How a former enslaved woman turned ‘The Devil’s Half Acre’ into one of the nation’s oldest HBCUs in Va.

Mary Lumpkin inherited her enslaver’s jail and then leased the property to help educate newly freed African Americans after the Civil War
From a jail house to a schoolhouse and now one of the nation's oldest HBCUS.
Published: Feb. 20, 2023 at 9:13 PM EST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Mary Lumpkin, who was once enslaved and forced to bear her enslaver’s children, paved a way for generations of Black students to access education when she helped transform a notorious slave jail into a schoolhouse for emancipated African Americans.

There’s no physical evidence of what was once described as ”The Devil’s Half Acre,” a cruel, dark place of agony and despair for enslaved African American people tortured and beaten under the watchful eye of notorious slave trader Robert Lumpkin.

However, there are historical markers that meet visitors in search of Lumpkin’s story near the parking lot at Main Street Station in Shockoe Bottom.

Now buried beneath mounds of concrete, Lumpkin’s compound included his home, lodging for slave traders and the infamous Lumpkin’s Jail.

The slave jail was used as a holding place for people going to the auction blocks. It was also used as a place to punish those who tried to escape in pursuit of freedom.

Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Preservation Site
Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Preservation Site(WWBT)

Dr. Cleve Tinsley IV, who is executive director of the Center for African American History and Culture at Virginia Union University, explains some of the harrowing details of mistreatment.

“Many of those who were enslaved died of disease and mistreatment,” Dr. Tinsley said. “It was a filthy, grimy place.”

People weren’t just flogged, they were also left to rot in their own excrement.

Lumpkin and his jail took on a vast reputation for his cruelty during the mid-1800s when Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, reigned as the second largest hub for the U.S. slave trade next to New Orleans, which was the first.

Lumpkin’s Jail
Lumpkin’s Jail(Image via Virginia Union University)

But among those who survived unimaginable conditions was an enslaved woman named Mary. At 13 years old, Mr. Lumpkin, who was at least 20 years her senior, forced her to start bearing his children.

Together, they had seven, but two died at infancy, according to Lumpkin’s great-great-granddaughter Dr. Carolivia Herron, who teaches at Howard University.

While holding a framed picture of her beloved ancestor, Dr. Herron told NBC12 that her great grandfather, Richard Lumpkin, was Mary and Robert’s fourth child.

When he grew older, she said he relocated to Massachusetts and changed his name to George Washeka Lumpkins. He added an “s” to his last name and completely changed his first.

Dr. Herron said there was much shame to the name.

Dr. Carolivia Herron holds a photo of her great grandfather.
Dr. Carolivia Herron holds a photo of her great grandfather.(WWBT)

“The name Lumpkin was so evil at that time,” said Dr. Herron, moments before she rattled a bracelet that helps her tell the story of her beloved great-great-grandmother, Mary Lumpkin. “When I realized I was a descendant of this awful evil man, I realized I had to do something with my anger.”

“When I get angry, I shake it [the bracelet], and it’s almost like shaking my fist in [Robert Lumpkin’s] face,” said Dr. Herron, as she demonstrated. “I accept this marvelous woman as my ancestor, but he’s [Robert Lumpkin] my ancestor too, and every time I say it it breaks my heart that I’m kin to this man.”

Mr. Lumpkin would eventually wed Mary, leaving her his property when he died in 1866, which was one year after the American Civil War ended. Mrs. Lumpkin would soon meet abolitionist Baptist Minister Nathaniel Colver, who was in search of finding a site to start a religious school for newly freed African Americans.

When she learned of his mission, Mrs. Lumpkin leased Lumpkin’s Jail to Colver, a move that would empower generations of Black students to come.

What became “God’s Half Acre” or Richmond Theological Seminary years later, evolved into Virginia Union University (VUU). The school is one of the nation’s oldest Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

While Lumpkin provided the first building in Richmond, the school is the result of a merger between four institutions founded by the American Baptist Home Mission Society.

The four schools included: Richmond Theological Seminary, Wayland Seminary, Hartshorn Memorial College and Storer College. Hartshorn was one of the first institutions established for the education of African American women. It merged with VUU in 1932.

“We always tell the stories of our Black male heroes , but we don’t hear much about our sheroes,” said Dr. Tinsley, who said Virginia Union University would not exist without Mary Lumpkin. “She was an incredibly courageous woman.”

For generations, VUU has produced some of the nation’s most prominent trailblazers, including America’s first Black governor Doug Wilder.

The Richmond 34, a group of students who led a peaceful sit-in at a Thalhimers department store’s segregated lunch counter, is also a part of the legacy of VUU.

“Virginia Union University is the legacy of Mary Lumpkin, but it is also the legacy of every African American woman that’s alive today and has lived and struggled before for her children,” VUU President Dr. Hakim Lucas said. “Mary Lumpkin represents the highest form of the ideal of what social justice means for us in our world today.”

When asked what he thinks Mrs. Lumpkin would say if she saw what VUU has become today, Dr. Lucas said he thinks she would be proud.

“I think ultimately, if she was here and she could see with her eyes all that was done with her obedience, I think she would say ‘yes,’ maybe a tear, maybe no words at all, maybe just a gentle nod like ‘yes.‘”

“She [Mary Lumpkin] did the best she could with what she had and look at what the best turned out to be, a whole university,” said a proud Dr. Herron.

Dr. Herron, who first learned of Lumpkin’s story while overhearing a family member speak of it when she was nine years old, plans to perform historical re-enactments in hopes that more people will learn about her beloved great-great-grandmother and her connection to VUU.

“If you are serious about creating change and really impacting the lives of people of color today, there’s no better way to demonstrate that seriousness than to support , participate, or at least learn about a Historically Black College and University,” Dr. Lucas said. “They are the reasons why America is what it is today.”