What will happen to Charlottesville’s auction block site on which humans were bought and sold? That building is now for sale.
On a hot and hazy afternoon smack dab in the middle of September, Jalane Schmidt stood on a brick sidewalk in Court Square, her gaze cast downward.
“These are so fresh,” she said with delight, gesturing with open palms at more than half a dozen vases of fresh flowers placed on the sidewalk. Pink roses, red poppies and yellow daisies, their petals not yet browned in the heat, poked out from between pompom-headed green chrysanthemums and vivid periwinkle larkspur.
There was a planted pot of sunset-hued lilies, too, their heady scent mingling with the gentle fragrance from a nearby bundle of lavender tied with string.
Schmidt, director of the UVA Democracy Initiative’s Memory Project and associate professor of religious studies who serves on the Historic Resources Committee, is not sure who is responsible for the flowers, but she has noticed that they’re replaced frequently. They bring beauty to a site with an ugly history.
Number Nothing Court Square is one of a handful of known sites around Court Square where people were bought and sold during the Antebellum era, Schmidt explained. And while Number Nothing wasn’t the only site where human trafficking took place in Court Square, it is the only surviving building from that era still standing.
It is also currently for sale.
The Charlottesville City GIS system lists the current owner of the two parcels that make up 0 Court Square as “Serenity III,” with an address of 1126 Dryden Ln. That matches the address for Brownfield Realty Advisors, owned by Ed and Roberta Brownfield. Ed Brownfield is named as the agent on the real estate listing, and the listing mentions that the owner is a licensed realtor in Charlottesville.
Brownfield did not respond to multiple inquiries from Charlottesville Tomorrow regarding the sale of Number Nothing.
The Historic Resources Committee, which advises Charlottesville City Council on matters regarding historic resources in the city, also hasn’t been in contact with Brownfield. The group discussed the listing (which combines both parcels into a single sale) in its September 10 meeting. Most of the conversation centered around how the community might commemorate the space, and how to responsibly engage descendants of the people who were bought and sold at various spots in Court Square.
Members of the committee expressed hope that a new owner of 0 Court Square — which has been used for office space for years — will be open to working with the community on properly memorializing the space, something the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces task force recommended in its final report to Charlottesville City Council in December 2016.
Number Nothing, a nondescript brick building, was erected in the 1820s as a mercantile shop. By 1858, and possibly earlier, Benson & Brother Auction Rooms was in operation; they began leasing Number Nothing as early as 1864. Local newspaper ads from that era show that Benson & Brother bought and sold goods and people from Number Nothing until at least 1865, said Phil Varner, chair of the Charlottesville Historic Resources Committee, who has been compiling an index of those ads.
Benson & Brother’s prior location was also in or near Court Square, Varner added, but the current landscape of the area is so different from what it was in the 19th century, it’s hard to pinpoint where that second location may have been.
There was at one point a stone auction block on one side of the building, and its approximate site is currently marked by “Site of Slave Block” written in old-timey white faux-script, on a roughly-hewn black board attached to handicapped parking signposts.
“They sold many things, and also humans,” said Schmidt of Benson & Brother. “This is the only extant building, where we know it housed an actual slave trader/mercantile. So that’s why people have invested it with a lot of meaning. Yes, there was more than this, but this is the one that is still here” in Court Square.
The Eagle Tavern/Eagle Hotel, the Swan Tavern, and other auction sites noted in those advertisements are gone. The Albemarle County Courthouse, which is where the majority of auctions in the square took place, Varner and Schmidt say, has some structure that dates back to the early 1800s (specifically, the back part), but it’s been added on to many times since. The courthouse steps referred to in the advertisements are long gone.
No one can reach out and touch those buildings today. But anyone walking through Court Square, right now, can put their hands on the bricks of Number Nothing, bricks very likely made by enslaved people, bricks likely touched by people waiting for their turn on the auction block. Anyone can stand near that auction block marker and look out upon the very same mountains that human beings saw while other human beings exchanged their lives for money.
