Is there a slave auction block in Luray, Page County, Virginia -
Over the last decade there has been substantial debate over the stone that stands at Inn Lawn Park in Luray, Virginia, between the public library and the American Legion building. As to the history of the stone, ultimately we are now left with two stories coming to bear on the one object.
Back on November 19, 1998, I ran an article for my column, "Heritage & Heraldry" in the Page News & Courier. The title of this article was "Interpretation often strays from documented fact." In this article, I referenced a book, used often in many a graduate classroom in colleges and universities; Telling the Truth About History, by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob. Within one chapter titled "Truth and Objectivity," the authors make several valuable points that sift through fact and fiction in history. They wrote:
"We have redefined historical objectivity as an interactive relationship between an inquiring subject and an external object. Validation in this definition comes from persuasion more than proof, but without proof there is no historical writing of any worth."
So, when the stone is eventually interpreted in signage, how will that interpretation read? Will it be based solely on oral tradition or will there be something of substance and value, historically speaking? As the quote above states, we must take care not to create something that may actually be of "no historical writing of any worth."
But let us continue . . .
One oral tradition about the stone states that the stone is a slave auction block.
Regretfully, only two people who have stated that the block served as a slave auction block have been identified as a matter of public information.
One of the people to give the claim to the stone was Mr. Lynnwood Berry. In interviews with the late Mr. Fred L. Hinson, Jr. (though not a native of Luray or Page County, the former chairman of the Luray Slave Auction Block Project), Berry (who appears to have been born between 1889 and 1895 and resided from time of birth through 1930 in Locustdale, Madison County, Virginia) recalled that he had been told by a former slave that the stone served as a slave auction block. It will be noted that in a news release from October 20, 2003 from the Luray Slave Auction Block Project, Mr. Hinson cited that Mr. Lynnwood Berry is a native of Luray, however, apart from Madison County's census records from 1900 - 1930, nothing can be found in recent local history of Berry’s life in Luray and Page County.
Furthermore, it is also noted that Mr. Hinson may be have taken a few stories a bit too seriously without having examined the historical background to figure out if there was any truth to them or not. An example can be seen in another website about the stone, where Hinson gave an account of the house (dating to ca. 1834 and known in later years as the "Smoot Building" for the family of Luray Mayor Henry J. Smoot (1828-1900) that later lived there from ca. 1879-1900; Smoot being a son-in-law of Nicholas W. Yager) that stands on the NE corner (actually on the NW corner) of West Main and North Court Streets in Luray. Hinson states that he heard from some local elderly folks that the basement of this house served as "the main slave holding pen [that] actually had shackles embedded in the walls on up into the early 1930s." But, what does documented history say about this particular place?
The building to which Mr. Hinson referred was both the private residence and mercantile store of Nicholas Wesley Yager (1792-1869). According to the WPA Historical Inventory for Page County (information taken by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and early 40s), the "west half was built for the Yager home, with the large room on the northwest corner a store-room, in which Mr. Yager ran a mercantile business until a few years before his death in 1869. The east half was built for store-rooms and offices . . . On the north is a frame ell (?). This was added soon after the construction of the brick. The weatherboarding is wide with large bead. The foundation is on the order of an English basement. The basement was used for the servants quarters, and is an interesting feature of the home." Born in Culpeper County and reared in Madison County, Yager came to Luray and worked for Mr. Thomas Blackford as a bookeeper; Blackford owned and operated the Isabella Furnace. Following the cessation of operations there, Yager purchased the furnace in 1841. Yager was indeed one of the slave-owners in Page County, owning eight slaves in 1840, fourteen slaves in 1850 and eight slaves in 1860; but there is nothing to substantiate the claim that the story that Hinson perpetuates about Mr. Yager's house. In fact, the story that Mr. Hinson received from locals years ago, may have actually started in rumors about the old Sudie Jobe home at 310 West Main Street, on the north side of the street, between Court and Lee Streets. This house served as Luray's first jail and, according to WPA records, at one time had large iron hooks that were fastened in the wall in which prisoners were fastened.
