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The Devil's Half Acre
The Untold Story of How One Woman Liberated the South's Most Notorious Slave Jail
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The inspiring true story of an enslaved woman who liberated an infamous slave jail and transformed it into one of the nation’s first HBCUs
In The Devil’s Half Acre, New York Times bestselling author Kristen Green draws on years of research to tell the extraordinary and little-known story of young Mary Lumpkin, an enslaved woman who blazed a path of liberation for thousands. She was forced to have the children of a brutal slave trader and live on the premises of his slave jail, known as the “Devil’s Half Acre.” When she inherited the jail after the death of her slaveholder, she transformed it into “God’s Half Acre,” a school where Black men could fulfill their dreams. It still exists today as Virginia Union University, one of America’s first Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
A sweeping narrative of a life in the margins of the American slave trade, The Devil’s Half Acre brings Mary Lumpkin into the light. This is the story of the resilience of a woman on the path to freedom, her historic contributions, and her enduring legacy.
The city of Richmond, Virginia, 1862. (Library of Congress)
A Note from the Author
From the moment I first learned of Mary Lumpkin, I knew her story needed to be told. She had suffered unspeakable hardships as an enslaved woman, but had also accomplished incredible feats, helping to free her girls and playing a role in founding a school that improved the lives of generations of Black Americans.
But telling her story would be challenging. When I started looking in 2014 for clues about her life, I did not uncover much. Yet I was committed to finding a way to write about her. Niya Bates, who worked as a public historian at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, was reassuring. She told me that even without a paper trail, “we can still learn quite a lot of information about enslaved people.”
Bates had helped to bring into the light Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who had at least six of Jefferson’s children. “If we look harder at the evidence, we can put together a narrative of who she was as a person, as a mother, as a daughter,” she told me.
I spent years collecting tiny tidbits of information about Mary Lumpkin’s past—an entry in the US census, a listing in a city directory, a mention in a book. Over time I compiled more: her testimony in a court case, a will naming her and her children as beneficiaries, her burial record. I used genealogical research to trace her children and grandchildren, and I attempted to map her life from these scraps of knowledge.
I also spent years reading and thinking about the world that Mary Lumpkin inhabited. Eventually, I saw her on the pages I turned—in the stories of enslaved children sold away from their parents, of girls who learned to read and write, of girls who did not have enough to eat, of girls forced to have children with their enslavers. I could see her in women negotiating for freedom for their children and themselves. I envisioned her as I read about Black abolitionists, property and business owners, leaders of slave revolts. I pictured her laughing with friends, hugging her children, walking freely in a city of her choosing.
Over time Mary Lumpkin emerged from the shadows. As I wrote, I used the research I had conducted to imagine the spaces where she dwelled and fill the gaps in her story. Historians Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross suggest that such imagining is a way to “correct the erasure,” and that is what I have tried to do.
In the time I have worked to excavate her history, the American conversation about slavery has begun to change, if ever so slightly. The New York Times’s 1619 Project has worked to reframe the history of slavery, emphasizing the contributions of enslaved people in forming the new country and building on the work scholars have done for years to educate Americans. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, the Black Lives Matter movement has raised awareness of police brutality and racially motivated violence against Black Americans, revealing a past that had been rendered invisible, buried by white supremacists.
Perhaps the BLM movement also created more space for stories like Mary Lumpkin’s to be heard. Black women have long been viewed as disposable in this country even though their wombs allowed America to expand and grow. Learning about our treatment of them could enable Americans to confront the complex question of what it means to be a Black woman in America.
I hope the story I wove about Mary Lumpkin’s life inspires, opens minds, and motivates readers to work for racial justice. And I hope others will build upon what I have learned, expanding on Mary Lumpkin’s story, just as I built upon other scholars’ work.
