The city of Fredericksburg, Va., removed a 176-year-old slave auction block from a prominent downtown street corner Friday morning, marking the end of a battle over a painful emblem as the nation again grapples with racial strife.

The auction block, a hulking piece of Aquia sandstone, has served as a focal point for protesters demonstrating over the police killing of George Floyd, according to city officials. Protesters marching through town had spray painted it and chanted “Move the block! Move the block!”

While efforts to remove the auction block have been discussed for decades, the current battle over the auction block began in 2017 after white supremacists descended on Charlottesville to defend a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — a gathering that ended in deadly violence.

Fredericksburg City Councilor Charlie Frye, the only African American member of the council, pushed the removal effort through several years of debate, community discussion and legal wrangling.

“I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders,” Frye said in a post on the city’s website. “The people of the City never walked away from the table, never stopped talking to each other. This was huge — and it felt great because I came from ancestors who were never heard.”

The removal of the auction block comes amid a broader effort to remove or relocate historical symbols of racial oppression. Earlier this week, as protests over Floyd’s killing spread across the country, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said the state would remove its Robert E. Lee statue from its site on Monument Avenue.

In Fredericksburg, the controversial symbol of slavery was placed at the corner of William and Charles streets sometime during the 1830s or 1840s, according to an archaeological investigation prepared for the state.

However, the report said “evidence suggests it was not used as a carriage block or built as a platform to showcase objects or enslaved individuals during an auction.”

Rather, “it maybe have been used as a sign post associated with the presentation of data on upcoming auctions and events.” The block and a nearby hotel were associated with “antebellum life and the practice of slavery in Fredericksburg,” the report concluded.

Generating support to remove the auction block took time. Following a public forum and online survey, the City Council initially voted to keep the block where it has always been. Frye cast the only vote to move it.

But in consultation with the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, an organization that promotes reconciliation in communities divided over race and other issues, the council took up the matter again last year, voting 6 to 1 to remove the block.

Local business leaders fought the removal in court but lost. The decision was appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, which rejected the petition in April, clearing the way for the stone to be removed. A state lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic prevented officials from moving forward.

The Free Lance-Star reported in its Friday edition that city officials were finally moving ahead to remove the stone sometime this month. It turned out to be Friday morning.

“Stabilizing straps, weights, and mechanical equipment were used to lift the freed stone onto a custom-designed pallet intended to support the approximately 800-pound artifact,” the city said.

The auction block is headed to the Fredericksburg Area Museum, where it will be preserved and displayed.

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