Under Robert Lumpkin’s ownership from 1844 until the end of the Civil War, the jail held thousands of enslaved men and women in its dim and cramped cells, permeated by the stench of human excrement. Many were destined for the auction block; others were captured runaways. Some had been delivered there by their masters to receive more expert punishment. The names of dead prisoners appeared on Robert Lumpkin’s insurance claims, their bodies buried in unmarked graves scattered about the property.
Described by an abolitionist minister who met her as “large, fair-faced . . . nearly white,” Mary was also Robert’s slave. She was raped and impregnated by him as a child, ultimately bearing at least seven of his children, five of whom survived. She kept house and raised their offspring within the fenced brick compound that included the jail.
In 2008, as part of an effort to come to terms with its slaveholding past, Richmond excavated the site that was once home to Lumpkin’s Jail, in the part of the city known as Shockoe Bottom, where the country’s second-largest slave market once thrived just a few blocks from the current state Capitol grounds. Archaeologists unearthed the gray stone foundation of the two-and-a-half-story jail, buried beneath a parking lot and the rushing traffic of I-95, as well as pieces of household crockery and glass, toys, clay tobacco pipes and other items of that era.
While the jail site is included in the city’s Slave Trail, plans to further memorialize the property and Richmond’s prominent role in the slave trade have been delayed in part due to controversy over the proper ambitions for the project.
Whatever Richmond chooses, the truth of how and why Mary Lumpkin came to be Robert Lumpkin’s cohabitant (for want of a better term) until his death in 1866 may never fully come to light. The stories of Lumpkin and the many enslaved women like her who had long-standing intimate relationships with powerful white men and slaveholders before the Civil War were largely unrecorded and remain untold.
Were these black women merely glorified domestic slaves who lacked any agency over their own lives, forced to fulfill the whims of cruel white men? Or were they desperate people caught in an evil system who had found a way to eke out better lives for themselves and their children?
And what of the men? Why would someone like Robert Lumpkin, who never married a white woman, choose Mary as a life companion, sending their daughters off to boarding school up north and leaving her the entire jail compound in his will?
Born in 1832, Mary may have been bought by Robert or given to him as a young girl, or she may have accompanied one of his prisoners. Their relationship began in a common way for the time: He raped her. Mary gave birth to their first child at 13, at some point coming to live with him in his house by the jail, where she sometimes appeared like a kindly apparition to the prisoners who endured torture in the shadowy, barren cells.
“We know about this terrible jail, but we don’t know much about this woman,” said Kristen Green, an author and former journalist who is writing a book about Mary Lumpkin. “. . . It’s another example of white men telling the history. I think of it as an intentional erasure.”
Much more is known about Robert Lumpkin, who earned a reputation throughout the South for his business acumen in the slave trade as well as his ferocious treatment of the enslaved men and women imprisoned in the Devil’s Half Acre. Ads appeared frequently during the years leading up to the Civil War offering slaves for sale at Lumpkin’s Jail and requesting that runaways be delivered there, according to Virginia Memory, a website published by the Library of Virginia.
Slave owners also sometimes sent their human property to Lumpkin’s jail solely to be punished. Reverend A. M. Newman was among those captives, brought there by his master as a child.
“It seemed to me that my heart went right down,” Newman later said of his experience, according to an 1895 account by Charles H. Corey. Newman described being put in a “whipping room” outfitted with iron rings. “The individual would be laid down, his hands and feet stretched out and fastened in the rings, and a great big man would stand over him and flog him.”
As he was about to receive his punishment, Newman later recalled Mary Lumpkin looking at him with sadness “and it seemed to me that she was saying, ‘poor child,’ ” Newman said.
Mary also paid a visit to Anthony Burns, a runaway who became a cause celebre after his return from Boston to Virginia in 1854 under the Fugitive Slave Law sparked an abolitionist riot.
The enslaved man had been placed in a cell “only six or eight feet square, in the upper story of the jail, which was only accessible through a trap door” and overrun by vermin, Charles Stevens wrote in an 1856 biography based on Burns’ accounts. Burns “was allowed neither bed nor air,” and fed “putrid meat.”
Mary Lumpkin “manifested her compassion for Burns by giving him a testament and a hymn book,” which Burns, who was literate, could turn to for comfort, Stevens wrote.
Lumpkin’s Jail managed to thrive even during the upheaval of the Civil War, but the end of the conflict marked the demise of Robert Lumpkin’s lucrative business. He died one year later at the age of 61, the owner of a failed hotel he had fashioned from one of the old jail buildings.
By this time, Lumpkin had sent his two daughters, Martha and Annie, who reportedly could pass for white, to finishing school in Massachusetts. (It is unclear what became of his three sons.) Later, he settled the girls with their mother in Pennsylvania, perhaps to avoid their sale as slaves to pay his debts after the war.
What may have lay behind these seemingly benevolent acts? And how did Mary regard Robert?
With scant historical records on which to rely, Americans too often reach comfortable conclusions about what for many is an uncomfortable topic, said Sharony Andrews Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama. (She is unrelated to Kristen Green.)
The enslaved women are perceived either as complete victims or “super women, total agents in their own lives,” said Green, author of “Remember Me to Miss Louisa: Hidden Black‑White Intimacies in Antebellum America.” Meanwhile, “we want to make whiteness monolithic,” painting all slaveholders as simplistically evil, she said. Some imagine couples like the Lumpkins as star-crossed lovers. Instead, Green notes, while most relationships between white men and enslaved women began and ended with violence and rape, “A lot of things happened on a spectrum.”
An enslaved woman like Mary Lumpkin was probably “first and foremost looking to stay alive and to not be separated from her children,” she said. Enslaved women in interracial relationships — including Sally Hemings, the enslaved extramarital interest of Thomas Jefferson, and Julia Chinn, enslaved partner of Richard Mentor Johnson, vice president to Martin Van Buren — were “exploiting the possibilities of their desperate circumstances.”
As for love?
“What is love?” Sharony Green asked rhetorically. Mary Lumpkin, she surmised, was “probably looking for the same thing a white woman was looking for . . . security.”
For a fleeting period before her impoverishment and death in Ohio in 1905, Mary Lumpkin appears to have received a small measure of financial security as the sole heir to Robert Lumpkin’s property.
In 1867, Mary leased the haunted jail Lumpkin had bequeathed her to Nathaniel Colver, an abolitionist Baptist minister, to use as a seminary for freed slaves. The seminary later became Virginia Union University in Richmond. Eager black workers demolished the jail’s cells, removed iron bars from the windows and began outfitting classrooms to educate African Americans.
In its dedication in 1900, the historically black school described Mary Lumpkin’s final legacy: “Lumpkin’s Jail, which had been the scene of some of the most heartless and saddest incidents of slavery, now became the seat of theological instruction. The rings in the floor to which slaves had been chained gave place to school desk and bench.”
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