However, as to the other person who has been identified as stating that the stone served as a slave auction block, we have Mrs. Rita True Rothgeb White. Interviewed (ca. 2001) by historian John L. Heatwole, Mrs. White – wife of Dr. Matthew James Walter White, Jr., was a descendant of Page County natives who can be traced to the 1700s in Page County. Born in 1901 (though she mentions in one of her own books, Papa's Diary (1961) that she was born in 1902), Mrs. White was the daughter of George W. Rothgeb (1859-1954) and Mary Susan Strickler (1863-1937). George Rothgeb, along with his parents, resided in District #3, Massanutten (where, in 1860, one in every eleven families owned a slave). Later, after marriage, George and his family resided in a house in Leaksville (where, in 1860, one in every nine families owned a slave). By 1908, the Rothgeb family moved to Luray when George began working as a mail carrier. By the 1920s the family was living on North Court Street. George was the son of Solomon David Rothgeb (1832-1916) – Solomon having been a joiner/carpenter/millwright. Mrs. White recalled in Papa's Diary that Solomon also served in Co. K, 10th Virginia Infantry and, in fact, according to military records, he was present at the surrender at Appomattox C.H., though it cannot be clearly established as to exactly when Solomon enlisted. In all likelihood, during most of the war, he served as a millwright, until called into service in the latter part – perhaps as late as the fall of 1864.
On her mother's side, Mrs. White's grandfather was Martin Van Buren Strickler (1838-1925); a farmer and Confederate veteran, having served as a captain in Co. B, 33rd Virginia Infantry. Martin Strickler was also well-known before the Civil War as a school teacher, having been educated himself at home and in neighborhood schools, and for a while in Jedediah Hotchkiss’ famous academy in Augusta County. Strickler was also known for his large and successful mercantile store in Leaksville. After having been dropped from the rolls of the 33rd Virginia Infantry in the late spring of 1862 (he was sick often), he returned to Leaksville and, in October 1864, was among those to evacuate, along with his livestock, from Page County at the coming of the Federal troops – during the period known as the “Burning.”
Interestingly, after a quick review of Page County slaveholders, none of Mrs. White's ancestors appear to have owned any slaves in 1840, 1850 and 1860 (according to slave schedules for Page County).
In addition to these two oral accounts, some people attribute additional proof that the stone served as a slave auction block to former Luray Mayor Henry Bernard Dyche. However, only once was he ever cited as having said something about the block, and in that particular circumstance, it was only mentioned in the caption of a photo in 1961 in the Page News & Courier (sometimes referred after this point as PN&C;), when the stone was being prepared to be moved to the Inn Lawn Park.
Harry Bernard Dyche was born in Luray in 1892, the son of Charles Bernard Dyche and Frances Virginia Griffith. Charles B. Dyche was actually a native of Morgan County, West Virginia. However, Frances V. Griffith was a native of Page County and a descendant of the families of Griffith, Viands, Sours, Prince (not Printz) and Finks - from 1840 - 1860, none of these families owned slaves. After a review of the maternal ancestors of H.B. Dyche, it is found that John William Griffith may have served in Co. K, 97th Virginia Militia, and perhaps, Co. F of the 43rd Bttn. Va. Cavalry (Mosby's Rangers). Though John William Griffith and his family eventually moved to Luray (sometime after 1870), the majority of information about the family shows that they resided in Valleysburg, where, in 1860, the least slaves in the entire county could be found (1 in 23 families in Valleysburg, Dist. #2 owned a slave and, in Valleysburg, Dist. #3, 0 out of 29 families owned a slave) next to Waverlie (where only 1 out of 48 families that lived there owned a slave).
On the other side of the history of the stone, there is an opposing oral tradition which states that the stone was not a slave auction block but was used as a step-down stone. To many residents in Luray, this seems to be the most prevalent thought, most having heard this claim through parents or grandparents.
One former resident, Robert Schlatzer, is a son of Ann Holtzman Schlatzer. In turn, Ann Holtman Schlatzer was the daughter of Charles Thomas Holtzman and Mary Alice Dovel. Charles Thomas Holtzman's grandfather, Frederick H. Holtzman, and his great-grandfather, Andrew, came to Luray from Maryland with Mr. Blackford to work at the Isabella and Elizabeth iron furnaces.