I have taken care in how I present the history. I’ve chosen to use the term “Black” and to capitalize the word as a sign of my respect and recognition of the shared community and racial identity of Black Americans. I’ve chosen to keep “white” in lowercase because white people generally do not share a common culture or history or face discrimination because of their skin color. I also avoid capitalizing “white” because some hate groups have done so. I choose to capitalize “Indigenous” as well because I am using the term to identify people who belong to a group of political and historical communities with a shared experience.
I occasionally use the term “multiracial” to underscore, when important to the narrative, that a person is the child of a Black parent and a white parent or, in some cases, has Black and white grandparents or great-grandparents. I’ve also used the term in reference to laws that were meant to prevent the existence of mixed-race people and to control them. The multiracial people I refer to in this book—people like Mary Lumpkin and her children—are also Black, and when possible, I use that term instead.
I’ve chosen to use the term “enslaver” rather than “slave owner” or “slaveholder” in order to emphasize that white men and women made a choice to keep people enslaved and that there was a system in place to support them in doing so. I’ve chosen to use the phrase “enslaved person” rather than “slave” in order to recognize the humanity of these persons.
Some of the language I attribute to formerly enslaved people is imperfect. One of the best sources of interviews with formerly enslaved people is the Federal Writers’ Project, conducted in the 1930s. The interviewers, many of whom were white, were instructed to transcribe the oral interviews phonetically, but they did not have the training to do this. Their own stereotypes about the speech patterns of the Black men and women they were interviewing are sometimes reflected in the text. Given these limitations, I chose to paraphrase and shorten quotes from many of the interviews. Still, I wanted to use enslaved men’s and women’s voices as often as possible, and in instances where it seemed appropriate to retain the enslaved person’s words for their impact, I kept the imperfectly rendered language. I tried to do so sparingly and with care.
When writing about enslaved women who were forced to have the children of slave traders and later took their names, I also provide the names they were known by before they became mothers to their enslavers’ children.
As I weighed how to present the information I uncovered, I found there was often no perfect solution to such issues as these. I have carefully considered the options and, in consultation with other texts and my editor, made the best decision I could in this moment. There were some paths I could not pursue and some stories I could not tell, and for these limitations I apologize. If I have caused offense or gotten things wrong, I take responsibility. I have tried to do right by Mary Lumpkin.
In this photo, Black laborers take a break from construction of Virginia Union University’s new campus in 1899. The school, originally known as Richmond Theological School for Freedmen, first opened on the Lumpkin’s Jail property. (Library of Congress)
THE COBBLESTONE STREETS OF DOWNTOWN RICHMOND, VIRGINIA, gently slope to a low-lying area where a dark history is hidden.
One of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, Shockoe Bottom, is marked by throbbing nightclubs, an advertising agency, and a smattering of cafés, hotels, and restaurants. Tobacco warehouses perched on the James River are now stylish lofts, occupied by graduate students and young professionals. Interstate 95 roars over the neighborhood, and Amtrak rails run alongside the highway, picking up and dropping off passengers at the historic Main Street Station. The neighborhood retains remnants of a bygone era. Old advertisements painted on the sides of brick buildings give it a certain charm. Cluttered with parking lots and potholed streets, the neighborhood also feels abandoned and unloved, forgotten.
Tucked on the edge of Shockoe Bottom, a lush green field near a freeway ramp seems out of place in the urban landscape. It is not just a field, however, but a reclaimed African burial ground. Crossing under the freeway, a visitor finds more history, delivered up on a dull brown sign: Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Archaeological Study Site. Three historic markers outline its significance.
This trio of metal signs next to a freeway, hemmed in by parking lots, is how the story of one of the most important chapters of the domestic slave trade in America is told. This is how the life of Mary Lumpkin, an enslaved woman who survived life inside the brutal jail, is shared.
This is exactly the way to tell a story so that no one will hear it.
