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For-sale listing of building involved in slave trade concerns community members

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0 Court Square

Flowers surround a makeshift marker of the city’s historic slave auction site at 0 Court Square in downtown Charlottesville. The building recently was listed for sale for $1.35 million, but some in the community think it should be made into a museum.

A building where enslaved people were bought and sold in Charlottesville has been listed for sale for more than $1 million, with the listing suggesting use as an office or “a charming historic urban residence.”

0 Court Square was listed for sale earlier this month. According to Phil Varner, of the city’s Historic Resources Committee, the building is one of two that were directly involved in slave auctions and still stand today.

Slaves were bought and sold in Court Square and at a slave auction block in front of the Albemarle County Courthouse throughout Charlottesville’s history through the Civil War. The block is no longer in place. A plaque that read “Slave Auction Block” and “on this site, slaves were bought and sold” previously was installed in the sidewalk at the site.

“What’s the going rate for a historically preserved site of human trafficking, bondage, and violence? In Charlottesville, apparently, the bidding starts at $1,350,000,” local journalist Jordy Yager tweeted recently.

Yager wasn’t the only community member who voiced concerns on social media, with some people suggesting the city or another entity should purchase the building to turn it into a museum to contextualize what happened in Court Square.

The listing calls the two-story, 4,248-square-foot brick building “the best location on Court Square” and suggests use of the property as an office for a legal, financial, consulting or technology company or to be renovated and converted to a residence.

According to city GIS records, it is a two-parcel property, but both were listed for sale under one price of $1.35 million. Records indicate the larger parcel was assessed in 2021 for $664,700 and the smaller parcel for $460,700. The asking price is $224,600 over the total assessed price.

“This is an opportunity to purchase or lease a one of a kind historic property on Court Square,” the listing says.

But the listing, which was posted on Nest Realty’s website, as well as other realty sites, vanished from the internet by Thursday. It’s unclear if the property sold or if the listing was just removed. City records do not indicate a recent sale.

The building is currently owned by Roberta Brownfield, a Realtor with Brownfield Realty Advisors. Brownfield did not respond to a request for comment about whether the building had been sold or why the listing was removed.

During a meeting of the Historic Resources Committee on Sept. 10, members discussed concerns from the community about the sale of the building and the potential to turn it into a site memorializing the people who were bought and sold there.

The committee already has been working to recontextualize Court Square and the former slave auction site, largely through collaborating with groups of descendants of people who were enslaved in the city and Albemarle County. Committee member Jalane Schmidt is leading many of these working group meetings.

In February 2020, the slave auction marker was stolen by Richard Allan, an Albemarle resident and amateur local historian. He was charged with grand larceny and possession of burglarious tools, but pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor destruction of property in a plea agreement after helping to recover the plaque. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail, all suspended, and 25 hours of community service.

Allan said he removed the plaque and disposed of it because he felt its wording and placement, in the sidewalk, were offensive.

“I did not remove the plaque for any reason other than that I thought it was offensive to a significant section of the community, which I have been told in no uncertain terms by community leaders,” Allan said at the time.

Though it was recovered, the marker was not put back in place. An unauthorized replacement plaque was installed by someone, but the city later removed it.

Since the incident, the city has discussed both temporary and permanent replacements for the plaque, and the City Council voted to install a temporary marker shortly after the theft, but the process was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

During their discussion at the Sept. 10 meeting, members of the Historic Resources Committee brought up a proposal brought forward by Allan in October 2020 and again in February to create a Court Square Enslavement Museum.

“There is a stain on this corner caused by failure to honor the more than 20,000 enslaved workers who built Albemarle and Charlottesville in the centuries before 1865. We believe White silence equals violence,” Allan wrote in an email to the committee and the City Council.

Allan suggested he and others could partner with community groups such as the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center and the University of Virginia.

Some committee members said they would like to see more logistical details and plans from Allan before proceeding with a plan like this.

Committee member Genevieve Keller said she sees a new museum as a massive undertaking when the city and the committee already have many unfinished projects.

“I’m not opposed to people doing this, I just see it as a major undertaking as somebody who was involved for 19 years to bring Jefferson School [museum] to fruition … [which] the city has supported and hopefully will continue to support. I would have a concern that it might dilute that, which is already ongoing and has been well funded, and the initiative for the Vinegar Hill Monument,” Keller said.

“Which is not to say I don’t think something should happen here … it’s a long-term commitment. It’s not just acquiring the building and designing the exhibitions and doing the rehab … it’s something you’ve got to do every day, every year, and requires staff and volunteers.”

Committee member Rachel Lloyd said rehabilitation of the historic building for public use would be challenging and would require major long-term financial planning.

Committee member Jeff Werner said the most practical action the committee could take is to recommend the city purchase the property. However, he thinks it is unlikely such a purchase is realistic.

“I guess this committee could make a recommendation to City Council to consider [purchasing the site] … I mean, that would be the only action available really. We can say if we support this idea or not but in all honesty, I think the acquisition of property right now is not in the cards for the city,” Werner said.

Varner said the site is significant because 0 Court Square and the Albemarle County Courthouse are the only buildings directly involved in slave trade in Charlottesville and Albemarle that are still standing. The Eagle Tavern, the Swan Tavern, the Jefferson Hotel and the Central Hotel were involved in slave trade but have all been demolished.

Schmidt said that while it is just one site where the slave trade occurred downtown, it can serve as a tangible place marker for people to focus on in the historical context of what happened in the city.

“It stands for something,” she said.

In an email to the Historic Resources Committee and the City Council following the Sept. 10 meeting, Jane Smith, a member of the former Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, asked the committee to consider suggestions the Blue Ribbon Commission made in 2016 about Court Square.

“It’s clear that you are all aware of the historic significance of that space, so I hope you also recognize its potential value to our city as a component of a solemn site of remembrance. I hope you will continue to investigate possibilities for the city’s acquisition of that property, by purchase or by gift,” she said.

Smith cited the Oct. 19, 2016, meeting of the commission, where members discussed the future of the Court Square site.

“A historical marker ... can talk about the tragedy of the sale of human beings away from their loved ones, away from their community,” Blue Ribbon Commission member John Edwin Mason said during the meeting. “And we have testimony from former slaves who talked about being sold, and talked about being sold south from Virginia. We have their words. We can do a little bit of history on a historical marker. ... but the slave auction block deserves a somber, solemn memorial of some sort. I’m not an artist, I’m not an architect, I don’t know what it would look like, but it would be something of some size and something of some emotional impact.”

During the Sept. 10 Historic Resources Committee meeting, members suggested that even if the building is sold to an individual or outside group, perhaps a new owner would be willing to have a marker or other historical context installed on or within the building.

“This is a unique opportunity because it’s for sale now, and what led us down this path [of Court Square recontextualization] initially was the resistance of the owner to have signage on the building, so it does provide opportunities,” Keller said.

Lloyd suggested that a more realistic approach to preserving the building could be making recommendations to the city for best preservation practices and working with the new owner to ensure a public marker or other contextualization.

“Now that there’s more public knowledge about the location, [the new owner] might be amenable,” Schmidt said.

Keller suggested if the property was vacant for a period before the new owner moves in, the city could work with the Realtor to host historic pop-up tours of the property. She said local historic nonprofit Preservation Piedmont has a history of hosting similar tours and working with agents in between owners.

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