During World War II, Mr. Schlatzer lived at 127 Court Street, with his aunts Lelia Holtzman Holloway and Ruth Holtzman Vertner Deford. Benjamin Franklin Grayson was their step grandfather. He had married their grandmother, Mary Ellen Miley Holtzman, about ten years after the death of her first husband, Joseph William Holtzman, who was mortally wounded at Chancellorsville in 1863. A graduate of Luray High School (1953), Robert Schlatzer says while a resident of Luray he gained some valuable insight as to the history of the stone in the park.
Mr. Schlatzer states: “When I lived at in the old Grayson house at 127 South Court Street, there was a stepping stone in front of the house next to the street that was very similar to the stone in the Inn Lawn Park. I was told that it was used to board carriages and horses in the old days before automobiles were introduced. This stone is very similar in size and style to the stone that now rests at Inn Lawn Park. When South Court Street was widened, the stone at the house was put in the front yard. You can see that the stone had almost half of it buried in the ground when it was by the street. The way the stone in the Inn Lawn Park is presented with only a small portion in the concrete so that it looks like a high pedestal on which to display something or someone is not the way the stone was situated when it was located at the Southeast corner of Main Street and South Court Street.”
Mr. Schlatzer even pointed out something that I did not realize. There is a picture postcard of the old Hotel Laurance which shows the original stone in question when it rested near the corner of Court and Main. It can be seen on page 17 of my book, Avenue of Armies: Civil War Sites and Stories of Luray and Page County, Virginia (The Donning Company Publishers, 2002).
The most remarkable supporting evidence of the stone not being a slave auction block was recently discovered in an article written by Judge John H. Booton in December 1927. In this particular article, the "step-down stone theory" gained credibility as there appears now to be a line of provenance surrounding the stone, tracing it as having been moved from the former Isabella Furnace to Luray at the end of the Civil War. Furthermore, in his article from 1927, Judge Booton tells how Yager used the stone – mostly for the benefit of his customers. So, before, the only thing we had on hand, in written form, was from what was in the PN&C; in 1961, and of course the smattering of recent articles in the late 1990s and early 21st century – now there exists something that predates the first (previously) known article by 34 years. Judge Booton's article follows:
"There is not, and never was, a slave block in Luray. The large square stone at the corner of Main and North Court streets was brought to town from the Old Furnace after the [Civil] war. Mr. [Nicholas Wesley] Yager, who owned the Smoot Building (see the building mentioned in the first part of this article) and conducted a store in the corner room, brought this stone to town and used it for a gate post at the corner of North Court and North Alley streets. Later it was moved to its present location and served as a stile upon which customers who came on horseback could dismount. I can remember when two smaller stones stood beside it forming steps."
As a follow-up to Judge Booton's statement, the stone appears to have sat at the corner of Court and Main for approximately 70 years or more (assuming it had been moved from the corner of N. Alley and Court St. to the SW corner of Court and Main ca. 1867) until it was moved again in December 1937 (to allow for the widening of the streets. The stone was not moved to Inn Lawn Park until 1961.
Getting back to Judge Booton's account - note that Alley Street no longer has a street sign but is located just behind the Yager House/Smoot building. Alley Street runs parallel, but north of Main Street. According to the account given by Judge Booton, this was the first site of the stone, after having been moved from the former Isabella Furnace. The stone was later moved from the corner of Alley and Court to the SW corner of Court and Main, which is next to the old Hotel Lawrence and diagonally opposite of the Yager House/Smoot Building.
Considering Judge Booton's statement, and that many of the residents of Luray have been claiming for years that the stone at Inn Lawn Park served other than as a slave auction block, would it therefore be historically proper to "symbolically" lend "new" interpretation to something that already has a history? Or would it be more fitting to create a new monument honoring the history of slaves and slavery in Page County? On that note, I continue . . .
This is the first written reference yet that appears anywhere (that I have seen so far) that gives historic provenance to that particular relic in the park. It traces from whence the stone (the old Isabella-Redwell Furnace) came and when it was moved to its first location on North Court and North Alley Streets (after the Civil War) and who had it brought there.
