My Heart Went Right Down–The Devil’s Half Acre and the Richmond Slave Trade

The Library of Virginia’s current exhibit, “To Be Sold,” open through 30 May 2015, examines the slave trade in Richmond. Viewed through the lens of primary source material–broadsides, court records, city directories, business receipts, census records, artifacts, books and paintings–the exhibit provides the visitor with vital information from which the stories of Richmond’s past emerge.

Newspapers, of course, are another critical resource for historical study in this area–free, online digital resources, like Virginia Chronicle and Chronicling America, provide easy access to hundreds of thousands of newspaper issues and the history therein.

Together, the documents of the time create a more complete,  deeply layered account of those directly involved in and affected by Richmond’s slave trade:  Like Robert Lumpkin, one of the city’s most active slave dealers from the 1840s until 1865. And Anthony Burns, a slave who escaped to Boston, only to be captured and returned to Virginia under the Fugitive Slave Law.

Lumpkin's Jail

The small piece of open land in the middle of the photo, which sits between a parking lot and route 95, was the site of Lumpkin’s Jail.

The storied land that was home to Lumpkin’s Jail, aptly called the Devil’s Half Acre is, today, mostly covered by a sprawling parking lot and interstate 95. But from 1844 until the end of the Civil War, it was “a human clearinghouse and. . .purgatory for the rebellious.”[i]

In 1844 Robert Lumpkin purchased three lots on Richmond’s Wall Street, a commercial district and home to several of the city’s profitable slave auction houses. The lots, previously owned by Lewis Collier, contained a brick dwelling house, outbuildings and a jail when Lumpkin bought them. Under his ownership, the jail became known as “Lumpkin’s Jail” and established itself as Richmond’s most notorious compound for runaway slaves and slaves waiting to be sold.

In A History of the Richmond Theological Seminary, Charles H. Corey described Lumpkin’s property in detail:

It was situated in “The Bottom” between Franklin and Broad Streets, on the West side of Shockoe Creek. . .A narrow lane known as Wall Street, properly Fifteenth Street, led to it. This establishment, which has often been spoken of as the “old slave pen,” consisted of four buildings, which were of brick. One was used by the proprietor as his residence and his office. Another was used as a boarding-house for the accommodation of those who came to sell their slaves or to buy. A third served as a bar-room and kitchen. The “old jail” stood in a field a few rods from the other buildings. It was forty-one feet long and two stories in height, with a piazza to both stories on the north side of the building. Here men and women were lodged for safe-keeping, until they were disposed of at private or public auction.[ii]Newspapers offer a great deal of evidence to show how central Lumpkin’s Jail was to the local economy. There were numerous ads in local newspapers from the 1840s until the end of the Civil War advertising slaves for sale and asking that runaway slaves be delivered to Lumpkin’s Jail. His name was so well established in commerce, that merchants advertising in newspapers as far away as Columbia, South Carolina used the Lumpkin name as a reference for their reliability.

Because of the value of slaves, another lucrative business in the antebellum South was the insuring of slave property. Insurance companies offered policies which insured slave owners against the loss, injury, or death of their slaves and advertisements for such policies were ubiquitous in Richmond newspapers of the 1850s. This advertisement, for the American Life Insurance and Trust Company, provided a list of policy holders who had had “losses paid” for slave property. The first name on the list was Robert Lumpkin, who had been paid for the “loss” of four slaves. The ad did not go into detail as to whether Lumpkin’s “losses” were runaways or slaves that had died, but it’s very possible it was the latter. Many slaves died at Lumpkin’s Jail and were buried in unmarked graves in nearby land.

Lumpkin’s Jail not only held runaways and those waiting to be sold, but slaves could be sent there solely for the purpose of being punished. Reverend A. M. Newman described such an incident that happened to him as a child when his owner had given him a note to take to Lumpkin’s Jail. Upon young Newman’s arrival, Lumpkin read the note and then ordered someone to take him and “put him in.” Unbeknownst to Newman, the note apparently asked that he be punished for some infraction.

