Remembering Slave Auctions in Charlottesville’s Court Square

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Fountain Hughes, a man from Charlottesville who survived his enslavement, was interviewed in 1949 about his experiences.

{Sunday evening, March 1, 2020, over 100 people gathered at Court Square in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, on the first evening of weeklong observances for Liberation and Freedom Day. Here is a partial record of this “Slave Auction Block Vigil: Honoring the Ancestors,” with links to historical sources. Video: http://www.belovedcommunity-cville.com/blog/slave-auction-block-vigil}

Deacon Don Gathers: On this first night of the week’s observances of Liberation & Freedom Day, we are acknowledging & honoring the enslaved ancestors of our City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County. This solemn event is a reminder of the pain and trauma of the enslaved community — who were the majority of area residents. Tonight, we descend to the depths of pain before we celebrate, on Tuesday, the anniversary of the joyous March 3, 1865, arrival of Union troops and the beginnings of emancipation.

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“Delivery of the property”: advertisement for January 4, 1847 auction of African American woman and children at the Albemarle County courthouse.

We are reckoning with history which continues to impact our collective lives. We’re gathered here at the seat of our local judicial system. Human beings were sold from the steps of this very courthouse. [Additional enslaved and free African Americans were required to report to this courthouse, from which 940 individuals were conscripted to labor for the Confederate army.] Then traffickers went inside the courthouse to file the papers from their transaction in the sale of these people, who were considered “property.” This is the same local justice system which today still disproportionately punishes black people.

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Ana, “with an infant at the breast,” to be sold at the Albemarle County courthouse, 1860.

Professor Jalane Schmidt: A few guidelines for our vigil:

The focus is on ancestors and descendants. As we walk around Court Square, descendants go first and should be up front, if they so wish, because we are honoring their ancestors.

To preserve the solemnity & reverence of the occasion, no flash photography, boom mics or TV camera lights, and we request that the media who have such equipment keep this at the periphery of our gathering during the vigil. Keep talking to a minimum.

We are going to walk around this southeast corner of Court Square and stop at three stations where local enslaved people were bought and sold, before we return here to the Courthouse, the fourth slave auction site, to conclude our vigil.

We’d like to thank our friends from Beloved Community Cville who have decorated each of our stations with periwinkle flowers, which were a common wildflower brought to the gravesites of enslaved people. Periwinkle symbolizes resilience and endurance.

At three of the stations, we will hear the names and words of local enslaved people and their descendants about the trauma of human trafficking which occurred in these very spaces through which we walk tonight.

First station: 300 Court Square, former site of the Eagle Tavern. Myra Anderson, a Charlottesville poet and activist who is a 6th generation descendant of the Hern Family of Monticello, read aloud the names and ages of 33 people–some of whom were her ancestors — who were sold there at the Eagle Tavern at the Thomas Jefferson estate sale of 1829. (Many participants, particularly the descendants who were in attendance, were in tears upon hearing the names of those who were sold.) Four enslaved families — the Grangers, the Herns, the Gillettes, and the Hubbards — were torn apart by this sale. Some of these family members reconnected many generations and two centuries later, during the Monticello Getting Word oral history project.

Rev. Carolyn Dillard (Associate Minister of Zion Hill Baptist Church of Keswick) offered a prayer for these trafficked people who were named and for their descendants.

Second station: the former site of the Slave Auction Block Marker, in front of the Number 0 building, Zero Court Square, former site of Benson Brothers Auction House. There the gathering listened to a portion of a recorded 1949 interview with Fountain Hughes, a man from Charlottesville who had been enslaved by the Burnley family of Hydraulic Mills Plantation. In his own voice, Hughes described the pain of the buying and selling of enslaved people: “We belonged to people. They’d sell us just like they sell horses an’ cows an’ hogs an’ all that. Have an auction bench, an’ they’d put you on, up on the bench an’ bid on you jus’ the same as you bidding on cattle you know…They’d have a regular, have a sale every month, you know, at the court house.”

Rev. Xavier Jackson, pastor of the Chapman Grove Baptist Church, gifted the gathering with a sung meditation.

The third stop was 302 Park Street: Swan Tavern. There, Cauline Yates, descendant of Sally Hemings sister, Mary, read aloud a wrenching 1852 letter written by Maria Perkins, an anguished enslaved mother from Charlottesville. Mrs. Perkins’ desperate missive to her husband (also enslaved) begged him to try to find a buyer for her “very soon before next cort [sic] if you can” because, she lamented, “they took me to the courthouset [sic]” once already, where she witnessed her son Albert being sold away.

Apostle Sarah Kelley, Charlottesville native, and pastor and founder, Faith, Hope and Love Church of Deliverance offered a few words and song.

To conclude the vigil, the gathering returned to the courthouse. Rev. Brenda Brown-Grooms, Charlottesville native and co-pastor of New Beginnings Christian Community, led us in a ritual. Descendants were invited to approach a basin of water and ladle out a libation onto the ground in honor of the ancestors. Rev. Brenda sang “Wade in the Water,” a classic spiritual inspired by the biblical story of ancient Israelites’ escape from slavery across the Jordan River — a coded nod to African Americans’ escape from slavery by crossing the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Deacon Don Gathers offered a benediction, after which the somber assembly dispersed into the twilight.

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At the courthouse, Hern descendant Myra Anderson pours out a libation in honor of her enslaved ancestors.

Religious but not spiritual, #UVA professor, #BLM activist, anti-fascist, mom, Cuba-phile. Author: “Cachita’s Streets.”

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