
“I did not remove the metal slave plaque in the ground…with the intention to offend anyone in our great town or our historic county,” he told C-VILLE in an exclusive interview before an acquaintance turned him in to the police. “I want it to be clear that there was no harm intended.”
Noting that his family had a history of owning slaves along the Gulf Coast, he said, “Out of respect to the enslaved persons in my own family’s personal history; out of awareness that down the generations I have inherited money that should have been paid in wages to those people…I removed the insulting plaque and have ensured that it will not be recovered.”
The sidewalk marker, installed in 2014, was a replacement for a gray slate plaque reading “Site of Slave Block” that once hung on the side of #0 Court Square. That plaque, which was privately owned, “went missing” more than a decade ago, says Robert Watkins, assistant historic preservation and design planner. (On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported, local artist Richard Parks hung a replica of that plaque on the building, though it was later removed.)
City records list the building’s owner as a limited liability corporation called Serenity III. Its listed agent, a real estate broker named Roberta Brownfield, declined to comment.
Watkins said it is unclear now how decisions about the design and placement of the new marker were made, but many residents were unhappy with its location in the sidewalk.
“It did not do justice to the people whose lives were torn apart there, the way you could step on it and not notice it,” public historian and UVA professor Jalane Schmidt says.
An early critic was local civil rights icon Eugene Williams, who wrote a letter to The Daily Progress in 2014 calling the new plaque an “unobtrusive marker set into the sidewalk,” and said an accompanying new plaque on black history, mounted on the side of the building, was “difficult to see, let alone read.”
After reading the letter, Allan met with Williams and others, and then wrote his own piece expressing “deep concerns” about the removal of the original slate sign. He says he was told by city officials that changes would be made soon.
“That was five and one-half years ago,” he says. “No changes were ever made.”
Contacted recently, Williams commended Allan for speaking out, if not for this specific action, and said his feelings about the inadequacy of the sidewalk marker haven’t changed.
“We cannot overstate how important the FREE labor of slaves was to the financial foundation of Charlottesville,” he wrote in a statement. “Why shouldn’t there be a plaque noting the ‘Site of Slave Block?’ White children want to know more about slavery. Black children are ashamed to talk about slavery. In our segregated schools, the history of slavery should become a learning lesson [for] the students and teachers, whites and blacks.”
The city’s Historic Resources Committee has been working to update the signage all around Court Square, in a process that dates to 2011 and remains in its preliminary phases.
“It wasn’t enough but it was all we had,” Schmidt, a member of the committee, says of the stolen marker. “It was kind of this placeholder, and we were trying to dream about what would it be like to have something better there.”
Allan did not think the city was moving fast enough. In November, he says he contacted City Council about the marker and received a response from then-vice-mayor Heather Hill thanking him and letting him know that the council was looking into doing something. “Two and a half months have elapsed,” he says. “Again, no action.”
“I absolutely believed that nothing would be done on this issue for a number of years, and that something had to be done,” he says. So, “on a rainy night when I could not get to sleep, because of feelings of sadness and disgust, I found myself doing what I had been considering for over two years.”
He headed to Court Square at about 2:45am, he says, and used a wonder bar and a kitchen knife to pry up the marker. “It took about 15 minutes,” he says.
“I deeply apologize,” Allan adds, “if removing a metal plaque that people can stand on with dirt on their shoes offends any citizen of our county.”
The ongoing legal battles over the nearby Confederate monuments have made it difficult for the city to move ahead with plans for new memorials, Schmidt says, and it “remains to be seen” if Allan’s action will galvanize more concrete change.
“In Charlottesville, we’re very passionate about our history, and we talk about it a lot, and that’s a really good thing,” she says. “If we can channel that enthusiasm toward change, that would be great.”