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I grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, and moved back here a little over a year ago. My most recent book, Miss August, is based on my childhood here. It’s a coming of age story that deals with racism, specifically the resistance to integration that was happening back then. I had a little trouble researching the book—it seemed as if some of the schools, churches, organizations, and country clubs have tried to erase their racist history. It also seemed that certain aspects of our history are not very visible, despite efforts to correct that problem. 

Not long ago, when walking around the streets of downtown Charlottesville, past the Confederate statues that are so much in the news now, I noticed this plaque on Court Square, which is almost impossible to read. Here’s what it says: 

Number Nothing, Early Black History in Charlottesville

This building was erected as a mercantile store in the 1820s for John R. Jones and Sam Leicht Jr., but it never received a proper address. A stone block that once sat outside the building’s southwest corner was used for auctioning both goods and slaves until slavery was abolished in 1865. Prior to 1865, slaves too shopped along Court Square on Sunday mornings. Of the approximately 20,000 people living in Albemarle County in 1830, slightly more than half were black and all but 400 of those were enslaved. Most free blacks became so before 1807 when it became illegal in Virginia to emancipate slaves without moving them out of the state. Some blacks had gained their freedom by serving in Virginia’s integrated regiments during the American Revolution. Black soldiers from Albemarle County included Shadrack Battles, Sherad Goings, David Barnett, Stephen Bowles, Peter Hartless, and Johnson Smith. Battles, half black and half Native American, worked after the war as a carpenter and landscaper around Court Square. Goings’ wife, Susannah, was highly respected in the community.

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