In Virginia’s capital city, trapped between a railroad yard and an interstate highway, a renewed landscape has unlocked the legacy of a stolen people. “I was doing research to learn more about the slave trading district down here,” said journalist Kristen Green.
That research led to one woman whose story haunted Green for nearly a decade. “I just couldn’t forget Mary Lumpkin,” she told CBS News. “Like, once I learned about her, I thought her story was so important and needed to be shared.”
On assignment in 2011 for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Green reported on the very place that enslaved woman lived, the nation’s largest African American burial ground, a final resting place for some 200,000.
It’s right next to the grounds of a jailhouse known as “The Devil’s Half Acre,” now buried under cobblestones and 15 feet of filled dirt. “They tore down the building and covered it up. Only the foundations remain,” Green said.
“And covered up the history, too,” said “CBS Saturday Morning” co-host Michelle Miller.
“Yep, they tried to erase it!”
Green’s new book is titled “The Devil’s Half Acre: The Untold Story of How One Woman Liberated the South’s Most Notorious Slave Jail.”
That slave industry earned Richmond the nickname “Wall Street of the South.” Green said, “After the transatlantic slave trade ended in 1808, a domestic slave trade that was already in place became more apparent. Jails emerged because people needed somewhere to keep these enslaved people prior to sale,” before they could be marched to the Lower South.
The Richmond slave jail was owned and operated by Robert Lumpkin, a trader, Green said, who was known for being “incredibly evil, incredibly violent. Not only did he hold enslaved people in his jail, but he also offered to punish them, essentially torture them, for a fee.”
He owned Mary, too, imprisoned her, and fathered her five children — the first she bore at the age of 13.
“There were so many interviews with enslaved people that echoed her experiences, so many enslaved women recounting being sexually abused by their owners,” said Green. “And so, I was able to use the documentation of experiences of other enslaved women to be able to weave that into what her experiences were.”
Like so many, Mary Lumpkin survived. And one year after the Civil War ended, Robert Lumpkin died, leaving everything to the woman “who resides with me.”
Green said, of Mary, “She had ensured that her kids were educated. She had ensured that they were freed, she had freed herself, and that she had later inherited this jail, this violent place, and enabled it to become one of America’s first HBCUs.”
That’s because, by 1867, she’d leased the old jail to Baptist minister Dr. Nathaniel Colver, who turned it into a religious school for newly-freed Black people. The Devil’s Half Acre then became “God’s Half Acre,” and by 1899, something more: Virginia Union University, now just a few miles down the road.
“Our founding mother, Mary Lumpkin, represents for us what it means to experience America today,” VUU president Dr. Hakim Lucas said.
Lucas recognized Lumpkin with a cornerstone, and named a street in her honor. “To allow her legacy to be known for providing a jail as a place for education and empowerment is the story that we’re constantly shaping for our students,” he said.
Over the last two decades, activists have launched the restoration efforts of a burial ground and slave trail, one that traces the forced migration into the Deep South.
Virginia State Delegate Delores McQuinn has been a steward, keeping Mary Lumpkin’s gift in perspective.
“The first elected African-American governor [Douglas Wilder] came out there,” McQuinn said. “We have mayors, we have leaders and pastors, men and women who also went to Virginia Union University, including myself.”
For Green, connecting the long-lost branches of the Lumpkin family tree was a challenge because so many had escaped racism through the generations by denying their birthright. “All I had was descendants who didn’t know anything about her and who couldn’t necessarily connect to her story because they had lived as white,” Green said.
But then, just before finishing her book, Green found Dr. Carolivia Herron, a Howard University professor, and great-great-granddaughter of Mary Lumpkin.
And while Herron takes pride in one ancestor, she arms herself against the shame she feels for the other. “I hate the fact that I’m his descendant,” she said of Robert Lumpkin. She then worked at finding an outlet for what she termed progressive anger. “I had to put the anger somewhere,” she said.
For Green, it comes down to that common humanity we all share, which (as she writes in the beginning of “Devil’s Half Acre”) she links to Mary Lumpkin: “Before she was anything else, Mary Lumpkin was someone’s daughter. Before she was the mother of a slave trader’s children and a woman seeking freedom for herself and her descendants, she was an innocent baby girl.”
For more info:
- “The Devil’s Half Acre: The Untold Story of How One Woman Liberated the South’s Most Notorious Slave Jail” by Kristen Green (Seal Press), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indiebound