An enslaved person auction block removed from downtown Fredericksburg, Virginia, will be displayed at the Fredericksburg Area Museum.
For almost two centuries, the 1,600-pound sandstone auction block was the lynchpin of a bustling marketplace where enslaved people were bought, bartered and sold.
As the museum puts it, in a town full of historic places of national importance, the auction block may be the most painful and contested object in Fredericksburg history.
“How do you take that information and continue building that story,” Frederick Area Museum President and CEO Sara Poore said.
Her staff will spend the next several years building an exhibit around the auction block, attempting to bring its past and present in focus to tell a complete story.
“I’ve always seen the block as a springboard for conversation,” Poore said. “It has its past; it has its history. We absolutely have to interpret that history because without understanding that history we cannot move forward.”
As America confronts the lingering impact of slavery and racism, the debate over markers, monuments and other relics of that awful past continues.
Last year, the decision was made to move the auction block to the museum to add context around it.
“It’s an object rather than a monument, different conversation, but it gives museums an opportunity to really work with the community on conversation and really reevaluate our history,” Poore said.
Making that move took years of debate and discussion — conversations influenced by current events in South Carolina, Charlottesville and this summer in Minneapolis.
Former city Councilman Hashmel Turner Jr. used to avoid going anywhere near the block.
“To be able to now walk past it and have some pride in the fact that the city does address the needs and concerns of the Black community,” he said.
While some claim the city is hiding its history, Turner believes the move to the museum was the right decision
“As a small town, if we are the example to get things moving in the direction of addressing racism and bringing equality to the different localities, then that’s going to be a great plus for us,” he said.
“Museums are not here to say whether it’s right or wrong to remove these, but we are here to help communities heal,” Poore said.
She says part of that healing is making it a community-curated exhibit.
The graffiti sprayed on by protesters is staying, adding yet another layer of history, another perspective of Fredericksburg's past and present.
“Understanding the perspectives leads to empathy, and that’s the only way we’re going to move forward,” Poore said.
The museum hopes to work with the exhibit team at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on how best to display very sensitive objects.
The enslaved person block could be on display by the end of the year, but it's expected to take three to four years to curate a full exhibit.