In the mid-1800s, when Richmond was a hub of the domestic slave trade—the second-biggest in the South, after New Orleans—Shockoe Bottom was of ominous significance. Located down a hill from St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry uttered his famous words “Give me liberty or give me death,” neighborhood businesses catered to the slave trade and to the people who relied on it. There were hotels where buyers could stay, taverns where they could have a drink and a meal, and stables where they could park their horses. Cobblers in the neighborhood fixed visiting enslavers’ shoes, and tailors made clothing for enslaved people to wear when they were put up for sale. Blacksmiths fixed horseshoes for enslavers who had traveled long distances to buy enslaved people, and there were repair shops for their wagons. The neighborhood had auction houses for selling enslaved people and gallows for executing criminals. It was also home to a collection of slave jails that housed thousands of enslaved people, among them a girl named Mary Lumpkin.
One of two million girls and women enslaved in the American South in the decades before the Civil War, Mary Lumpkin’s life was woven through with brutality and trauma, with family separation and abuse. But hers is also a story of resistance—and survival.
Described as “nearly white” and “fair faced,” she may have been the multiracial child of an enslaved woman and her enslaver, one of his relatives, or a white overseer. Sold away as a young girl, probably from one or both of her parents, Mary Lumpkin was purchased by the slave trader Robert Lumpkin, a violent white man twenty-seven years her senior. When she was about thirteen, she was forced to have his children. She lived in his slave jail, where he imprisoned thousands of enslaved people over decades in the business. Some were held there before sale, and others were held after sale. Nearly all were to be shipped away to the Lower South.
In this wretched place, Mary Lumpkin managed to educate her children and find a path to freedom. After the Civil War, she inherited the jail when Robert Lumpkin died and bequeathed the property to her. Two years later, she helped a white Baptist missionary turn the “Devil’s Half Acre”—a greatly feared place where countless enslaved people had long suffered—into “God’s Half Acre,” a school where dreams could be realized. The same grounds where enslaved people were imprisoned and beaten became the cornerstone for one of America’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU). Virginia Union University is still in existence today.
“Virginia Union… was born in the bosom of Lumpkin’s Jail,” said W. Franklyn Richardson, chairman of the university’s board and an alumnus. “The place we were sold into slavery becomes the place we are released into intellectual freedom.”
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the school, founded as Richmond Theological School for Freedmen, provided Black students with an education. For more than 150 years, it has elevated and nurtured generations of Black men and women, helping them to realize their potential. It has shaped civic, education, and business leaders and developed activists who worked to desegregate whites-only lunch counters in Richmond department stores.
It is also one of the rare historically Black colleges and universities in America that can tie its origins to a Black woman.
“For Virginia Union to have a forming story rooted in Black woman-ness… it’s a story of its own,” said Virginia Union president Hakim J. Lucas.
Yet, for many years, Mary Lumpkin was invisible, even at the school she had played a role in forming. When Lumpkin’s Jail was demolished and covered with fill dirt, her story went with it.
I first learned of Mary Lumpkin in 2011, soon after moving to Richmond. As a reporter at the local newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, I had been assigned to write about an African burial ground for free and enslaved Black people in Shockoe Bottom. A parking lot was believed to have been built over the bodies of hundreds of Black Americans buried between 1750 and 1816. Activists for years had called for the removal of a state-owned parking lot so that they could reclaim the burial ground.
Doing research for that story, I read about the nearby Lumpkin’s Jail. In 2008, a team of archaeologists had gone looking for remnants of the slave jail compound, which was demolished in 1888. Overlaying old photos and maps, archaeologist Matthew Laird pinpointed the spot where he thought Robert Lumpkin’s business had been located—now another parking lot in the shadow of Interstate 95. For eighteen weeks, his team searched for the jail’s foundation by gently scraping away layers of earth in an excavation pit. In the course of its work, the team discovered hand-painted English china, an eyeglass lens, leather and fabric, and a piece of a child’s doll. The archaeologists located the remains of a kitchen, a cobblestone courtyard, and a retaining wall that separated the upper part of the complex from the jail below. Then, during the last weeks of the dig, they uncovered the foundation of the jail down the hill eight feet from the rest of the Lumpkin compound and some fifteen feet below today’s surface level. The history had been right there all along.
