“The Journey of a Slave” Anticipates Interpretation of 2010

From Harrison, NPS:

Sometime during or shortly after the Civil War, a Northern publisher issued a remarkable set of chromolithographed cards, somewhat in the style of cigarette cards.  Those numbered at least a dozen and bore the collective designation, “The Journey of a Slave.”  The publisher also gave the illustrations individual titles and numbers.  The following copy of the Journey of a Slave series now resides at the Library of Congress, which tentatively attributes the work to Philadelphia artist James F. Queen:

Journey of a Slave is a remarkable piece of public history and art.

For one, it clearly reflects a commercial undertaking and shows that, for at least some entrepreneurs, slavery was a story to be publicized rather than forgotten or suppressed.  True, the illustrations may have been aimed at or found their strongest market among African American consumers in the North, but the subject of slavery was certainly in this case publicized thorough a mass-produced, dynamic (even lurid, given the blood spurts in “The Lash,” “Make Way for Liberty,” and “Victory”), easily accessible product.         

While the series is generalized geographically and not set specifically in the Fredericksburg area—as attested by the prominence of cotton cultivation in the first illustration—the long story of Fredericksburg’s presentation of its slave block, or “slave rock,” provides a local, similar example of the early publicizing of slavery in a commercialized or semi-commercialized manner…after the Civil War, in the case of the slave block.  Whether specific to the Fredericksburg area or not, such efforts provide a useful counterweight to the emphasis, in a number of today’s memory studies of the war and its causes, on amnesia over slavery and the black experience.  “Memory” is not invariably about forgetting, among people of all backgrounds.

Another notable aspect of the Journey of a Slave series is its anticipation of the efforts of the Fredericksburg community and Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park to tell the story of slavery and freedom.  The illustration series is of course a product of the mid-nineteenth century, not the late-twentieth and its focus on African American agency, initiative, and independence.  Until the closing moments of “Glory,” for example, the soldier and former slave, Trip, played by Denzel Washington, has little use for the flag, in contrast to the “Stand Up a Man” illustration in the Journey of A Slave.  Nevertheless, the central character in the Journey of a Slave does take control of his life dramatically, in the course of transitioning from slave to freedman to soldier.  Overall, the series reflects facets that would a century or more later become central to Park Service historical interpretation:  work, family formation, suffering, resilience, resistance, freedom, military service, sacrifice, and commemoration.

Noel G. Harrison

[Editor: For an example of how some of the components of “Journey of a Slave” are finding expression hereabouts, check out a new posting by Noel over at Mysteries and Conundrums on the efforts to document and describe the first clash of African American troops in Virginia north of the James River.  It happened in our midst.]

“Fredericksburg seems to be the best place to sell slaves in the State”: More evidence on the Auction Block

From John Hennessy, NPS (Click for prior series of post–Part One, Part Two, and Part Three):

Large Sale of Slaves. Fredericksburg seems to be the best place to sell slaves in the State. On Tuesday, at Charter’s Hotel, forty-three slaves were sold for $26,000.  One bricklayer brought $1,495.  One woman and child, 5 or 6 years old, brought $1,350.  Several were quite old servants.  It was a considered a tremendous sale.

This is from a small notice in the Fredericksburg News, January 6, 1854, of a slave sale held at what we now call Planter’s Hotel–the site of the disputed auction block.  The glee over the high prices produced by this sale is almost palpable.  The sale was organized, incidentally, by John Seddon, brother of the future Confederate Secretary of War.

Since our last post on this topic, Noel Harrison and Eric Mink of the NPS and collector extraordinaire Jerry Brent have dug out a few additional items related to auctions in front of Planter’s Hotel.  Most vividly is this picture, which shows former enslaved person George Triplett, who is reported in some sources to have been the last slave sold on the block in 1862.  Add another source to the list.    The image–from Jerry Brent’s collection–includes the following note on the back:

“The Old Slave, George Washington Triplett, Born in Stafford County, Va., Dec. 27th. 1833. Copy of certificate. Robert T. Knox & Brother. GREY EAGLE MILLS. Fredericksburg, Va. Sept. 29th. 1903. This is to certify that Mr. J.E.Reid, on 29th of September 1903 took the picture of one of our worthy colored men, George W. Triplett by name, who was the last colored man sold on the slave rock.(1862). It is a well established fact and has never been controverted or denied, and that I was an eye witness to the taking of the picture. (signed) James T. Knox of R.T.Knox & Brother.”