“It seemed to me that my heart when right down,” he said, “I could not understand it. . .Some brother asks what I mean by ‘putting him in.’ It was putting me in a place known as the whipping room, and on the floor of that room were 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.” Mary, a former slave who lived as Lumpkin’s wife, often showed compassion for the slaves that passed through the jail—After Newman’s punishment, he explained that Mary looked at him “and it seemed to me that she was saying ‘poor child.’”[iii]

For a man who had acquired his wealth through the buying and selling of human property, Lumpkin’s family situation was bewildering. He and Mary cohabited and raised their children together, sending two daughters to finishing school in Massachusetts. Corey described the strange predicament of Lumpkin’s family: “The father,” he wrote, “fearing that some financial contingency might arise when his own beautiful daughters, might be sold into slavery to pay his debts, kept them, after their education. . .in the free State of Pennsylvania, where they would be safe.”[iv]

In 1854, Lumpkin’s Jail received its most publicized prisoner, a man named Anthony Burns. Burns had escaped to Boston from Virginia, but after a trial, was returned to Virginia under the Fugitive Slave Law. A violent riot broke out in Boston as abolitionist demonstrators protested the decision to return Burns to Virginia. The Richmond Enquirer, not known for abolitionist sympathies, responded to the riot in its 27 May 1854 issue with a semi-hysterical article: Burns was taken to Richmond and imprisoned in Lumpkin’s jail for four months, an ordeal later described in a March 17, 1855 issue of the Anti-Slavery Bugle: “He was taken to Richmond, where he was kept in a little pen in the Traders’ Jail for four months, with irons on his wrists and ancles, so tight that they wore the flesh through the bone, and during the month of August they gave him a half-pailful of water every two days.”

Anti-Slavery Bugle (New Lisbon, Ohio), 17 March 1855In Anthony Burns: A History, written by Charles Stevens and published in 1856, Stevens wrote of the horrific experience in detail. “The place of his confinement was a room only six or eight feet square, in the upper story of the jail, which was only accessible through a trap door. He was allowed neither bed nor air,” he explained, “fetters also prevented him from removing his clothing by day or night, and no one came to help him; the indecency resulting from such a condition is too revolting for description, or even thought.”[v]

Burns endured terrible suffering while at Lumpkin’s, but Mary Lumpkin took pity on him. “After a while, he found a friend in the family of Lumpkin,” explained Stevens, “The wife of this man. . .This woman manifested her compassion for Burns by giving him a testament and a hymn book. Upon most slaves these gifts would have been thrown away; fortunately for Burns, he had learned to read, and the books proved a very treasure. ”[vi] Burns was also able to secure pen and paper and secretly sent letters to northern friends pleading for help.

Newspapers from all over the US reported on the Burns story. Richmond newspapers, like the Richmond Examiner and the Daily Dispatch, considered Burns a runaway and claimed his return to Virginia totally justified, while many northern newspapers voiced that Burns should be allowed to stay in Boston as a free man. Some newspapers didn’t agree with the decision to return Burns to Virginia, but felt the law must rule. Wherever opinion fell, the Burns affair strengthened both the northern abolitionist movement and the South’s growing hostility towards it.

Richmond newspapers fell vehemently on the side of the slave holders and the articles written about Burns hinted at the impending war. “The riot in Boston admonishes the people of the South against a too confiding trust in Northern patriotism,” the Daily Anthony Burns Death Jeffersonian Democrat (Chardon, Ohio) 17 Oct 1862Dispatch angrily exclaimed on 3 June 1854, “and instructs them in the wisdom of self-protection. . .the Enquirer means to submit patiently and uncomplainingly to the outrage—with the earnest hope that the blow will at last revive the ancient if not extinct courage of the Southern gentlemen, and impel them to some adequate measure of resistance and revenge.”

