In The Allure of the Archives (1989), a gem of a book, the French historian Arlette Farge talks about unearthing, insofar as it’s possible, a past that’s not quite past—particularly in relation to the lives of women, whose histories have often been hidden, forgotten, or written over, women spoken about but whom we seldom hear speaking. Combing through the judicial archives at the Préfecture of Paris, Farge reads the sullen or angry answers that ordinary eighteenth-century Parisian women, some of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable, give to the police who have arrested them. And she knows that to understand what they say, or don’t say, we need to care and not to care: to distance ourselves with empathy while we set aside expectations and assumptions. Deciphering what’s left in the archives, Farge writes, “entails a roaming voyage through the words of others, and a search for a language that can rescue their relevance.”
Piecing together stories about women who managed the uncertainties and privations of their situations is even more difficult when the women in question have been enslaved and thus forbidden even the basic rights that an eighteenth-century Parisian laundress enjoyed. That is Kristen Green’s task in her impassioned The Devil’s Half Acre, which she calls “the untold story of how one woman liberated the South’s most notorious slave jail.”
Green is a journalist and also the author of Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County (2015), a personal account of how that Virginia county defied Brown v. Board of Education and shut down its schools for almost five years rather than integrate them. In The Devil’s Half Acre, she recovers the life of Mary Lumpkin, an enslaved woman of mixed race born in 1832 who, likely by 1840, was held in bondage at Lumpkin’s Jail, a chamber of horrors located between Franklin and Broad Streets in Shockoe Bottom, the central slave-trading quarter in Richmond, Virginia.
Owned by Robert Lumpkin, the property consisted of four brick buildings on about a half acre of land: the Lumpkin residence, a boardinghouse for traders who’d come to town to buy and sell human beings, a building with a kitchen and tavern, and the fourth building, two stories high, which was the jail itself. Men were confined on the lower floor, women on the upper, all of them behind thick bars until they were sold at auction or purchased privately. Nearby were Lumpkin’s stables and the kennel where he kept his bloodhounds. A tall fence with iron spikes enclosed the entire area, which Blacks dubbed the Devil’s Half Acre.
Born around 1806, Robert Lumpkin was, as a young man, already purchasing enslaved men and reselling them at a profit. By 1844, he had made enough money to be able to buy the jail from the slave trader Bacon Tait. There, clients might ask Lumpkin to “see that the negroes wash & fix up as well as they can for the market.” And from the scant ledgers that remain, it’s evident that he kept meticulous records. One planter boarded at Lumpkin’s for more than a month while he bought six people. Some of the buyers preferred to conduct their transactions at the jail rather than attend auctions, out of discretion. The hypocrisies were overwhelming; the business, loathsome.
Fugitive slaves were delivered to Lumpkin’s Jail, the most famous being Anthony Burns, who long remembered the Devil’s Half Acre. Having escaped from slavery in Virginia only to be seized in Boston in 1854, outraging much of the city, Burns was shipped to Richmond and locked away for four months in a tiny cell in Lumpkin’s Jail, where, chained and manacled, he was given dry cornbread and rancid bacon to eat, a bucket of water once a week to drink, and a rude bench on which to sleep. The Reverend Armstead Mason Newman also grimly remembered Lumpkin’s Jail, where he’d been viciously whipped as a boy, his hands and feet shackled by metal rings attached to the floor.
But despite Green’s admirable sleuthing, we don’t know much about Mary Lumpkin. There are few direct sources of enslaved women speaking in their own voice until Reconstruction, when a number of depositions were taken, and even these were mostly from men. Green uncovers some of the available reminiscences: Burns remembered her as Lumpkin’s “yellow wife.” The Reverend Newman recalled her as a “splendid looking” woman who regarded him with pity when he was brought to Lumpkin’s Jail. The Reverend Nathaniel Colver, who met her after the war, described her as a “large, fair-faced freed-woman, nearly white.” And in the documents assembled by the Works Progress Administration of Virginia, there’s this wrenching recollection:
Early in the 1850s Lumpkin bought an especially fine batch of slaves. One, a young girl named Mary Jane, was so well thought of by the proprietor that he decided to keep her on. Saved from the terrors of the cotton country, the girl did all she could to show her gratefulness, even when she discovered what her chief duty was to be.
Mary bore five children while at the Devil’s Half Acre, and though Green rightly reminds us that Robert Lumpkin was an enslaver and a rapist, she also speculates that Mary and the children occupied what seems to have been a genteel Victorian household: “She and the children probably lived in the main house on the jail property,” and they “may have had the freedom to move about the grounds.” Supposing too that Lumpkin “may have set aside a space in the main house to give her and the children some privacy,” Green muses that “he may have furnished it with ornate furniture and pretty linens,” and that “he likely bought instruments and provided musical instruction, along with tutoring and French lessons.” Perhaps, she adds, he bought Mary silk stockings.
