The disputed auction block, part 3: what now?

From Hennessy (please pardon the length of this post, but the nature of the auction block is an important issue of history and community, and it’s vital to lay things out rather extensively):

How do we as public historians handle a disputed artifact/site like the stone block in front of Planter’s Hotel?  And more fundamentally, is the dispute over its use as a slave auction block warranted?

The first historian to address the block was S.J. Quinn, whose excellent 1908 History of the City of Fredericksburg, has this to say (page 168):

At the corner of Commerce and Charles streets, in front of this hotel, is a stone block about two and a half feet high and some two feet in diameter. It was placed there many years before the Civil war, it is said, for the sale and annual hire of slaves. The slave to be sold was required to stand on this block in the presence of the gathered traders, when he or she was “cried out” by the auctioneer to the highest bidder. Those slaves who were publicly hired out for the year also took their stand on this block and were hired out at the highest price bid. There is probably no relic in Fredericksburg that calls back more vividly the days of slavery than does this stone block.

It’s worth noting that this book was prepared under the auspices of City Council’s “Committee on Publications”–it was viewed as something of an official history (not that government imprimatur renders it good history, mind you, but it does imply general consensus of Quinn’s interpretation).  While Quinn didn’t move to Fredericksburg until after the war, his Committee included James Bradley, who was 16 in 1860 and the son of a prominent Fredericksburg merchant.

After John T. Goolrick died in 1925, his son took up the historical pen.  John Goolrick Jr. wrote several books and frequently referenced the block; he clearly found his father’s arguments that the block had no connection to slaves unconvincing.  Indeed, the younger Goolrick (who popularized the title “Fredericksburg: America’s Most Historic City”) wrote that the block was placed by his grandfather, the diversely aggressive Peter Goolrick, “and that slaves were sold upon it before the war, and even in the time of war.”  It was, said John Goolrick Jr., “intended for a horse-block, but it became soon, by general consent, also the market place for slaves.”

Quinn’s and Goolrick Jr.’s accounts include the essential elements that have become Fredericksburg’s conventional wisdom about the stone block in front of Planter’s Hotel. Still, the whispers of dissent continue–though so far as I know none of them have found their way to print since 1924.

So where does all this leave us?  Here’s what we know and don’t know.

– Most tangibly, we have or know of at least five advertisements for the sale of slaves in front of the Planter’s Hotel between 1852 and 1862.

– We have a longstanding traditional interpretation of the site as a slave auction block, conveyed with some detail in various secondary sources written by historians with direct contact to residents of the period.

– We have at least three secondary references to men who claimed to have been sold on the block, including a popular postcard of one of the men standing next to the block.  Follow-up research on the claims of the two men could not confirm their stories, but neither does it render their stories illegitimate.

– Virtually all references to the block acknowledge its origin and use as a “horse block.”

Despite the verbiage on the plaque placed on the block in 1984 (which refers to the sale of “slaves and property”), we have no evidence that the block was ever used to sell property other than slaves. Update:   A December 1856 ad in the Fredericksburg News touts an auction for a vacant lot in Fredericksburg “to the highest bidder for Cash, in front of the Planters’ Hotel in Fredericksburg.”

In this age of CSI and Bones, we like our evidence to be forensic rather than circumstantial, and maybe a modern a modern jury bound by the culture of forensics would conclude “reasonable doubt” on the question of whether the block itself played a role in the sale of slaves on that corner–after all, we have no direct evidence that establishes a slave standing atop the block.

But few things in history work that way.  Much of what we do with respect to sites and narratives is a mixture of direct evidence and deductive reasoning that helps us fit the pieces of history together.  Historians commonly and routinely work with incomplete or conflicting evidence, but in the end we are invariably reduced to abiding by the preponderance of evidence–just as juries do in civil cases.  And in a civil case, I have little doubt that a jury would conclude that the preponderance of evidence suggests that the stone block at the corner of Charles and William Street was indeed used as a slave auction block.  The conclusion cannot be stated with certainty, but it seems to me very likely.