As to the credibility of the author – Judge John Booton (1874-1960) was, as his obituary stated in 1960, “perhaps the best known person in Page County.” He was the son of Elder John K. & Emily H. Lauck Booton. In his youth, Booton was captain of the cadet corps at Luray Military Institute and then received a bachelors and masters degree from Roanoke College. He taught in the public schools of Buchanan County and then served as principal of Luray High School. He was named division superintendent of schools in Page County in 1909 and served in that capacity until 1925. He then became one of the organizers of Luray College and became its first president. He was named judge of the Page County Juvenile and Domestic Relations court in 1925. He studied law while serving as judge and passed the Virginia state bar examination in 1934. Two years prior to passing the bar, he actually became Virginia's first trial justice in 1932, and is credited with inaugurating the accounting and record systems used throughout the state in the 1950s and 1960s. He retired as trial justice in 1956. On a side-note, Judge Booton was also a prolific poet and was published – first while an undergraduate in college. Interestingly, it appears that Judge Booton (at the time superintendent of Page County schools) was present at the departure of the black soldiers from Luray and Page County when they left Luray for the First World War and even delivered a speech, right along with local black educational leader, Andrew Jackson.
Judge Booton's father - John Kaylor Booton (1823-1903) - was a former Confederate officer (captain of the Dixie Artillery in 1861), member of the State Legislature and Primitive Baptist Elder. According to the Page County slave schedules from 1840-1860, J.K. Booton did not own any slaves, but his father, Ambrose Crittendon Booton (born in Orange County in 1789 and dying in Page County of pneumonia on 29 March 1865 – his wife also died of pneumonia on 2 April 1865) did own slaves (six in 1840, eleven in 1850 and nine in 1860). One of the earliest known records of Ambrose in the Valley shows that, on January 10, 1814, he produced credentials, in Shenandoah County, “of his ordination, and of his being in regular communion with the Hawksbill Baptist Church, gave bond, took the oath of fidelity to the commonwealth, & was licensed to solemnize marriages.” Ambrose Booton was remembered by many in later years, including former slaves (according to recollections and letters from former slaves published in the PN&C; in the 1920s) who first heard him preach in the years before the Civil War. John K. Booton was to have inherited slaves from his father, but the Will was not executed until late in April 1865. J.K. Booton later followed in his father’s footsteps and was ordained as a Baptist Minister on May 4, 1870. (For more information on the Booton family going back to Culpeper County in the early 1700s, see my mini-biography on the Booton/Booten family in the columns from February 5 and 12, 2004).
Considering Ambrose’s affiliation with the institution of slavery and John K. Booton’s service as a Confederate officer and military contractor, some may think that Judge Booton and his statement a product of some personal agenda or ulterior motive. However, there are several items to counter this line of thought. It has been noted that, in his December 1927 article, Judge Booton also planned on writing a series of articles about the history of Page County and the Civil War. Apparently his work as a judge and president of Luray College compromised these plans significantly. However, there is indication in 1929 that he may have written a handful of articles, including one which gave statistical information about slaves in Page County (though the article actually names no particular author).
Indeed, the newspaper itself from the 1880s through the 1930s, as a valid resource for information pertaining to slavery, might, in some minds, fall under scrutiny considering the kinship of the editor. The editor of the Page News & Courier, from it’s consolidation in 1911 (having served as editor and publisher of the Page News since 1898) through until his death in 1934 was William Carl Lauck (1873-1934), first cousin to Judge John H. Booton (Booton’s mother was Emily H. Lauck). Lauck himself was the son of William Edwin Lauck (1832-1881) and a grandson of William Cunningham Lauck (1805-1875) who, like Rev. A.C. Booton, was also a Baptist Minister and former slaveholder (eight slaves in 1840, seven in 1850 and three in 1860).
