Sometime before dawn on Feb. 6, a man took a crowbar to the sidewalk in the historic town square in Charlottesville, Virginia, a few blocks away from a statue of the Confederacy’s top general, Robert E. Lee, that was at the center of heated protests in 2017.
The man removed a 6-year-old bronze plaque and took it away with him. “Slave Auction block,” the plaque said. “On this site slaves were bought and sold.”
The marker’s whereabouts is still unclear. But on Feb. 7, C-Ville, a local news outlet, reported on an admission: Richard H. Allan, who is an amateur historian, an activist and a resident of Albemarle County, said that he had taken the auction block marker.
“It is the height of insult to place the history of Charlottesville enslavement on the ground where people with dirt on their shoes can stand upon it,” Allan told the outlet.
“On a rainy night when I could not get to sleep, because of feelings of sadness and disgust, I found myself doing what I had been considering for over two years,” it quoted him as saying.
Allan, 74, who did not respond to a request for comment, was arrested Feb. 12, the police said, and charged with two felonies: grand larceny and possession of burglarious tools. He was held at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail but was released the next day, the police said.
The removal of the plaque, Allan’s arrest and the community response have once again raised questions among Charlottesville’s activists and residents about how the city grapples with its history.
In 2017, a white nationalist rally brought guns, swastikas, Confederate flags and deadly violence to the city of 48,000. It spurred a reckoning for a tourist-friendly city that was once a gathering place for American revolutionaries, including several Founding Fathers who enslaved people.
Amid conversations over how best to acknowledge the extent to which Charlottesville’s history was formed by racism, enslavement and discrimination, the removal of the auction block plaque by a white activist has raised new questions about who should shape that narrative, and how.
Eugene Williams, a black civil rights leader who helped desegregate the schools in Charlottesville, said that the removal of the plaque might prompt some useful conversations. “The more is said about slavery, the better it will be for all people,” Williams, 92, said in an interview Tuesday.
“Thousands of people would walk across that little marker in the sidewalk and never look down to even see it,” he added. “So what kind of recognition is that?”
Allan was not the only one to leave his mark on the plaque in Court Square. Richard Parks, another activist in the Charlottesville area, told The Washington Post he had lately been using chalk to cross out the word “slave” on the plaque and write the word “human” in its place. He also said he had been in touch with Allan in recent weeks.
After the plaque was removed, Parks said he created a handmade plaque for the sidewalk space. “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.”
Brian Wheeler, a spokesman for Charlottesville, said the city had removed that handmade plaque. Parks could not immediately be reached for comment.
The bronze plaque that was stolen last week was first placed in the sidewalk — just outside 0 Court Square, an old brick building not far from the City Hall, the Court Square Tavern and the Albemarle County Circuit Court — in 2014. But for decades before that, there was another plaque at that same address, at eye level.
When it was removed, Williams wanted to know why. “It appears that to Charlottesville’s government, black history does not matter,” he wrote a June 10, 2014, letter to the The Daily Progress, a local newspaper.
Wheeler, the city spokesman, said that Charlottesville had been discussing replacing or augmenting the sidewalk marker at least since December 2016.
“This is an important site in the city’s history and we can take this opportunity to improve the signage and add more historical context,” he said. “Our goal remains to tell a more complete story about Charlottesville’s past here and in our downtown parks.”