Richard Allan III, who has the long white ponytail and gentle manner of an old-school hippie, came to our office on Friday afternoon to confess. Before he allowed himself to be turned in to the police, he wanted to explain, for the record, why he’d pried the slave auction block marker out of the sidewalk in Court Square, and made sure it could “not be recovered.” And he wanted to talk face to face.
The outrage comes quick these days; social media, especially Twitter, doesn’t lend itself to nuanced thinking, and people are seldom offered the benefit of the doubt. But Allan’s decision, both impetuous and years in the making, to simply remove the plaque from the sidewalk and throw it in the James River, seemed to resist knee-jerk reaction.
The marker was most notable for the contrast it showed between the way the Confederacy, which fought to preserve slavery, is memorialized in Court Square (with a statue of a Rebel soldier atop a 25-foot-tall column, flanked by cannons), versus the paltry recognition granted to the enslaved majority who built this area, via this small plaque in the sidewalk and a nearly illegible marker on a building nearby.
Which is to say, it was beloved by no one.
A project to create better signage in Court Square has been in place since 2011, according to the city’s assistant historic design planner. Allan says he was told in 2014 that better, more legible signs were in the works. The Blue Ribbon Commission, in 2016, recommended both replacing the existing marker and building a new memorial to enslaved laborers.
Sometimes change comes painfully slowly, after years of steady effort, as this week’s feature on abolishing Virginia’s death penalty shows.
Days after meeting Allan, I’m still not sure what to think about his actions, but I can relate to his impatience. Allan was tired of waiting.