However, after looking at every edition of the PN&C; from 1916 through the mid 1930s, I realized that there was actually no evidence of a “cover-up” whatsoever. In fact, Lauck seems to have had no problems running a number of articles about former slaves in Page County. Talk about the former slaves and where they were after all those years dotted the old editions of the PN&C.; Articles spoke of former slaves who wrote asking how the former owners were – even coming to visit their former owners. Former slave Mary Powell, for example, wrote in September 1928, having left Page County as far back as 1867 (at about the same time that former slaves and sisters Ellen Gordon and “Happy Jane” Jackson departed the county). Conversely, there were also articles about the trials and subsequent executions of a few slaves – not limited to the hanging of "Captain" and "Martin" after the murder of John Wesley Bell. Though Lauck had ample opportunity to cover-up the history of slavery in Page County, it seems he did not hesitate in actually bringing up more about it, and, because of this, the old editions of the paper are a significant resource when studying the history of slavery in Page County.
So then, while I have laid out ancestral information about some of the key persons in this debate, historically do we really have the truth yet? Could there yet be a third theory regarding this stone in Luray?
This brings me to yet another story, offered by a grandson of Mary Delia Smoot, who, in turn, was the daughter of Henry J. Smoot and Martha C. Yager Smoot – Martha being the daughter of Nicholas Wesley Yager – the same man who, according to Judge John H. Booton, moved the stone from the former Isabella Furnace to Luray – specifically the corner of North Court and North Alley Streets. Of course, later it was moved to the corner of Court and Main. But, what of this story told by Mary Delia Smoot, later the wife of Hubert Varner Hudson – well, it seems that as a child, the young Miss Smoot observed a slave auction from the upstairs window of her grandfather’s (N.W. Yager) home – known by most later on as the Smoot building. In her recollections to her grandchildren, Miss Smoot (by then, Mrs. Hudson) recalled that slave auctions were held, essentially, somewhere near where the McKim & Huffman Pharmacy now sits or, in the parking area of the same - McKim & Huffman Pharmacy is actually immediately across the street from the attic of the mercantile portion of the old Smoot Building. Of course, there is yet another complication when it comes to her story – if she was born in January 1856, would she be able to recount such events considering her age at the time and would she have recognized them for what they were. If she witnessed auctions at an age she would remember them, she probably would have seen them anywhere from 1862-1865, between the ages of six and nine.
Using a bit of historical “triangulation,” there may well be a third theory as to the nature of the stone. Remember, according to Judge Booton, the stone was moved in 1865 by Nicholas W. Yager from the old Isabella Furnace to the corner of North Court and North Alley (which runs parallel and west of Main Street) and then was later moved to the SW corner of Court and Main (on the corner of the street near the old Hotel Lawrence). Remember also that Mary Delia Smoot recalled seeing slave auction(s) take place at or near the present site of the McKim & Huffman Pharmacy (which is actually just to the east of the SE corner of Court and Main Streets). Considering all of this, even placed on the SW corner of Court and Main, the stone wasn't even at the site of the slave auctions remembered by Mary Delia Smoot but was actually several yards west of the present McKim & Huffman Pharmacy. Nevertheless, simply for having been placed near (though several yards west of the actual site) perhaps the stone gained notoriety as a "slave auction block" simply for it having been placed in proximity to the actual slave auction(s). Perhaps the story of the stone forms a new “guilt by association” or, more specifically, “guilt by proximity” in that the stone, located near the site of the auctions, began to fall under presumption that slave auctions actually took place on the stone. Remember, there is that old parlor game, used in some elementary school classrooms today, where you have a circle of children and you tell one child something (a phrase perhaps) and allow them to pass that same thing along – whispering, from one child to the next. The most common result is, that by the time the phrase is passed to the last child, the phrase has been altered considerably. Perhaps over time, the same has happened in regard to the stone which has come to rest at Inn Lawn Park.
Essentially, this debate is far from over, and, if anything, is just now starting to gain steam, historically speaking.