Words like “may have” and “likely” and “perhaps” and “maybe,” which appear as many as nine times in a single paragraph, seriously damage Green’s credibility, as do certain blanket generalizations. Referring to Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings and a 1995 movie, Jefferson in Paris, in which it was romanticized, Green warns us not to consider the relationship between Mary and Robert Lumpkin a love affair. “The desire to take something deeply despicable and make it palatable is an American pathology,” she continues in a sweeping broadside. “At every step, white America wants to sanitize the trauma and abuse of slavery—trauma and abuse that Mary Lumpkin surely suffered.”
Certainly, the relationship between master and slave is a particular circle of hell for the slave, even if absurdly staged as a love affair or a genteel Victorian household, with nice linens and a piano. After all, the liaison, itself compulsory, is commandeered by a despot who could sell the enslaved woman and her children at the drop of a hat. Acknowledging this, and recognizing that we don’t know much—and definitely not how Mary herself regarded this liaison—Green reports, accurately, that she learned to read and write. Where and how she learned is not known.
In 1856 Mary’s two daughters, aged about eleven and nine, were sent to the Ipswich Female Seminary in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Regrettably, this is one of the instances where Green glides from speculation into assertion: since Mary “undoubtedly worried” about her daughters as they approached puberty, Green surmises that “Robert Lumpkin may also have wanted to protect them from the fate he imposed on Mary—being sexually abused and forced to have children.” This leads her to conclude that Robert “knew that he needed to get them to safety,” reiterating that he knew that “moving his girls out of Richmond was the best way to protect them.”
There are documented cases of such hypocrisy; that this wealthy white slave trader might educate his racially mixed, enslaved family was not anomalous. As Green points out, Richmond slave traders like Bacon Tait, Silas Omohundro, and John Hagan took as their common-law wives women whom they “owned” and then educated their children or moved them north. Green might have reflected on the psychological contortions that allowed a man to buy and sell other human beings, and to beat them, while paying for his daughters’ education in the free state of Massachusetts.
Apart from the accounts of his repulsive profession and his ruthlessness, we know almost as little about Robert as we do about Mary Lumpkin. In 1857, the same year as the Supreme Court’s baleful Dred Scott decision, the Richmond court registration records list Mary Lumpkin as a “free woman of color,” according to Hannah Catherine Craddock in her fine master’s thesis on Black female landowners in Virginia.* Interestingly, that same year, with money from Robert, Mary purchased a brick house in Philadelphia under the name Mary F. Scott, which was, according to Green, “presumably either her birth surname or the name of a previous enslaver.” Her daughters went to live there, not Richmond, after they left school. And in the 1860 census, the Lumpkins were listed as white, although, as Green emphasizes, that designation was made by the census taker, not the person herself.
While in Ipswich, the Lumpkin daughters were said to pass as “white ladies,” the Reverend Charles Corey later recalled. (In the federal census of 1870, they were also designated as white.) “Perhaps they passed,” Green writes, “to receive an excellent education.” Yet to her, “the emotional costs of denying their Blackness, and sometimes their families, were high.” This is a central motif in her book. “What must it have been like to live in a neighborhood surrounded by other multiracial people?” she asks rhetorically. Hinting that the Lumpkin family may have been ashamed of their “relationships with white slave traders,” Green writes that, “perhaps feeling that they couldn’t tell anyone else about what had happened to them, they erased pieces of themselves in order to make life work in the North.” But around one another, she imagines, “they could be their true selves, confiding…and commiserating about their shared experiences.”
Whether or not this is true, the Lumpkins did live among a mixed-race population in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward. As W.E.B. Du Bois observed in The Philadelphia Negro (1899), his study of the area, the city supported a range of Black immigrants from various southern states—and from different classes. And in both Richmond and Philadelphia, the church offered camaraderie as well as educational opportunities. “Maybe the women joined Black churches,” Green comments, “which set expectations about how they should behave and provided shape to their lives as they sought to remake the image of Black men and women into one of upstanding citizens.” Drawing on Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City (2008), Green outlines the mutual aid organizations, social networks, and churches available to Mary Lumpkin that she may—or may not—have joined.