Years after the dig was completed and the burial ground had been reclaimed, I found myself thinking not just about Lumpkin’s Jail and its role in American history but about the formidable woman who lived there with her enslaver, Robert Lumpkin. Mary Lumpkin had ministered to enslaved people imprisoned at the jail, and later she had made space for Black men and women to be educated. I wanted to learn more about her life and to understand why her story hadn’t been told. I knew Mary Lumpkin did not simply find freedom but seized it—for her children and herself. It seemed to me to be an essential American story of a woman who had accomplished something incredible. With my experience working as a journalist and writing about Virginia history, I felt I would be able to research and write it.
A narrative about the erasure of women—and enslaved women in particular—unfolded before me. Mary Lumpkin’s story had not been told for the same reason so many Black women’s stories have not been told in this country. White men have historically told the stories. They were the ones who were educated, who managed the businesses, and who filed the court records. As the record keepers, they determined whose stories would endure the test of time and whose would vanish. By eliminating the stories of Black women—and those of Black men and children as well—white men preserved their positions of power, ensuring that a white supremacist society would continue.
Even the most detail-oriented plantation owners omitted enslaved people’s names from plantation records or referred to them by only their first names, revealing the intentional nature of such omissions. Government records did not require full names, so when enslavers filled out shipping records for enslaved people they sent to the Lower South, they often provided only first names. The US census did not collect names of enslaved people for many years. Instead, census takers denoted them with a simple slash mark and recorded only their age and gender. This made it nearly impossible for enslaved people to find each other after separation by sale and, later, for descendants to trace their lineage. These gaps in the historical record also prevent historians and descendants from learning the details of enslaved people’s lives, including Mary Lumpkin’s.
Few enslaved people left the kinds of documents that historians use to trace and tell white people’s stories. Though Mary Lumpkin was literate, she did not leave journals or personal papers—none, anyway, that I could locate. “People who are free have the ability to give their papers to someone specific. Enslaved people didn’t have that privilege,” said Niya Bates, the former public historian at Monticello.
Even wealthy white people had trouble preserving fragile papers. Important records put in a box and buried would quickly deteriorate. Enslaved people, many of whom could not read or write, did not typically have papers. If they did, their papers rarely survived. Only precious items like hair clips could be saved, passed down from one family member to the next. Moved around frequently as they were bought and sold, enslaved people’s impermanent living conditions made it “very hard to keep track of personal belongings,” Bates said.
Most enslaved people kept everything in their minds—“the only diary in which the records of their marriages, births and deaths were registered,” wrote Henry Clay Bruce, who was born enslaved in Virginia. Oral histories were their primary means for preserving stories.
A handful of letters that Mary Lumpkin wrote to the administrators of the school now known as Virginia Union University were preserved. These letters and the court testimony she gave on behalf of a friend are the only records in her own voice. I couldn’t find any documents that show where Mary Lumpkin was born or who her parents were.
Historians have had to rely on the records created by their oppressors in order to reconstruct the lives of Black men and women. But such records were unavailable for Mary Lumpkin, as only a few pages of a ledger book from Robert Lumpkin’s renowned slave jail operation were preserved. While his will instructed that his assets be distributed to Mary Lumpkin, and then later to their children, other documents that might have revealed more about the relationship—and more about his role in the slave trade—were either lost or destroyed, perhaps intentionally.
To flesh out Mary Lumpkin’s story, I went to a Richmond courthouse, where crinkling, 150-year-old court cases were still tied in “red tape”—the ribbon that has become synonymous with government bureaucracy. I went to Ipswich, Massachusetts, a tiny seaside town, and sat in the town museum and town library, flipping through records for the school her daughters attended. Poring over old property records in a Philadelphia basement, I discovered that Mary Lumpkin had purchased a home in her own name. I visited the hillside cemetery where she was buried in New Richmond, Ohio, and learned about the abolitionist roots of the community on the banks of the Ohio River. An outline of a life began to emerge that seemed to be defined as much by the freedom that Mary Lumpkin forged in her late twenties as by her enslavement.