There is no doubt that, in Page County, there WERE SLAVES - 781 slaves in 1840; 957 slaves in 1850; and 1,850 slaves in 1860 - and SLAVE-OWNERS - 189 slave-owners in 1840 (during which time there was a total free population of 5,413, of which 216 persons were free blacks); 228 slave-owners out of 1,089 free families in 1850 (during which time there was a total free population of 6,643 of which 311 persons were free blacks); and 177 slave-owners out of 1,210 free families in 1860 (during which time there was a total free population of 7,259, of which 384 were free blacks) in Page County, Virginia from the time of its founding in 1831 through 1865. However, if one takes the time to examine the majority of those who owned slaves in the area, one might consider that many of their "high dollar" transactions - especially in regards to the purchase of slaves - probably took place in the same places where they did a large amount of business - namely Fredericksburg and Lynchburg (and other sites to include, likely, Harrisonburg and Woodstock in years before Page County was established from Shenandoah and Rockingham Counties - as those two places were county seats and were along the well-traveled Valley Turnpike). Additionally, it would seem that any slave-owner who understood the value of dollar would not have willingly sold his slaves in Luray as such a transaction would not have yielded a high return. A good example of this (though only one documented example in relation to slaves in Page County) is the story of Bethany Veney, who was actually taken to Richmond for auction. I cite the following from Aunt Betty's Story: The Narrative of Bethany Veney, A Slave Woman, Worcester, Mass, 1889. The following can be found on pages 29-30.
"We mounted the stage, and were off for Charlottesville, where we stopped over night, and took the cars next morning for Richmond."
"Arrived in Richmond, we were again shut up in jail, all around which was a very high fence, so high that no communication with the outside world was possible. I say we, for there was a young slave girl whom McCoy had taken with me to the Richmond market. The next day, as the hour for the auction drew near, Jailer O'Neile came to us, with a man, whom he told to take us along to the dressmaker and to charge her to "fix us up fine." This dressmaker was a most disagreeable woman, whose business it was to array such poor creatures as we in the gaudiest and most striking attire conceivable, that, when placed upon the auction stand, we should attract the attention of all present, if not in one way, why, in another. She put a white muslin apron on me, and a large cape, with great pink bows on each shoulder, and a similar rig also on Eliza. Thus equipped, we were led through a crowd of rude men and boys to the place of sale, which was a large open space on a prominent square, under cover."
On the other hand, there is another article, found four years after Booton’s article that shows not only that slave auctions did take place in Page County, but that this particularly large one took place in Marksville in 1856. In his regular column in the Page News & Courier titled "Home of the Birds," Jacob Richard Seekford (1857-1939) wrote perhaps the most poignant account of slavery in Page County, referencing a slave auction held, not in Luray, but in Marksville. Note that the aforementioned editor, William Carl Lauck, was still editor of the PN&C; at the time of the appearance of this particular article. So, that being said, on to what Seekford wrote:
“In 1856, when the southern slave buyers would come into this county and would buy slaves and would take them to the south in large droves of colored men and women. In 1856, just in front of the door of the house where ‘Skeet’ Good lives at Marksville, was the place where they sold slaves. Mary Williams, then the mother of two little girls belonging to Paschal Graves, was with her little baby girl put on the block and sold to a man who took them away down south, then the other little girl was sold to Daniel Koontz for $400, and Mr. Koontz gave the little girl to Mrs. John P. Foltz, who lived at Newport. Mrs. Foltz being his daughter. This little negro girl grew to womanhood and married William Winston, she is still living in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Her name was Martha. Many years ago she asked me if I could find her mother and sister. I told her that it would be impossible, then she broke down and cried. I do not know how it will be in the great beyond, but I would like to be there when Martha meets and clasps hands with her mother and sister. Those were terrible days, and I have often wondered what it might some day bring upon this country.”
Considering that there may well be a documented slave auction block in Marksville, at or near a documented site of slave auctions that took place there in 1856, would this stone not be more fitting as a monument to the history of slaves and slavery in Page County (rather than the stone at Inn Lawn Park in Luray which remains under heavy scrutiny - both sides scrutinizing the other's side of the story)? Again, something else to consider . . but I continue . . .
In addition to all of this, there have been stories told in recent years that the slaves were made to climb up on this block during the auction. Interestingly, if you have ever seen this block in person (measuring "17 by 20.5 inches in section and some 58 inches high"), one might think that standing on top of such a stone might cause one a severe degree of imbalance - something that would not be a selling point to the auctioning of a healthy slave as it would lead one to believe there might be physical infirmities associated with the person on sale on the "ol auction block." On the other hand, perhaps the ability to balance oneself on such a block might be considered a positive quality. Who knows?