James T. Knox, born about 1844, was the son of miller and entrepreneur Thomas Knox, who lived in what is today the Kenmore Inn on Princess Anne Street. It was the elder Knox who purchased Planter’s Hotel after the war, and it would remain in the Knox family for decades.  This background is important in two ways. First, James Knox likely knew the building and its environs as well as anyone alive in 1903 could.  Second, James Knox, by virtue of his birth in 1844, may well have known first-hand of the use of the block in front of the hotel for slave sales.  You’ll note that in his testimonial on the photograph, he went out of his way to assert the truth of Triplett’s claim.

Yet another tidbit: a copy of the early 1862 sale noted in a comment by Noel Harrison. We now have four nine  more than twenty documented sales between 1847 and 1862.

In the face of this evidence in black and white, it might be useful to be reminded of exactly what these sales entailed.  Here is a description of a slave sale in Fredericksburg in 1860 (its precise location unknown, but it’s not inconceivable that it was in front of the Planter’s Hotel, which was surrounded by the sorts of warehouses described by the narrator).  It is from the WPA slave narrative of Fannie Brown, who was ten when she witnessed this scene:

“I recollec’ one day I… went up close among de white folks gathered roun’ de warehouse peepin’ in through de windows to see de slaves. Den after a big crowd come roun’, I heard a nigger trader say, “Bruen…let my niggers out….”  Jim, a big six-foot, tall slave, come out smilin’, and his shirt was took off, and den dey start exzaminin’ him. Dey jerked his mouth open an’ look at his teeth an’ den slapped him on his back, an’ den dey said, “Dis is a prime nigger. Look at dose teeth.” Somebody say one hundred dollars, another two hundred an’ so on ’till one thousand dollars was reached. Den Jim …. was handcuffed an’ put in de coffle  wid de other slaves dat had been sol’

Finally, it is worth noting that the Fredericksburg News, December 7, 1856, included an advertisement for the auction of land, to be held in front of Planter’s Hotel.  This so far is the only known instance of anything other than enslaved people being sold at the site, but it’s also suggestive that the site may have had something intrinsic about it that attracted auctions of more than just slaves.



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.

Continue reading

Fredericksburg’s Disputed Auction Block, Part 2

From John Hennessy, NPS (for Part I of this post, click here):

John Goolrick’s 1924 assault on the supposed status of the block at the corner of Charles and William as a the site of slave sales  and the Chamber of Commerce’s request to City Council that the block be removed prompted local auctioneer N.B. Kinsey (whose shop, incidentally, was almost directly across William Street from the block, next to the building that today houses Kybecca) to march into the offices of the Fredericksburg Daily Star a few days later armed with evidence he claimed demonstrated the use of the block for slave auctions.  Most importantly, he produced a newspaper clipping of an advertisement for the sale of slaves in front of the Planter’s Hotel.  Quoting the July 22, 1924 issue of the Daily Star:

The advertisement, dated October 14, 1857, stated “seven young and valuable slaves” will be sold for the high dollar by Thos. B. Barton and John M. Herndon, commissioners.  Another sale of “three likely young negresses” by W.C. Downer, administrator.

(This ad does not appear in any of the surviving copies of Fredericksburg papers of the time–the News, Virginia Herald, and Weekly Advertiser.  Likely it appeared in the well-circulated Christian Banner, edited by the equally ardent Unionist and [at the time] racist James Hunnicutt; no issues of the Banner are known to survive from 1857.)

Kinsey went on to explain “that a recent article published to the effect that the stone block on Commerce Street was not used for sale of slaves was incorrect, quoting Mssrs. M.G. Willis, W.E. Bradley, Jas. Alsop, and others as authority.”  (It’s worth noting that William Bradley, 17 at the time of the Civil War, was the son of wartime merchant James Bradley; M.G. Willis didn’t come to Fredericksburg until after the Civil War.)  “These gentlemen, he said, had often seen slaves sold from this block which is still standing…. The same block was used by ladies to mount horses, but was also used as an elevation for sale of slaves in front of the old Planters Hotel.”