“We museum folks and public historians, that’s what we kind of hang our hat on when we’re doing tours,” said Schmidt. “Especially with material objects: Here is the hat that such-and-such wore into battle, and then you spin a whole narrative around it. It’s probably not the only hat he ever wore, but it helps people to envision history, and humanity, too.”
There’s something powerful about walking by a place and knowing what happened there, she said.
But the way the space looks right now, it’s hard for passersby to know exactly what happened at and around Number Nothing and throughout Court Square.
Though Albemarle County recognized Number Nothing a historic landmark in 1995, there hasn’t been much visible public acknowledgement of the site’s history. There have been a few attempts to memorialize the space and interpret the history — an auction block marker, a sign on the front of the building that reads “originally Number 0 / Mercantile Business / early 1800,” and a plaque in the ground that community member Richard Allan pried out of the ground and flung into the river in February 2020.
There was a second sign on the building at one point, said Schmidt, but she didn’t know what happened to it.
In recent years, as more community members have become aware of the building’s history, and of Court Square’s role in the sale of enslaved people (thanks, in part, to the Confederate monument walking tours Schmidt conducts with Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School for African American History), people have taken the act of commemoration upon themselves.
There are the flowers, the plants, and the piece of paper taped to the black lamppost out front that reads, in all caps, “In memory of those who were bought and sold here.” Below that, “1619,” referencing the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colony of Virginia, wheat pasted to the base of the post.
There’s the faded white lettering on the edge of the sidewalk that meets the street, reading “Human Trafficking Site,” and a weather-worn piece of paper somehow adhered to the brick sidewalk with a printed interpretation of the site’s history.
The plaque embedded in the sidewalk in front of Number Nothing read “Slave Auction Block / On this site slaves were bought and sold.” People used to edit the text to read “Human Auction Block / On this site people were bought and sold,” using either chalk or permanent marker on slivers of cardboard. The plaque hasn’t been replaced since Allan tossed it into the river, and people frequently cover the rectangular gap with a printed image of one of those edits.
When the weather inevitably washes these memorials away, someone always replaces them.
The real estate listing, much like the site itself without community action, does almost nothing to acknowledge the building’s significance.
“The best location on Court Square this historic and unique property is ideal as an office for a legal, financial, consulting or technology company; or it could be renovated and converted to a charming historic urban residence,” the listing reads. “The property has several parking spaces and looks out on to the Albemarle County Court House. This is an opportunity to purchase or lease a one of a kind historic property on Court Square.”
Varner, who said he was not speaking on behalf of the Historical Resources Committee, draws a connection between the real estate listing’s omission of Number Nothing’s history to the way Court Square as a whole has been remade into what he calls “the Disneyland version of what the 1820s looked like.”
Varner was surprised to learn that Court Square did not always look like it does now, and it only looked this way until the mid-2000s, when Charlottesville City and Albemarle County spent more than $3 million (about half of which came from a federal grant) on upgrades to the area, brick-paving the streets and sidewalks, upgrading lighting, and putting utilities underground.
He wondered out loud if the upgrades were “a tourist-oriented thing, of people who want to come to Charlottesville and want to know that the court house is Flemish bond pattern brick construction, but don’t actually want to know who made those bricks. It’s this very one-dimensional view of that whole area.”
“We seem to focus on the slave auction block because, I think, it’s easier to point at it and say, ‘that’s the evil spot, that’s where the evil happened, and everything else is absolved. That’s where the bad people were, that’s where they did bad things, but everything is okay.’ But, it’s the entire Court Square area. And then all of Albemarle County, all of the plantations, and all the subdivisions that are named after the plantations, and all the streets that are named after the people who owned the plantations. We’re immersed in it. It’s literally everywhere…and they’re all interconnected,” said Varner.
“And that is somewhat difficult to resolve,” he added, “because there’s also a desire to have a place of commemoration.”
Though the Historical Resources Committee has been part of the conversation surrounding how to best commemorate Court Square’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, the committee doesn’t have any decision-making power, Varner clarified.
The committee can, however, guide City Council and the community on what we might do, and how we could do it.