Anyway, compared to the slave auction block that is in Fredericksburg, Virginia (see photo number 14 on this webpage: http://www.fredericksburgtourism.net/), the stone at Luray is smaller in size. However, when compared to the slave auction block at Green Hill Plantation, at Long Island, Campbell County, Virginia (see the eleventh and twelfth photo on this webpage: http://www.victorianvilla.com/sims-mitchell/local/pannill/habs/), one realizes that the stone at Luray is very similar to any one of the four pillars that supported a platform upon which slave auctions took place.
In yet another development with the stone in recent years, Mr. Hinson called upon a forensic investigative team from George Washington University. Mr. Hinson thinking that the stone may bear proof of the slave auctions in what he believed could be traces of blood on the stone. Again however, would a person interested in buying slaves really like to see his potential purchase bleeding on the auction block? While certainly, there are some well-documented stories of some rather demeaning practices (at slave auctions in other localities) displaying the high qualities of a slave on the block, certainly, making them bleed would not be considered a positive selling point. Led by noted historic forensic scientist and GWU professor James Starr, this team came to Luray and did the work necessary to help solve the mystery of the strange red stains on the stone at Inn Lawn Park. Starr initially warned Mr. Hinson that the results would probably come back as inconclusive, and, indeed, that was the case in the end. (Note that Professor Starr has been involved in numerous investigative studies as can be found on the Internet).
Bethany Veney's account stands in stark contrast against the speculation that surrounds the stone in Luray. Indeed, she was not placed in ragged clothing and bleeding on the block, but was put in what someone would describe as their "Sunday best."
Once again, Veney recalled:
"The next day, as the hour for the auction drew near, Jailer O'Neile came to us, with a man, whom he told to take us along to the dressmaker and to charge her to "fix us up fine." This dressmaker was a most disagreeable woman, whose business it was to array such poor creatures as we in the gaudiest and most striking attire conceivable, that, when placed upon the auction stand, we should attract the attention of all present, if not in one way, why, in another. She put a white muslin apron on me, and a large cape, with great pink bows on each shoulder, and a similar rig also on Eliza. Thus equipped, we were led through a crowd of rude men and boys to the place of sale, which was a large open space on a prominent square, under cover."
"I had been told by an old negro woman certain tricks that I could resort to, when placed upon the stand, that would be likely to hinder my sale; and when the doctor, who was employed to examine the slaves on such occasions, told me to let him see my tongue, he found it coated and feverish, and, turning from me with a shiver of disgust, said he was obliged to admit that at that moment I was in a very bilious condition. One after another of the crowd felt of my limbs, asked me all manner of questions, to which I replied in the ugliest manner I dared; and when the auctioneer raised his hammer, and cried, "How much do I hear for this woman?" the bids were so low I was ordered down from the stand, and Eliza was called up in my place. Poor thing! there were many eager bids for her; for, for such as she, the demands of slavery were insatiable."
Once again, as a bit of a disclaimer, I will reiterate that Bethany Veney's story is only one story and that one story should not be judged as being the utmost truth in regard to all of the people held in the bondages of slavery. She indeed had a very harsh master for a while, was separated from a spouse and was subject to what amounts to some very degrading practices. For more information, please see the text of her book at the following website:
Nevertheless, the value of Veney's narrative is apparent. While Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (1976) and the WPA Records Group, Virginia Writers' Project files offer sketch-like recollections of slaves in Virginia, according to Weevils' annotated bibliography of slave narratives there are only 29 published narratives that cover the subject of slavery in Virginia between 1784 and 1865. Of that number, there are only two that deal with slavery in the Shenandoah Valley – both being from former Frederick County slaves. Bethany Veney's story remains the most complete account so far. A review of the "Web" reveals that over 30 active sites offer links to one of three or four sites that offer the complete text of Bethany Veney's narrative. Additionally, a handful of university related sites hail Veney's narrative as essential reading when it comes to the history of slavery in the United States.