In Philadelphia, Lumpkin mysteriously listed herself as a widow in the 1861 city directory, “which may have been the story she told people,” Green suggests. Subsequently, though Green does not mention this, Robert Lumpkin reappears in the 1862 Philadelphia directory as a “gentleman.” And while he disappears in 1863, he reemerges in the 1864 and 1865 directories, euphemistically called a “merchant.” Whatever the listings, during the war years Lumpkin was obviously in Richmond, still prepared to jail runaway men and women or sell young boys for a profit. When Richmond fell to the Union Army in the spring of 1865, Lumpkin chained together about fifty men, women, and children and marched them to the railway station, hoping he’d be able to flee the city with them. But at the depot he was stopped by sentinels, who prevented them from boarding the train, which happened to be carrying Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. “Oh, what a loss was there!” a reporter sarcastically noted. “It would have been fifty thousand dollars out of somebody’s pocket in 1861.”
The slaves were taken back to Lumpkin’s Jail, and the next day Black Union soldiers flooded the city. “The doors of the slave pens were thrown open, and thousands came out shouting,” recalled the formerly enslaved Garland H. White, chaplain of the Twenty-Eighth United States Colored Infantry, which helped free them. “Slavery chain done broke at last!” they sang.
That July, having affirmed that he’d held no civil or military office in the Confederacy and estimating his real estate to be worth $20,000, Lumpkin received a pardon from President Andrew Johnson a mere three days after requesting one. Infuriated by this, Green claims that had Lincoln lived, he might not have been so generous, which is questionable, since Lumpkin had not fought for the Confederacy or overtly conspired against the Union. In fact, Green herself had noted that on Lincoln’s visit to liberated Richmond, he “wanted to rally his broken country around a promise to rebuild and a plan to reincorporate the South into the United States. He promoted inclusion and suggested not placing blame.”
According to testimony assembled by the Federal Writers’ Project, Mary and Robert Lumpkin were married after the war. That’s doubtful, even though there were other similar reports. A white minister said that after Richmond fell, Lumpkin “did the honorable thing of marrying her, and so legitimized her and her children.” But as Green points out, interracial marriages were prohibited in Virginia. Besides, in his will, Lumpkin referred to Mary not as his wife but as the woman “who resides with me.” If she was known to be his wife, as a Black woman she could be accused of fornication since, as Green notes, “marriages between white and Black people had been prohibited since 1691 by Virginia law and would not be allowed until 1967.” Or Lumpkin could have been protecting his posthumous reputation.
When he died in the fall of 1866, his obituary politely identified him as “the proprietor of Lumpkin’s Hotel.” There’s no reference to the jail. “His ownership and management of a slave jail that housed and tortured thousands of Black people were forgotten,” Green protests. “His scandalous history was wiped clean.” Not entirely. In 1888 the demolition of the infamous jail was national news, and it continued to be described as a place “more widely known through the south in slave days than any similar edifice here.”
As for Lumpkin, he left Mary his entire estate, which included the property in Shockoe Bottom, the house in Philadelphia, and a house in Alabama, as well as stock in the Richmond and Danville Railroad and in a bank he’d founded. Should Mary wed after his death, his and Mary’s children, whom he named in his will, would inherit the estate. Moreover, Lumpkin stipulated that his bequest to his two daughters “be held in trust for their separate use, so that the same shall not be liable for the contracts, debts or engagements of any husband they may then have or thereafter take.” Strangely, he seems to be saying that no other man—no husband of Mary’s or his daughters’—should deprive them of their inheritance. Here again, it would have been useful for Green to reflect on the crude racial hypocrisies embedded in white southern society and the warped thinking of those who profited from and perpetuated slavery.
In the spring of 1867, hoping to open a Bible school for the freedmen, the abolitionist Dr. Nathaniel Colver, formerly a pastor at Boston’s Tremont Temple, went to Richmond. In despair over not finding a building to house it, he described meeting a group of Black women gathered near the First African Baptist Church, whom he told of his predicament. Mary Lumpkin stepped forward and offered to lease the former jail to Colver for three years at $1,000 per year. The Reverend James H. Holmes, assistant pastor at the church, said he first introduced Colver to Lumpkin, and Colver’s descendants recalled that she leased the property “for five hundred dollars a year less than she could have rented it to others.”
Though Lumpkin could do what she wished with the real estate she now owned, what she essentially inherited were insuperable expenses: taxes, doctors’ bills, and upkeep of the buildings. By 1872 she had not paid taxes for several years, and the men to whom she owed money had placed liens on the property. No wonder, then, that she was eager to lease the jail to the (white, male) American Baptist Home Mission Society, a northern institution founded in 1832 to preach the gospel, especially to the destitute and dispossessed. And she was herself a member of the First African Baptist Church, which she again joined when she later moved to New Orleans.
