The humble sign in the sidewalk had often gone unnoticed, overshadowed by the giant Confederate statues towering over it in Charlottesville, Virginia’s central Court Square.
But Thursday, Feb. 6, the small plaque marking a century of slave auctions suddenly went missing, stirring consternation and controversy in a city already struggling with its history.
“It was disturbing,” said Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. “Although this slave auction plaque was so small and set in the ground and you could walk over it, it was the only thing we had to commemorate the slaves whose lives were torn apart there.”
Schmidt, who has advocated for the removal of Charlottesville’s Confederate statues, initially worried that the plaque had been taken to protest a proposed law that would allow cities in Virginia to remove offensive monuments.
Others feared that it was simply another racist gesture at the site of the 2017 Unite the Right rally, during which a neo-Nazi killed protester Heather Heyer.
Then something odd happened. The culprit publicly confessed.
In an interview with a local news website, a 74-year-old amateur historian named Richard Allan admitted that he’d taken the plaque — but not for the reasons some assumed.
Allan said he removed the plaque because he thought slaves and their descendants deserved a more prominent memorial.
“How would you feel if they put a plaque in the ground to you so people could stand on it with their dirty shoes?” he told The Washington Post on Monday, Feb. 10, adding that he was trying to atone for the fact that his own ancestors had owned slaves.
“This is called reparations, as far as I’m concerned,” he said when asked if he was willing to go to jail.
The story took another twist at around 3 a.m. Tuesday, when a friend of Allan’s, Richard Parks, filled the hole in the brick pavement with his own handmade plaque.
“HUMAN AUCTION SITE,” it read. “In 1619 the first African kidnap victims arrived in VA. Buying and selling of humans ended in 1865. For 246 years this barbaric trade took place on sites like this.”
Some, including Schmidt, have applauded Allan’s goal while also criticizing his crime. But others see in his action echoes of the very white privilege for which he claims to be atoning.
“Regardless of the motive, it is still a crime to deface the plaque that was there and was honoring those slaves that were auctioned off from that particular block,” said Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney, who is African American. “We have an individual who announces that their family was in fact slave owners. Once again, his family and his privilege has decided how those slaves and their descendants would be honored.”
“Although he may have thought it was offensive for people to be able to walk on this plaque, those kinds of markers remind us that slaves were often walked on in life. The plaque may actually be more powerful where it’s positioned. That’s not for me to decide.”
Nor was it for Allan, Brackney added.
In an hourlong interview, however, Allan said it was years of research and frustration over officials’ inaction that had driven him to act.
Allan, who said his great-great-grandfather had led a 100-man Confederate cavalry company, said he became aware of the plaque in 2014 when he read a letter to the editor in the local newspaper from Eugene Williams, a civil rights leader who had helped desegregate the city’s schools.
“It appears that to Charlottesville’s government, black history does not matter,” began the letter, which demanded to know why a prominent sign reading “Site of Slave Block” had disappeared.
Williams, who could not be reached for this article, said the sign that replaced it was “almost invisible” and criticized the sidewalk plaque.
“I doubt that people walking past even notice it,” he wrote. “Are any other historic markers in the city relegated to the sidewalk?”
Allan read the letter and was also deeply upset. He met with Williams to discuss the issue, and they eventually became friends.
But Allan took his research further, interviewing officials and even the owner of the building from which the original sign was removed. In a report published in a local paper later that year, he said the more prominent sign was taken down because the building’s occupants were annoyed at tourists asking them about the site’s history of slave auctioning.
After the murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, advocates in Charlottesville began pushing to remove the city’s Confederate statues. Two years later, after a commission recommended removing them, white supremacists descended on the city for the Unite the Right rally.
Allan was one of thousands of protesters who turned out in opposition. But even after the rally ended in deadly violence, the Confederate statues — and the slave auction plaque Allan felt was paltry — remained.
In November, Allan sent information to the city council asking why nothing had been done about restoring the sign and improving the memorial to slaves. He said he received only one terse response, from Vice Mayor Sena Magill, who said the city was aware of the issue. Magill declined to comment for this article, citing an ongoing police investigation.
For years, Allan debated whether to act. Then, about three weeks ago he met Parks, 68, a retired social worker turned artist who has used chalk to replace the word “slave” or “slaves” with “human” or “people” on the plaque. He also places flowers and signs at the site to draw people’s attention.
“People could walk in dog s— and then step on that plaque,” Parks, who is also white, told The Post. “While you’ve got these 30-foot high monuments to the people who fought and died for slavery right down the block.”
One day earlier this year, Allan showed Parks the wonder bar — or small crowbar — he had ready to remove the plaque. Parks wasn’t sure if he would go through with it.
On the morning of Feb. 6, as his wife slept, Allan drove downtown, parked his car nearby and walked to the site of the plaque. Dressed in rain gear, he used his crowbar to pry up the plaque. Then he retrieved his car, pulled it up and popped the plaque in the back.
“It took 12 to 14 minutes,” he said.
Parks said Allan called him at around 4 a.m. Thursday.
“He wakes me up and says: ‘Richard, I want you to delete all my contacts off your phone, delete my emails. I did something,” Parks recalled.
As Allan began fielding calls from friends about the missing plaque, he said he began to worry that the police might think Parks had stolen the plaque. So he met with police and told them Parks had nothing to do with it.
But he wasn’t ready to come clean. Instead he said an unnamed “friend” had taken the plaque over concerns that it was disrespectful to African Americans.
“Can your friend tell us where this plaque is?” one officer asked, Allan recalled.
“I don’t think my friend would like to do that,” Allan said he answered.
By Friday, however, Allan decided he had to drop the ruse. News of the plaque’s theft had gone viral. So he gave an interview to the C-ville newspaper and then met with police to tell them the truth. He called the paper’s editor from a police interview room to tell her she could publish the story.
To his surprise, he was allowed to leave the police station.
“I did this,” he said, “to stop the erasure of history.”
In his initial interview, Allan implied that he had tossed the plaque into the James River.
“I don’t want the damn thing recovered,” he said.
Speaking to The Post, however, he hinted that he might be able to retrieve it — if authorities promised not to return it to the same spot.
“If they decide to put it back in the ground again,” he said, “I’ve got my wonder bar.”
On Tuesday morning, Feb. 11, Parks took photos of the new plaque at the site, which he’d installed to replace the old one.
The new plaque sat between two orange traffic cones. A scale of justice had already been placed there by someone else, Parks said.
On the building where the old sign used to hang, Parks hung his own, using the same ornate lettering: It read “Site of Slave Block.”