Lumpkin’s Jail: One of the Most Notorious Sites in the South

Samuel kept his eye out for the red flag, which announced that a slave auction was in progress, drawing people like flies. If he found the red flag, he might find Nancy Brown and her children. Samuel made his way down a steep embankment and hopped over a gully to reach this part of Richmond, the most squalid section of the city. He marched past several small prisons, where slaves–many of them from the countryside–were locked up, awaiting auction. Large fences blocked the view, but fences could not keep back the terrible smells, especially in this heat. Still looking for the red flag, Samuel came upon the most notorious slave-trading facility of them all in Richmond–perhaps the most notorious one in the country.

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Lumpkin’s Jail was known as the Devil’s Half Acre.

They called it “The Devil’s Half Acre.” But it also went by the name of Lumpkin’s Jail, for it was Robert Lumpkin who established the infamous slave trading post in 1840.

As I describe in The Disappearing Man, “Lumpkin’s Jail was actually a compound of several buildings. There was the Lumpkin home, as well as a guesthouse, complete with a barroom for wealthy slave traders visiting Richmond. For the most peaceful slaves awaiting auction, there were plain brick buildings; but for the troublesome slaves, there was the infamous Lumpkin Jail. This two-story, forty-one-foot-long monstrosity was what earned the place its name: ‘The Devil’s Half Acre.'”

Richmond was one of the busiest centers for slave trading in the country, second only to New Orleans. “Between 1846 and 1849 the firm of R.H. Dickinson & Brother sold about two thousand human beings per year, but the Richmond market had yet to experience its peak years,” writes Gregg D. Kimball in American City, Southern Place. “Dickinson, Hill and Company reported doing more than $2 million in sales in 1857, as market prices and demand accelerated…Prices for the most desirable male slaves found in trade circulars and reports for the Richmond markets did not top $860 before 1850; during 1860 traders and others reported prices as high as $1,650 for ‘No. 1 men.'”

Lumpkin’s Jail was located only three blocks from where the Virginia state capitol stands today. In 2008, archaeologists began digging up the slave jail, buried 14 feet down. And according to Smithsonian magazine, the slave jail was eight feet lower than the rest of Lumpkin’s complex–“the lowest of the low.”

Robert Lumpkin (the “bully trader” as he was called) had five children with a slave woman named Mary, and he eventually made her his wife. “Mary had at least some contact with the unfortunates her husband kept in chains, on one occasion smuggling a hymnal into the prison for an escaped slave named Anthony Burns,” the Smithsonian said.

Ironically, Lumpkin feared that his mixed-race daughters might someday be thrown into slavery, so he sent two daughters to finishing school in Massachusetts and then on to the free state of Pennsylvania for protection. When Lumpkin died after the Civil War, he left his property to his wife Mary; and she, in turn, leased the property to a Baptist minister who turned it into a seminary for African-American students. The seminary later became Virginia Union University, which eventually moved to a new location on Lombardy Street.

In the end, the Devil’s Half Acre became known as God’s Half Acre. So chalk up another one for God.

By Doug Peterson

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