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by BOTWC Staff
Published: 17 February 2023

There are a lot of stories of ancestors who created and fashioned new worlds out of unbearable pain and trauma. In the face of unspeakable odds, people found ways to create paths of freedom primarily through resistance, food and education. One of these ancestors was Ms. Mary Lumpkin, a formerly enslaved woman who turned a slave jail into one of the first historically Black colleges and universities. 

According to Smithsonian Magazine, Lumpkin was born in 1832, the possible biracial child of an enslaved woman and her owner. She was sold as a young girl and purchased by a slave trader named Robert Lumpkin, a man who was 27 years older than her and known for being violent. She was forced to bear his children, having the first of their 5 children when she was only 13 years old. Based on accounts from descendants, it was recorded that Mary made a bargain with her enslaver, saying that Lumpkin could do what he wanted with her as long as their children would remain free, a deal that he apparently upheld. 

Mary and her children lived with Lumpkin on the compound of his slave jail in Shockoe Bottom, a neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia where he imprisoned thousands of enslaved people between 1844 and 1866. Mary witnessed unspeakable horrors there, the place earning the nickname “Devil’s Half Acre.” While Mary had little control herself, she did her best to help the prisoners who were at the mercy of Lumpkin’s cruel behavior and torture devices. Many prisoners were sent to Lumpkin’s jail before being sold down South or held for innocuous reasons after sale. But whether the stay was long or short, one thing remained the same: they never recovered. It was a horror that had reverberating effects on Mary’s own psyche, ATI reports. 

Creating a new legacy

Still she persevered, educating herself and her children while living on the compound and eventually moving to Pennsylvania, a free state, before the Civil War. When Lumpkin passed away in 1866, he bequeathed the jail to Mary, but she wanted nothing to do with the property. Two years later, Mary partnered with a white abolitionist Baptist missionary named Nathaniel Colver who was looking for a location to establish a seminary for formerly enslaved people. Mary leased him the land and Black students soon began attending school at the new Richmond Theological School for Freedmen. 

“The old slave pen was no longer the ‘devil’s half acre’ but ‘God’s half acre,’”

declared missionary Charles Henry Corey. 

The school eventually expanded to another part of the city and Mary sold the property in 1873. The jail was eventually demolished in 1876 and Mary lived the rest of her life as a free woman, passing away in 1905 in New Richmond, Ohio. Richmond Theological School for Freedmen eventually became Virginia Union University (VUU), one of the oldest HBCUs in the nation. While the former president of the university acknowledged Mary during the school’s dedication in 1900, Mary’s story eventually got lost and for more than a century, her contributions were largely unknown. 

Today, the university has reclaimed their legacy and Mary’s story, making it a point to pay homage to the work of Ms. Mary Lumpkin. Her story has also been captured in a recently released book entitled “The Devil’s Half Acre: The Untold Story of How One Woman Liberated the South’s Most Notorious Slave Jail.”

“Virginia Union…was born in the bosom of Lumpkin’s jail. The place we were sold into slavery becomes the place we are released into intellectual freedom,” said W. Franklyn Richardson, VUU alumnus and Chairman of the Board.

“For Virginia Union to have a forming story rooted in Black womanness…it’s a story of its own,” added VUU President Hakim J. Lucas. 

We honor Mary’s work, laying the groundwork for educational freedom for generations of Black men and women. She gave nations beauty where there was once ashes, and we hope she would be proud of what her decision birthed today. Thank you Ms. Mary. Because of you, we can!

This article was orignially posted to BOTWC 

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