Kinsey’s counter-assault against John Goolrick and the Chamber of Commerce apparently had the desired effect.  Council never acted on the demand by Goolrick and the Chamber of Commerce that the stone block be broken up and hauled away.  The matter vanished from public notice.

For our purposes, by far the most important piece of evidence produced by Kinsey is the advertisement for a slave sale in front of Planter’s Hotel–at the site of the block.  This ad has heretofore been unknown to us.  But another ad has been well-known for years.  It appeared in the Fredericksburg News, December 22, 1857–just over two months after the ad produced by Kinsey appeared–and I reproduce it here.

Neither Kinsey’s nor this ad expressly claims the use of the block in front of Planter’s for the sales, but certainly given all the possible locations for the auction (including Timberlake’s auction house elsewhere in town), the selection of the corner of Charles and William is, at least, very interesting.  We can say with little doubt that at least two sales of slaves took place there. [Update: as of 2020, we now can place more than 20 sales of human beings on this corner.]

Beyond these pieces of hard evidence putting slave sales on that corner, the tradition of the block as a tool for selling slaves has persisted in Fredericksburg for well over a century.  The earliest reference I have seen to the “slave block”–this by a Union veteran–dates to 1894 (if you know of an earlier reference, please let me know).  In the early 20th century, photographs and postcards appeared touting the site as a slave block.

By far the most interesting of these is the 1920s postcard, “Old Slave Block,” that shows former slave Albert Crutchfield standing next to the block.  The back of the card reads:

Continue reading

Fredericksburg’s Disputed Auction Block, Part 1

From John Hennessy(click here for Part II, of this post, here for Part III, and here for some concluding thoughts):

The shaped block of stone sits unnoticed by most at the corner of Charles and William Street in Fredericksburg, directly in front of the building that was once the Planter’s Hotel.  Over the years it has been backed into by trucks and hacked at by vandals.  But to some people it is one of the most compelling urban artifacts in America.  It is likely that more than a few women used the block to mount horses on the curb in front of the Planter’s Hotel.  And it may be that many things–tools, furniture, and livestock–were sold at auction on this site.  But today the stone is largely remembered for one thing:  the sale of slaves.  It is widely known as the slave auction block.

Since I came here in 1995, I have heard occasional rumblings from people that, no, the block on that corner is NOT an auction block where slaves were sold.  I had assumed this was a modern manifestation of discomfort with an undeniably uncomfortable bit of history–history that seemed to me based on a solid documentary and oral history of the block as a site of slave auctions.

I have come to discover, though, that not only has the history of the block been disputed in Fredericksburg for nearly a century, but at times the wisdom of its continued existence has been questioned.  In 1924, the local Chamber of Commerce petitioned City Council to remove the block.  In reporting the request, the Fredericksburg Daily Star (July 9, 1924) recorded,  “The communication stated that the rock was not a slave block but was used years ago as a base for ladies to mount horses.”  Moreover, the Chamber argued, the portrayal of the stone “to tourists as a place of selling slaves… may serve somewhat to keep alive the sectional feeling which has long ago since disappeared.”  Council referred the matter to the Public Interest Committee for further investigation.

A few days later, Confederate Veteran and local historian John Tackett Goolrick threw his support behind the Chamber’s request with an even more direct rebuttal of the traditional view of the auction block as place associated with slave sales.  And Goolrick echoed the Chamber’s claim that the association of the block with slave sales reflected poorly on the community.

Goolrick wrote, “In those days many women and men came [to the Planter’s Hotel] on horseback; this block was utilized as a convenient place for them to mount their horses.  It was never used and never intended to be used as a slave block, where colored people were put up, bought and sold.”  Goolrick labeled claims to the otherwise as “flagrantly false.” “For many reasons,” he wrote (though he does not elaborate on those reasons), “it should be broken up and carried away.”  He claimed the city was a  “veritable show place for its cleanliness, for its good streets, and pavements,” and urged the block–“a standing lie”–be removed and “thereby correct the false impression which this block has made to the strangers who come within our gates.”

If the matter had dropped there, it seems likely that City Council would have acted to remove the block from the corner of Charles and William.  But then, as in more recent times, local residents rushed in with a decidedly contrary view of the auction block, arguing urgently that indeed the block was what people claimed it was.  In our next post we’ll look at the evidence presented then, and other documentation that speaks to the historic use of one of Fredericksburg’s most controversial landmarks.