Albemarle County resident Richard Allan, an amateur local historian and longtime environmental activist, has admitted to taking the bronze slave auction block marker from Court Square in the early morning hours of February 6. Charlottesville police would not confirm whether Allan was in custody.
“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,” Allan 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.”
Allan, 75, says he found the plaque’s placement in the sidewalk to be insulting, and that he acted after years of frustration that nothing was done to create a more fitting tribute to the enslaved laborers who built much of Charlottesville.
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.”
Allan implied that he had disposed of the plaque in the James River, but would not say exactly where. “I don’t want the damn thing recovered,” he says.
Allan first became concerned about the issue in 2014, in response to a letter in The Daily Progress from local civil rights icon Eugene Williams. Williams criticized the removal of a historic marker on Number 0, Court Square, identifying it as the site of a former slave auction block, and its replacement with the “unobtrusive marker set into the sidewalk” along with a dark marble marker on black history that was “difficult to see, let alone read.”
Allan says he met with Williams, who told him he was the only person to respond to his letter, and talked with many others. “It became very clear to me that, for many in Charlottesville, it is the height of insult to place the history of Charlottesville enslavement on the ground where people with dirt on their shoes can stand upon it,” he says.
After those conversations, he wrote his own piece expressing “deep concerns” about the removal of the gray slate marker and its replacement with the sidewalk plaque. “I reported these concerns and my article to the city’s Preservation Committee, and was told changes would be made soon,” Allan says. “That was five and one-half years ago. No changes were ever made.”
Allan says he had long thought about removing the plaque himself, and knew it should be done on a rainy night, when no one would be on the streets. So this week, he says, “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.
Allan says he had contacted City Council about the issue in November, and received a response from then-vice-mayor Heather Hill thanking him and letting him know that the council was looking into doing something about the marker. “Two and a half months have elapsed,” Allan 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.
“I deeply apologize if removing a metal plaque that people can stand on with dirt on their shoes offends any citizen of our county,” he adds.
“I’m not the story,” he concludes. “Eugene Williams’ letter is the story. I’m just a person who feels passionately about this.”
Updated 2/8 with additional information from Allan. C-VILLE will continue to follow this story including in our print edition Feb. 12.