But again, was Bethany Veney a prime example of what slave life was like in Page County or even the Shenandoah Valley? There are several articles that have appeared over the years in the local Luray newspaper, the Page News & Courier, that help to give us another picture of what life may have been like for the slaves. Please keep in mind, while I cannot account for other areas of Virginia or the South and even the North in years prior, it is my intent to provide the most accurate story anywhere of life in Page County, Virginia - at least of what remains documented for us to ponder. Indeed there may be several common threads that give us a picture of what the same life may have been like in another county or state, but there may be some new pictures that reveal to us other stories that perhaps we all have overlooked.
But again, how is the significance of this stone at Luray in question being portrayed? Is it significant in the history of slavery or is it not? Did it really have a role in it or did it not? As we can see from all of the above, there seems to be a good bit of information about. Some claim that there is a racial factor or even an embarrassment factor considering the resistance against marking the stone as a slave auction block. But, instead, could this resistance not simply be based on historical truth?
In a prepared statement for the Slave Auction Block Event that took place in Luray in October 2003, Historian John L. Heatwole stated:
“The time of slavery in the Shenandoah Valley cannot be ignored; it is a part of our history. And along with it is the rich cultural history of the black community,” the statement continued. “I celebrate history because it is fascinating and adds to who we are as a people. I want to know as much about the traditions of all of the elements of our common community of man because to ignore them makes us weak and without foundation.”
Indeed the time of slavery cannot and should not be ignored as it is part of OUR collective history. The heritage of all those who lived in this area should be celebrated and respected. History should not be taken where one person or a group of people feel the need to suppress one heritage in order to celebrate another or worse, it should not be taken to fuel a modern agenda. History should be studied and researched and the findings consumed and enjoyed by all. This is the celebration of diversity and the advancement of our culture as a whole. History is something which we should learn from and enjoy, not something to be taken out of context with 21st century mentalities; nor taken to the point of sensationalism and exaggeration to advance a particular belief over another.
As for the stone at Inn Lawn Park - what nobody has yet to say is that none of us lived in a time where we could say positively one way or another that the stone was what one side or the other says that it is. In fact, after some research, it appears that all who have passed down these oral traditions to us, the living, even from the 1927 newspaper account, are, in fact, at least one generation removed from that time themselves. There are no first person accounts of the stone being used as a slave auction block and first-person accounts of it being used as a step-down stone or hitching post exists after the time of slavery. Therefore, what shall we take from those who have passed along these oral histories? Should we not look at them as a whole and consider the complexities of the matter? Some believe that interpretation of this stone as a slave auction block is necessary for reconciliation – a healing of wounds. If true reconciliation is the goal then why is there a necessity by one group, if they cannot find solid historical evidence, to even interpret this stone "symbolically." Would not even "symbolic" interpretation be out of line considering the stone may well have a history in its own right?
Instead, why do we not seek out true historical artifacts relating to the history of slavery and slaves in Page County and interpret them? We now have one account that states that there never was a slave auction block in Luray, while we have another that states that there were slave auctions in Marksville. Since the account of the Marksville auction seems irrefutable, and we know where the site is located in Marksville, should we not spend our time and efforts toward marking historically documented sites such as these? Is there really a need to fabricate history when, in fact, it already exists all around us?
Inevitably and sadly, there appears that only a few have the power to mark this stone as they see fit and despite the clashing of information and historical data that is readily available, they have already done that with the stone at Inn Lawn Park in Luray.
STAY TUNED - As I have time, I will post more about some of the information I have recently discovered about slavery as it existed in Page County!
Miscellaneous Stories About Slaves and Slavery in Page County, Va.
Slavery in the 'German element' may have rooted from an influential minister
In the wake of Nat Turner: Controversy over slavery in Page County
Controversial 19th Century Murder of John Wesley Bell
How the slave woman "Old Sill" ran the Charles C. Dovel family household
Clarifying a few details in the narrative of Bethany Veney
A review of the family profiles of the antebellum African-American population in Page County
Did Page County African-Americans Serve for the Confederacy?
Stories about slaves from the 1920s issues of the PN&C;
Stories about slaves from the 1930s issues of the PN&C;
Comments made by Thomas Almond Ashby on Slaves and Slavery
Books Written by Robert H. Moore, II
This page updated 1 December 2005
Robert H. Moore, II
� 2005 Robert H. Moore, II
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