To properly put Robert Lumpkin’s slave jail in perspective, there are a few other terms I’ll need to explain; breeding farms, Partus Sequitur Ventrem, coffles, Lumpkin’s Alley, the African burial ground, and slave rings. But first, give me a moment to put it all in context. When Robert Lumpkin bought the land in 1844 that would become infamous for his slave jail. It was already a holding facility for slaves. For what purpose you might ask?
Richmond was at one the second largest center in America for the sale of slaves, second only to New Orleans. To put it charitably, Virginia had a surplus of slaves due to a decline in tobacco production and the practice of slave breeding. The forced, continual mating of slaves for the purpose of bearing children that could later be sold.
Many of these children were America’s attempt at eugenics, an attempt it rarely talks about. If it comes up at all in history books, it describes laws preventing the “enfeebled” from marrying and sterilization of the poor, immoral, and disabled. They don’t mention the breeding of the biggest, strongest black “bucks” with the best breeders. Colonial Americans broke with the British tradition where children followed the father’s heritage. They instead implemented, Partus Sequitur Ventrem under which children born to slaves would be what the mother was; ensuring that children of slaves would also be slaves. Not gaining their freedom as in other forms of servitude and slavery in most parts of the world. The same law established that white men could not be found to have raped their slaves, making rape a legalized practice.
“All children borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.” -Virginia House of Burgesses
Virginia slaveowners would bring their excess slaves to the Richmond slave markets for sale to Southern plantations. At the same time, agents of the largest traders would solicit individual farms and plantations; offering to sell their slaves for them. Farmers that had failed to properly rotate their crops were experiencing low yields and the sale of their often inherited slaves was like found money. After their purchase at the slave market, they were housed in slave jails. Although Lumpkin was the largest of the jailers in Richmond, there were multiple slave jails in the same area; similar to seeing multiple bail-bondsmen in the same neighborhood, close to a nearby jail. In what was called, “Lumpkin’s Alley,” multiple slave jails were located. All just a few blocks from the present-day capitol building.
Today Richmond has multiple train lines running through it but they didn’t exist in the early days of organized slave trading. Slaves headed to Florida, or New Orleans might be sent by boat. Slaves headed West or Southwest had to walk. Some to what is now West Virginia where they could catch a boat. Others to points as far away as Georgia and Alabama. Slaves were paired together with iron rings around their necks, fastened with an iron or wooden bar, then chained to the other slaves in what was called a “coffle.” The jails would hold the slaves until there were enough to make the trip worthwhile. Coffles were herded by men on horseback with whips, guns… and dogs. After a time, railroads were built (primarily by slaves) and coffles diminished, not to to the humanity of the slaveowners but because a more productive method was found.
Back to Robert Lumpkin’s jail, and how it earned its nickname; the Devil’s Half-Acre. It wasn’t because Lumpkin was the largest slave trader in the area for over twenty years, although he was. It was because of the harsh conditions and Lumpkin’s cruelty. You may have seen images of how slaves were packed into slave ships for the Middle Passage. Lumpkin did something similar but on dry land. Slaves were packed sometimes literally atop one another in a cramped space with no toilets and almost no access to the outside. Many slaves died of sickness and starvation; others from beatings and torture. The dead were cast into mass graves and barely covered. This area was called the African burial ground and can be found today by those knowing to look. Lumpkin’s Jail reeked of dead bodies, human excrement, sweat, and smoke; its nickname, the Devil’s Half-Acre is well deserved.
Modern-day Richmond is struggling with how to commemorate its history. Corporate and government leaders are trying to preserve the past without having it sound harsh. Some of the same people are struggling with their Confederate statues. There had been some talk of “not using Lumpkin’s name and making him famous again.” No such concern exists for the Confederate Generals who still line Richmond streets. Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, and Stonewall Jackson have permanent places on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, forbidden by a new law from being removed.
Lumpkin bought a light-skinned slave girl named Mary at age twelve. She bore five children by him and at some time they married. He sent his even lighter-skinned daughters to fine schools; ensuring they got the best education available. All while he maintained a “whipping room” where slaves laid on the floor, bound at their ankles and wrists, and were beaten; sometimes until dead. I give Lumpkin no credit for his slave wife. He ran with a crew of other slavers who also married their slaves who bore them children. Before the Civil War ended, Lumpkin sent Mary and their children to Pennsylvania where they couldn’t be sold back into slavery to pay his debts. When Lumpkin died, she inherited his land which she ultimately sold to a Baptist minister, Nathaniel Colver, looking to establish an all-Black seminary. That site later became Virginia Union University.
What some would consider a good ending to the story of Lumpkin’s slave jail is that it become an obscure footnote in history. I submit the story must be told so that the mistakes of the past never be repeated. Some, in what I regard as a cruel joke, now refer to the land as God’s Half-Acre due to its new purpose. I think the original name is far more accurate and history must be told. What do you think?