Although Burns survived Lumpkin’s Jail, the abuse he endured there injured his health permanently. Shortly after being sold to David McDaniel of North Carolina, abolitionists were finally able to purchase his freedom and Burns returned to Boston.  He later moved to Canada, but died from consumption in July 1862 at the young age of twenty-eight.

Even during the upheaval of Civil War, Lumpkin’s business thrived and newspaper advertisements show that Lumpkin was earning money in the slave trade up until the very end of the war. As the Union Army was about to enter Richmond, Lumpkin, desperate to escape but also to keep his source of wealth, tried to flee with fifty slaves, but was denied entry onto an already over-crowded train. Corey described the scene in A History of Richmond Theological Seminary: “Mr. Lumpkin, the keeper of the slave trader’s jail, made up a coffle of fifty men, women and children in his jail yard. . .and hurried them to the Danville Depot. ‘This sad and weeping fifty, in handcuffs and chains, was the last slave coffle that tread the soil of America.’ On that Sunday afternoon. . .All were hastening  to get away from the doomed city. . .But there was no room for Mr. Lumpkin and his slaves.”[vii] The end of the war marked the end of Lumpkin’s lucrative career as a dealer in human property.

After the war, Lumpkin turned one of his dwellings into a Hotel, but it was never as profitable as his former very lucrative occupation had been. He did not live long after the war–a short obituary printed in the 27 October 1866 Richmond Examiner titled “Death of an Old Citizen” described Lumpkin as “the proprietor of Lumpkin’s Hotel.” It also stated that “He was born and raised in this city, was sixty-one years of age, and was an honest man.” It was a terse and all too generous obituary for a man who had once been a major player in Richmond’s slave trade. Upon his death, all of his assets to were left to Mary.

Among the many ironies of Lumpkin’s story was what became of the Devil’s Half Acre after the war. In May 1867, Lumpkin’s Jail was leased from Mary Lumpkin to Dr. Nathaniel Colver, a professor of Theology at the Baptist Theological Union in Chicago, to serve as a seminary for freemen and what would eventually become Virginia Union University.[viii]

On 24 May 1900 a Dedication was given for Virginia Union University in which it was written: “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.”

Historic slave burial ground, just a few hundred feet north of the site of Lumpkin's Jail. The tunnel goes under Richmond's Broad Street--some of the stones used to build the tunnel were taken from the gallows that was once there.

The underpass, beneath Richmond’s Broad Street, leading to the historic slave burial ground, a few hundred feet north of where Lumpkin’s Jail originally stood. Some of the stones used to build the tunnel were taken from the gallows that was once there.

The Broad Street underpass connects the Lumpkin Jail site to this piece of land, which sits just north of Lumpkin’s. An unknown number of slaves were buried in unmarked graves here. The interstate can be seen in the background.


[i] Abigail Tucker, “Digging up the Past at a Richmond Jail,” Smithsonian Magazine (March 2009).

[ii] Charles H. Corey, A History of Richmond Theological Seminary with Reminiscences of Thirty Years’ Work Among the Colored People of the South (Richmond, Va.: William Ellis Jones, Printer, 1895), pp. 47-48.

[iii] Corey, 49-50.

[iv] Corey, 48.

[v] Charles Emery Stevens, Anthony Burns: A History (Boston, Mass.: J.P. Jewett & Co., 1856), p. 189.

[vi] Stevens, p. 192.

[vii] Corey, p. 43.

[viii] Adolph H. Grundman, “Northern Baptists and the Founding of Virginia Union University: The Perils of Paternalism,” Journal of Negro History v. 1, no. 63 (Jan. 1978): pp. 27-28.

 

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3 Responses to My Heart Went Right Down–The Devil’s Half Acre and the Richmond Slave Trade

  1. Pingback: Fit to Print visits The Devil's Half Acre and the Richmond Slave Trade - RVANews

  2. Melinda Reay says:

    Thank you so much for a detailed article! I used this for my AP class!

  3. Pingback: Part III: The DNA Trail from Madagascar to Virginia | Radiant Roots, Boricua Branches

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