Sunday, April 15, 2012

Richmond Slave Trail Walk, Part 3

In my previous posts about the 2.7 mile long Richmond Slave Trail, I've given you some general background and maps. Then I gave some more detailed descriptions and photographs. In this last post, I want to talk about one particularly important site: Lumpkin's Slave Jail. This must have been a truly awful place in it's time, and was given the nickname the "Devil's Half Acre." Owned by Robert Lumpkin, the site served as his home, a hospitality center for slave holders coming to do business with him, and as a holding pen for slaves waiting to be "sold down the river." An estimated 300,000 slaves were held here up from the 1840's until the end of the Civil War. It also served as a punishment center, and a place to "break" slaves into submission in exchange for money if their masters felt it necessary. Based on some of the descriptions I have read, you could substitute the word "torture" for "punishment." Here is one such description of the treatment of a man named Anthony Burns, who escaped slavery to Massachusetts but was returned to his master under the Fugitive Slave Act, where he was confined in Lumpkin's Jail for four months:

"There he was destined to suffer; for four months such revolting treatment that the vilest felons never undergo, and such as only vengeful slaveholders can inflict. The place of his confinement was a room only six or eight feet square, in the upper story of the jail, which was accessible only through a trapdoor. He was allowed neither bed nor air; a rude bench fashioned against the wall and a single coarse blanket were the only means of repose. After entering his cell, the handcuffs were not removed, but in addition, fetters were placed upon his feet. In this manacled condition, he was kept for the greater part of his confinement. The torture which he suffered, in consequence, was excruciating. The gripe [sic] of the irons impeded the circulation of his blood, made hot and rapid by the stifling atmosphere, and caused his feet to swell enormously. The flesh was worn away from his wrists, and when the wounds had healed, there remained broad scars as perpetual witnesses against his owner. The fetters also prevented him from removing his clothing by day or by night, and no one came to help him. The indecency resulting from such a condition is too revolting for description, or even thought. His room became more foul and noisome than the hovel of a brute; loathsome, creeping things multiplied and rioted in the filth."

I try not to judge people, but Robert Lumpkin must have been a very brutal man to have run such a place. It is hard to visualize the suffering and despair that must have occurred here. Now, traffic roars by on I-95 and Broad Street, people park their cars, and medical students rush to their classes and their rounds at the hospital. When I first moved to Richmond, this site was unknown, and I walked by it every day for months from where I parked my car in Shockoe Bottom, never having a clue that such a place had existed here. It is good that the place was discovered, and brought back into history.

Lumpkin was "married" to one of his former slaves, Mary Lumpkin. I doubt that a legal marriage to between blacks and whites could have occurred, but they had five children together. In some ways, Lumpkin must have been a real family man as well as a cruel man. He sent his mixed race daughters to finishing school in Boston, and later sent them and his wife to Pennsylvania for a time so they would not be sold as slaves to pay off some of his debts. He died shortly after the Civil War, and Mary allowed the former jail site to be used as a school for blacks. It became known as "God's Half Acre."

Here is what Lumpkin's Jail site looks like now, with several informational placards.
This photograph, from Smithsonian, shows the excavation of Lumkin's Jail site. It had been buried under a dozen feet of soil, and parking lots covered some of the historic burial grounds.In this photograph of Antebellum Richmond, looking west, I've circled in red where Lumkin's Jail Complex was. Just a short walk away from this spot is the State Capital and, now, the Virginia Civil Rights Monument. The concept of blacks having civil rights in Lumpkin's time would have been totally foreign.This placard has a drawing of part of the jail site.Someone put some flowers at this sign about the Old Negro Burial Ground, a place where deceased slaves and poor free blacks were once buried.The sign at this spot asks people to show respect for this site, part of the historic Negro Burial Ground.This historical marker tells the story of the Execution of Gabriel, who attempted to lead a rebellion in 1800. He was betrayed by two fellow slaves, captured, and hung at this spot.


  1. Thank you for your blog spot,
    Many may come by this 'trail',
    Not all may reply with a post,
    But know you have done a great thing, Detailing history's ghost!!


  2. Thank you Anonymous. It is important to remember what has happened in history, and to try not to repeat some of the awful things. But humankind seems to forget the lessons of the past far too quickly. Art