As I traced her movements, I discovered that in her role as the mother of Robert Lumpkin’s children she was part of a community of girls and women, hidden from view, who were chosen as sexual partners by slave traders and forced to bear their children. These women probably managed their enslaver’s household and operated some part of the business of running a slave jail. As witnesses to the slave traders’ violence and participants in the system of slavery, they were in some ways separated from other enslaved people. Yet choices were not theirs to make. They were unfree, and their lives were a paradox.
These enslaved women may have encouraged each other to seek more independence and assert themselves in the slave jails and in their relationships with the fathers of their children. Perhaps they supported each other in their quests to educate themselves and their children, and they may have bolstered each other’s attempts to move their children out of slavery. Maybe they shared not only tactics for enduring their lives of enslavement but also methods for seeking better lives.
Mary Lumpkin forged such friendships and connections, first as an enslaved woman in the Richmond slave trade district where the slave jails and slave markets were located, and then as a free person in Philadelphia, New Orleans, and, later, New Richmond. Her relationships with other enslaved women, including Lucy Ann Cheatham Hagan, Corinna Hinton Omohundro, and Ann Banks Davis, may have helped protect her in her interactions with Robert Lumpkin and must have made her daily life easier to bear.
In her relationship with Robert Lumpkin, Mary Lumpkin exercised her agency and limited authority, finding a way out of enslavement. She told him he could do with her what he wanted but required that the children be freed. She demanded that he give her money so that she could free them. She showed empathy and concern for other enslaved people who were tortured and held captive in Lumpkin’s Jail. She was highly mobile, seeking out opportunities in new places, and she would eventually make a home for herself in three American cities and a village. Not only did Mary Lumpkin ensure that her children were educated, but she helped make education available to newly free Black men in the aftermath of the Civil War and, subsequently, to generations of Black Americans.
Why, then, don’t we know her story?
While women’s stories have rarely been preserved throughout history, silence surrounds the lives of enslaved women because of what scholars call “triple constraints” or “triple invisibility.” Being Black, female, and poor, enslaved women were devalued and forgotten, in spite of evidence of their leadership, resistance, and survival of monumental hardships. The institution of slavery relied on their bodies, yet their contributions were not recognized. They were exploited in every way.
Throughout American history, Black women have been marginalized or excluded from national narratives. They are rarely given credit for their role as abolitionists. Their attempts during the suffragist movement to improve their own lives were blocked, and their contributions to the civil rights movement were overlooked. Even today, after the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Rekia Boyd, and Atatiana Jefferson at the hands of police, they are left out of the prevailing narrative about state violence against Black people.
The stories of enslaved women have traditionally been lumped together and presented as one monolithic tale, rather than as distinct stories of hardships and triumphs. But “slavery was not just one enormous act of oppression against a nameless, interchangeable mass of people,” writes the historian Annette Gordon-Reed. “It was millions of separate assassinations and attempted assassinations of individual spirits carried out over centuries.” And yet, Gordon-Reed acknowledges, “We will always know little or nothing about the vast majority of enslaved women and the scores of them who suffered rape.”
Traditionally, only the stories of the most exceptional women and their narratives of triumph have broken through. The only enslaved woman many Americans know about is Harriet Tubman, who not only fled her enslaver but returned to the South to help other enslaved people find freedom too. More recently, the story of Ona Judge, who fled her enslaver George Washington and was never caught, came to light. But her story is not yet widely known.
There are so many others whose stories need to be told. Female enslavement was more complex and varied than has been portrayed in the limited narratives to which Americans have been exposed. There are women like Harriet Jacobs, who hid in the attic of her grandmother’s home for nearly seven years while her children played below in order to escape the threat of sexual abuse by her enslaver. Jacobs was the first woman to author a narrative of escaping enslavement in the United States. Louisa Picquet, sold away from her mother and brother at age thirteen, was forced to have the children of her enslaver. After she was freed at his death, she raised funds to purchase her mother’s freedom. Reverend Hiram Mattison, an abolitionist pastor, helped her to tell her story in a question-and-answer format. Both books were published in 1861.