Two things make it so in my mind:  the direct evidence of slave sales on that corner at least nine occasions.  And the largely unbroken and only rarely challenged oral tradition that the block was used for slave sales.  That’s a powerfully suggestive combination.

If  a sliver of uncertainty renders all historical conclusions invalid, we must therefore dispense with almost every narrative of battle that delves below the brigade level (having written a couple of battle books, I can tell you that the cumulative power of deductive analysis–supported by just a few abslutely rock-solid pieces of evidence–constitutes the foundation of every detailed battle narrative). Or we can dispense with the a map of 1860 Fredericksburg we have generated for Virtual Fredericksburg, or any enhanced understanding of the founders and the Constitution, or the long-held tradition (confirmed by a sign cast in iron) of Clara Barton’s presence at the  Presbyterian Church (she probably was there, but we can’t prove it).  The fact is, ours is a business built upon the weight of evidence, deduction, and the conclusions drawn therefrom.

Is it possible that when, in 1924, City Council chose not to abide by the request of the Chamber of Commerce and John Goolrick Sr. to remove the block, Council did so because the weight of evidence supported the block’s historic use for the sale of slaves?  It’s hard to imagine that Fredericksburg, in the same year that Virginia adopted the vile Racial Integrity Act, was suddenly and singularly overwashed with a bout of racial sensitivity that inspired the town to retain an object and its associated traditions for fear of offending the black community and those who supported telling an important piece of African-American history.  Rather, perhaps, Council concluded, as the weight of evidence suggests, that the block was indeed used to sell slaves and was thus an important part of the town’s historic fabric.  Certainly Council believed so in 1908, when it approved Quinn’s history for publication.

For those who wish to count themselves as doubters, the circumstantial nature of the evidence offers some ground to stand on–mostly in the form of what we don’t know.   There’s no question we have more to learn, and I for one will be happy to follow the evidence wherever it leads.  Let it be that everyone interested in the question will do the same.

In the meantime, I would aver that it’s appropriate to interpret this block to the public as the “likely” site of slave sales, and to use the site as a departure point for a broader discussion of the nature and significance of slavery in “America’s Most Historic City.”  What say you?

18 thoughts on “The disputed auction block, part 3: what now?

  1. I still wager the block belongs with the John Paul Jones House, Hugh Mercer’s Apothecary, the Washington Surveying Office, and the Rising Sun Tavern’s conjectural porch. A list of hooey. There is no doubt auctions occurred on that corner, as evidenced by the advertisements, but to suppose valuable property would be forced to teeter on that small surface is a stretch. The ease with which the one gentleman stood on the block in your earlier post, can be attributed to the telephone pole right next to it, affording him some temporary balance prior to the photographer’s shutter click.
    Well, I am one voice in the forest.

    • The fact that this trail of inquiry eventually branches into paths of divergent interpretation (whose details could indeed be intriguing; perhaps, for example, the hole in the cylindrical block once supported a pole that assisted with balancing, or at least with advertising) should not in my personal opinion obscure the broader, extraordinary certainty: people were once sold at this particular street corner, in front of this particular antebellum hotel-building–one of the few sites (including also the antebellum wharves and antebellum railroad station) of Fredericksburg’s extended immersion in the slave trade that we can precisely identify on the 21st-century landscape. And “extended” well applies to the Planter’s corner since, beyond the advertisements of 1857 mentioned above, my own research has uncovered a wartime advertisement (February 1862) for a “PUBLIC AUCTION, for CASH, in front of the Planter’s Hotel…TWENTY LIKELY NEGROES” (all-caps original).

      Noel H.