Varner said that the Historical Resources Committee isn’t trying to pick out a spot to suggest for a commemoration. What they are trying to do “is to create a frame around what should be done to commemorate human trafficking in Albemarle County by getting input from descendants.”
That is a challenge in and of itself. Some descendants of the people bought and sold in Court Square, like local activist and mental health advocate Myra Anderson, know their lineage well. Anderson can trace her heritage back to six members of the Hern family who were sold in Court Square in the final estate sale of Thomas Jefferson on January 1, 1829.
Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, placed an ad for the sale in the December 11, 1828 issue of the Richmond Enquirer. It reads: “Will be sold on the first of January, in the town of Charlottesville in front of the Eagle Hotel, thirty slaves, consisting of men, women and boys, among whom are several valuable tradesmen.”
The Eagle Hotel, or the Eagle Tavern, was located approximately where the 100 Court Square address is now.
A curator at Monticello shared the advertisement with Anderson, who shared it with Charlottesville Tomorrow.
But most descendants of the people bought and sold at Court Square don’t have that recorded connection to their ancestors, for a variety of reasons: Records are incomplete, or missing, or they’ve been destroyed, or they weren’t kept at all. Instead, many folks know they are descendants based on family and community oral histories.
For the most part, bureaucracy hasn’t accepted oral histories as legitimate proof, and that’s problematic, Varner suggested, so the HRC is researching responsible, ethical ways for the city and community to support engaging descendants.
“It’s this great horror,” what happened at Court Square and elsewhere, said Varner. “Families were moved all over the place, families were separated for financial reasons.” In the case of Anderson’s Hern ancestors, for instance, they were sold to pay off the massive debt that Jefferson did not pay off before his death. “I would like for descendants, specifically ones whose ancestors were actually sold in Court Square, to be at the front and center of any and all discussions about how to memorialize/acknowledge the slave auction block atrocities our ancestors were subjected to,” said Anderson. “It’s a difficult thing to figure out, what should we do?” said Varner. “And that can only be informed by the desires of the descendants.”
“We’re really trying to broaden it more, and actually have the city do something meaningful, because the three existing attempts to memorialize that area have been kind of pathetic,” Varner added, referring to the three plaques that have been on or around the building at various times.
There’s no urgent timeline, said Varner, because getting it right is paramount. The history is not going anywhere. “We’re attempting to do something significant, and that is…an intentionally slow process, because we don’t just want to put up another little plaque and say we’re done,” he said. “There is no solution. There is no done. This is ongoing work forever.”
Community members last year suggested to the HRC that the city should purchase the building (it was not on the market at the time) and convert it into a museum. Now that it’s on the market, that idea has come up once again, but “there are huge barriers to doing anything that significant, not least of which is the [nearly] one and a half million dollar price tag of the building, plus renovations and all that,” Varner said.
Schmidt acknowledged those barriers as well. “Of course, the city has lots of priorities and lots of needs. If there’s a group of dedicated folks who would want to get organized and try that, that’s what it would take,” she said, noting that it’s extraordinarily difficult to keep a museum open, even a big museum with a big endowment. “It’s a nice idea, but it would really take a lot of dedication, a lot of commitment, and a lot of money to do that.”
But — as evident from the community-driven acknowledgements like fresh flowers, constant replacement of temporary plaque edits and the writing on the sidewalk — some the community are already dedicated to acknowledgement and commemoration of Court Square’s history.
(Schmidt wishes that someone would take better care of the building itself. Last week, its freshly-painted window sills were covered in mounds of freshly-distributed rat turds.)
The history of Court Square’s role in slavery “should be acknowledged,” Schmidt said. “I think we’re grown up enough that we can do that. And there’s enough knowledge in the community that we could somehow cooperate in some way, with the owners, to kind of mark this space. There’s this whole reckoning, as it’s been called, that’s been going on, and we’re thinking a lot more about our history and how it impacts the present, and I think we can deal with this in a way that honors our neighbors who suffered here, and not just paper over it.”
Turning back to the fresh flowers, Schmidt said, “It seems like the community is making a statement about what it wants to have memorialized.”