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 two advertisements for the sale of slaves in front of the Planter’s Hotel, both of them dating to late 1857.
– 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 there is no question in my mind that if tried in a criminal court of law, a modern jury bound by the culture of forensics would conclude “reasonable doubt” on the question of whether the block 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 in, at least, late 1857. 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?