Soon the jail was a school, the cells refitted as classrooms. “No longer would there go up from within those walls from brokenhearted men, torn from their families forever, an agonized wail to Heaven,” Colver reportedly exclaimed. But the record suggests that the school’s early founders, except possibly Colver, felt no real indebtedness to Lumpkin. According to court records recently discovered by the James River Institute for Archaeology, the American Baptist Home Mission Society charged the estate for converting it to a school: “taking irons out of 28 Window frames,” “putting in steps,” and “cutting out & putting in 2 Doors.”
In 1869, after the Reverend Charles Corey took over the school from Colver, Lumpkin asked for an advance on the rent. As she explained, “I have to raise $200 by next month, and if you could it will help me very much.” She no doubt hoped that the Baptists would buy her property outright when the lease expired in 1870. Certainly she needed the money. But the society didn’t renew. The number of pupils had increased, the nearby creek overflowed onto the land, and Richmond newspapers referred to the whole Shockoe Bottom neighborhood as disease-infested, crime-ridden, and “disreputable.” The society, with the assistance of the Freedmen’s Bureau, then purchased Richmond’s once-fashionable United States Hotel for $10,000. “It was a proud day when the students and teachers of Lumpkin’s Jail marched up out of that slave-pen,” exclaimed Reverend Corey. Green wryly comments that the “symbolism of a slave jail as a school had weighed on him, and on the students too.” She’s undoubtedly right.
By 1872 part of the Lumpkin property had been sold, but selling the rest, even subdivided and at public auction, proved difficult: the buildings were “neither fit for residence for white persons nor for any business purpose except possibly as the site for some manufacturing establishment.” According to Hannah Craddock, Lumpkin eventually sold the property for about half its appraised value to a hotel proprietor, Andrew Jackson Ford. When the jail was finally torn down, the school had been long gone from the premises.
Mary Lumpkin had by then returned to Philadelphia and in 1869 left for New Orleans, where she evidently lived for three years. She then headed to Ohio and the vibrant Black community in New Richmond. Green says she may have been following a Union veteran—“perhaps her one true love.” In 1892, Ford sold the rest of the old jail to the Richmond Iron Works, which covered the site with dirt to fill it out. Eventually it was paved over by the construction of the Richmond and Petersburg Turnpike, now Interstate 95.
In 2008 a team of archaeologists began to excavate the Devil’s Half Acre, and in 2014 the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared it a “site of conscience” that would recognize “this dark chapter of American history.” Indeed, Mary Lumpkin is an integral part of that chapter, and Green does not want her forgotten, even by her descendants, whom she has touchingly tracked down. Green understandably wants to help preserve this site of conscience, and each page of her story is written with a principled sense of urgency and mission.
But she at times exceeds the evidence at hand. Noting more than once that Mary Lumpkin “must have been proud that she was able to take the old slave jail and turn it into something good,” Green is certainly proud; it’s the raison d’être of her book. But it wasn’t Mary Lumpkin who liberated or transformed the jail. Black troops unlocked its doors in 1865, and the Baptists converted it into a school, which ultimately became Virginia Union University, one of America’s historically Black universities—“born in the bosom of Lumpkin’s Jail,” said W. Franklyn Richardson, the present chair of the university’s board of trustees, whom Green quotes. Unquestionably Lumpkin facilitated that conversion, and though she may very well have been proud, Green’s alleging that she “accomplished something incredible” creates a fable about someone who “exercised her agency.” Such language unfortunately shoehorns Mary Lumpkin into a neat story about an episode that may or may not have meant much to her.
“We cannot bring back to life those whom we find cast ashore,” writes Arlette Farge. But in Mary Lumpkin, who fleetingly appears and then disappears from view, we can now glimpse an intricate, jangly world in which the actual lives of enslaved women run counter to the tales we tell or to the roles assigned them, then and today: that is, a world where rifts open between what one is supposed to be and what one is, even within the pernicious institution of slavery; a world in which the lives of Blacks and whites were entangled socially, economically, physically, and psychologically through a sadistic, depraved system of exploitative labor, and in which, under the most unthinkable of circumstances, people retained their dignity.
The choices that Mary Lumpkin had to make, the mysterious drama of her internal life, the consequences of being sold, exploited, and assaulted—or of dwelling in fear—are often unimaginable and steeped in horror, courage, acumen, and anguish. Her persistence is a testament to her bravery and her humanity, and to salute it, we need not pretend that she liberated a slave jail or founded a school. What she did, whatever she did, just to survive is no small thing.