      • No doubt, Noel, no doubt. Any auction could certainly have been held and clearly was, on that corner. I simply assert that it would be very unreasonable to expect anyone, slave or not, to balance themselves on that small surface, for more than a few seconds (as in mounting a horse). A pole in the middle for “balance” would further diminish the surface area to stand on and not make for an attractive display. Don’t the tales of slave auctions tell of the unfortunates being told to remove shirts, flex, and display themselves to show how healthy they were? And, for simple safety reasons of the valuable human “merchandise”, I can not fathom a seller or buyer feeling comfortable with such a precarious situation.
        Perhaps semantics is the root of all this? To say, “The slave auction block was on that corner.” would be correct in the fact that the sale of slaves took place there. But to say, “This mounting block was the platform on which the slaves stood.” is perhaps being too literal. Putting something on the “block” means to auction it, not necessarily putting it on the one physical thing that looks like a block.
        One more thought here, for the whole visualization of what would take place in an auction, and that would be that the auctioneer himself would need to be elevated as well, to be able to look down upon the bidders. Where’s his “mounting block”?

    • “There is no doubt auctions occurred on that corner, as evidenced by the advertisements, but to suppose valuable property would be forced to teeter on that small surface is a stretch.”

      It’s no stretch, Mr. Cummings. If I were to guess, more than likely slaves’ value was ratcheted up the longer they could balance on one foot. These people were intended to perform like mules after all, not like sets of fine china. Regardless, what does it matter. I for one will not pretend to be naive about the real dialogue that is taking place here. Two slaves or two thousand, everyone who defends the continued presence of this block on the corner of William and Charles Street, and not in a museum, understands its symbolic value to racists.

      -Paul Ronco
      Fredericksburg, Virginia

      • Why must a museum have walls???????? It is part of tours and such where it stands. What is next? Dig up the bodies from the Confederate Cemetery or enclose up all up so people aren’t “offended”. I’m offended at how my Irish ancestors were treated. I’m offended at being called racist just because my ancestor who wrote what is now the Star Spangled Banner may have been racist. I’m offended that and organization that was created to rid blacks in our country is now celebrated by blacks.

      • I don’t understand why there is a push to remove all references to the civil war and now the auction block. Mr. John Hennessy stated that the block was most commonly used as a carriage step for guests at the hotel. The block is over 170 years old and I feel it should stay where it is. Moving it doesn’t change the fact that slavery was real and unfortunately it happened, we can’t change that. People want to put it in a museum and put up a sign, that’s ridiculous, That would still leave the symbol of the block, leave it where history really happened, it makes it more real, don’t hide it in a museum. Who is to say that other sales didn’t happen at other historical locations, should they be removed as well? Should they tear down the Hotel because the block was out front? Would this change the fact that slaves were sold in Fredericksburg? I think not. Mr. Ronco stated in his post that “everyone that defends the continued presence of this block and not In a museum, understands it’s symbolic value to racists.
        I am not a racist, but I myself see historical value in keeping it where it is. Moving it will not change history, it won’t change the lives of the families that were torn apart by slavery. I agree that slavery was a terrible thing. Why are so many people bent on removing status, Etc.? Leaders back then didn’t say “Oh, lets put up a statue of a Civil War General to remind us of slavery” That’s nonsense. All of this is beyond me. Are we becoming a Nation that no longer respects or appreciates History? Are we willing to tear it all down and forget what happened? I certainly hope not. It’s a sad time we live in and I hope the leaders in Fredericksburg keep their back bones and stand up to this and not let it happen. IF THIS IS ALLOWED TO HAPPEN, WHAT WILL BE NEXT?

  2. John: As I said in the post, there’s ground for dissenting voices to stand upon. But, you’re not a lone voice; John Goolrick, Sr., and the 1924 iteration of the Fredericksburg Chamber of Commerce are right there with you, and I suspect there are a few more so far unheard.

    Am I to understand that your belief that the block could not be associated with the sale of slaves is based on your feeling that it was too dangerous or unstable for slaves–or I presume anyone–to stand upon? But, it was perfectly fine for hoisting well-heeled women upon to get them on their horses?