Telling only the stories of those who escaped slavery left out the stories of most enslaved women’s lives. Many felt that they could not run away because they had family obligations and children they would not leave. “Apparently many women concluded that permanent escape was impossible or undesirable,” writes the historian Stephanie M. H. Camp.
Instead, they fled temporarily when violence became too great to withstand. They fought back to avoid abuse, and they protested beatings. When they could not avoid rape, they attempted their own birth control and chewed cotton root to abort pregnancies. In despair and defiance, some took the lives of their own infants rather than see them grow up enslaved. A few killed their enslavers. Others slit their own throats, cut off their own hands, jumped from windows. They rescued other enslaved people, and they led slave revolts—stories that are only now coming to light.
They resisted in quiet ways too, using their agency to secure better jobs in enslavers’ households, to get education for their children, to provide their families with some security and extra food. Because historians for generations have limited the scope of storytelling about Black women to those who are better documented and those deemed exceptional, the lives of women like Mary Lumpkin have not been explored, resulting in their omission from the history books.
“Green's research offers readers a moving, insightful picture of the families and friendships of enslaved women, those whose stories have long been erased."
—Kristen Allen-Vogel, Shelf Awareness
- "intriguing....Green packs the narrative with vivid details about 19th century Richmond, the domestic slave trade, and the history of Black education in America. This is a valiant and thought provoking attempt to rescue a life lost to history."—Publishers Weekly
"Rescued from the horror of slavery and the neglect of history, Mary Lumpkin’s life story in The Devil’s Half Acre is one of tenacity, endurance, courage, and achievement."
—Margot Lee Shetterly, #1 New York Times–bestselling author of Hidden Figures
- “A remarkable achievement. With precision and care, Green has reconstructed Mary Lumpkin’s life—and so many others—from a historical record that has sought to erase the contributions of Black women at every turn.”—Beth Macy, New York Times–bestselling author of Dopesick
- “The Devil's Half Acre tells an essential piece of history that deserves to be read by everyone.”—Nicole Ari Parker, actor, producer, and parent
“This is the kind of reparative history we need. Truly healing work. My own Ancestors endured this terrible place that was almost forgotten. Its story must be told, and here we have a brilliant beginning.”
—Michael W. Twitty, James Beard Award–winning author of The Cooking Gene
- “Harrowing and necessary. In bringing the story of Mary Lumpkin back into the light, Green has provided a powerful service for future generations.”—Anna Malaika Tubbs, author of The Three Mothers
- “If we the people of the United States truly believe in forming a more perfect union, the unadulterated reality of systemic racism must be told. The Devil’s Half Acre is an excellent book for readers looking to understand what life was like for enslaved African Americans like Mary Lumpkin, and to understand the impact that white supremacy has had on America as a whole.”—Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, renowned educator, museum professional and diversity and inclusion consultant
- “Every Black woman must read the phenomenal book The Devil’s Half Acre. It is our story—a true story, an erased story—of sisterhood and resistance. Mary Lumpkin, who rose from slavery, rape and white supremacy-limited education to lay the foundation of one of America’s first Historically Black Colleges, should be remembered alongside Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Rosa Parks.”—Jodie Patterson, author of The Bold World and Chair of The Human Rights Campaign Foundation Board
- “Award-winning journalist Kristen Green's meticulously researched book The Devil’s Half Acre is an extraordinary and unique portrait of the institution of slavery. Focused on the hidden, compelling life of enslaved Mary Lumpkin, this is a must-read for anyone committed to understanding the still-invisible aspects of slavery. It is also a story of resistance and the enduring legacies of survivor’s contributions and even triumphs.”—Beverly Guy-Sheftall, director of the Women's Research & Resource Center at Spelman College, and co-author of Gender Talk
- On Sale
- Apr 12, 2022
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Seal Press