    • John: The “well-heeled” women would be bracing themselves against the horse and holding onto a saddle pommel as they hoist themselves up. They were not going to be actually “standing” on the block. Getting down would be the same in reverse.
      If you really want to test this, we should arrange with the City to do a scientific test of any number of us (with spotters and release of liabilty forms!) to make the attempt, with and without shoes. The proof would be in the pudding.

  3. Thank you John Hennesey for your conclusion that history is, in fact, a preponderance of evidence including local lore. As a native of Fredericksburg whose family has been here for many generations, I resent the debunking of what I have been told by my family members, passed down by those who experienced the history of this town. Most often the stories are validated by what evidence can be found.

    • Mary Katherine, your perspective on this rendered more interesting by the fact (unstated by you) that you are a direct descendant of Arthur Goodwin, who is reported to have purchased Albert Crutchfield off the block itself. One of the most interesting aspects of being in the business of public history is seeing how descendants react to the acts of their ancestors–the most common example being the poor folks who come in to NPS battlefield sites looking for an ancestor, only to discover he was a deserter. Some wish they’d never learned; others, like you, find richness and interest in their direct connection to history, even when that history might be considered uncomfortable. Credit to you for that, Mary Katherine.

      With Mary Katherine’s permission, I include here part of her direct response to me with her thoughts on all this. “I am a realist; that slavery became a way of life in this country is hard for us to understand but we cannot wish it away. It developed into a national tragedy which killed many and almost destroyed this town. Whether we like it or not we live with the effects. I like to think that preserving our history teaches us to avoid the bad and save the good.”

  4. A very interesting discussion on this object. I am more convinced than ever that it is a mounting block located in the same place where slaves were sold. Whether it is a pedistal for the sale of property doesn’t really matter, it is an object that relates to Fredrickburg’s pre Civil War history, promotes discussion of issues such as the sale of humans as property and thus should be preserved. I would gladly try to mount a horse from this object as lifting myself up from the stirrup is not so easy and yes a stableman to steady the horse would be appreciated. Well heeled women were probably entering carriages with the assistance of their enslaved carriage driver, not mounting horses in public. The “proof” is not as important as the discussion which seems quite lively as I am sure it was in 1924. Keep the block and its stories as a vehicle of discussion.

  5. I agree, John. It is these hidden pieces of our history, those that tourists, children, mothers and fathers, walk by without even thinking about, that create the community we are today. It is the responsibility of our public historians to bring to light and intrigue those that wander our streets. Every town, large or small, has a history that they are not proud of. Fredericksburg is no different. BUT- it is our history, ours to tell, ours to own. The proof is often in the images and writings of the times –often misconstrued, misunderstood, misrepresented. These sources tell their own story. We owe it to those that suffered to listen with open ears, minds, and hearts. And it is OUR responsibility to share them.

    The auction block is a valuable platform for discussion. Let us not deny that.

  6. Pingback: “The Journey of a Slave” Anticipates Interpretation of 2010 | Fredericksburg Remembered

  7. Cautiously adding to a three-year-old post… I just found this from a link on the Facebook page. Wanted to let everyone know that Mr. Quinn’s book, “The history of the city of Fredericksburg, Virginia (1908)”, has passed into the Public Domain, and is now available in several different formats for no charge at this website:

  8. I have been long intrigued by this issue. Just walked over to the block in question and stood on it. It was easy for this 69 year old wearing sandals to step onto the block. I had to be careful when I made a 360 degree turn but never felt as if I were about to fall.

    • Interesting! I was wondering if we are allowed to step up on it. I just heard that it will be removed and I plan to go see the block before that happens. It’s an unfortunate bit of history but I think that standing on it – in the exact place where slaves were sold will be very moving and I doubt it will have the same effect once it is moved to a museum.

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