Mary Lumpkin: Enslaved Women That Freed A Prison Jail & Taught Them To Read

Richmond in 1865. Lumpkin's Jail is in the lower right.

Mary Lumpkin: What Is She Known For?

Mary Lumpkin was born in the peak of slavery in the United States. Slaves were considered mere property, and were sold for the owners’ benefit, regardless of their families, children, and desires. Slave owners often maintained order at the plantation with brute force, and deliberately kept enslaved people illiterate.

Lumpkin herself was born into slavery.

During her extraordinary life she would not only gain her freedom, but she was able to free a notorious prison slave and start a school devoted to educate enslaved people.

Mary Lumpkin: Her Early Life

Lumpkin was born in 1832.

She was known as “fair-faced” and “nearly white,” indicating that she herself might have been the daughter of a woman in slavery and a slave-owner or had a white family member.

At a young age, Mary was separated from her family and sold to Robert Lumpkin. 

Robert Lumpkin was 27 years her senior, and was considered a “cruel man” by many.

He also owned a slave jail, known as “Lumpkin’s Jail”.

From 1844-1866, Lumpkin imprisoned there thousands of enslaved people.

At that time in history, a slave jail was often used to imprison enslaved people until they were sold.

Sort of like an ”inventory storehouse” in today’s economy.

After being sold to Robert Lumpkin, Mary selflessly made a deal with her slave owner.

Uncaring about herself, Mary pleaded for the freedom of her future children.

He could do what he wanted to her, she said, but in return, he would have to free the children that they had together. Robert Lumpkin agreed.

At the age of 13, Mary had her first child.

During her lifetime, she was forced to have four more children with her enslaver.

Drawing of Lumpkin’s jail

Mary and her children most likely lived in quarters within the slave jail.

This provided Robert Lumpkin with the opportunity to control the household as well as removed the option for any community interaction for Mary and her children. 

In this horrible environment, Mary found a way to educate her children and find a path to freedom.

Before the Civil War, Mary and her children were able to move to the free state of Pennsylvania with Robert’s blessing.

After Robert’s death in 1866, Mary inherited the jail when he bequeathed it to her in his will. Knowing the jail’s tantalizing past, Mary decided to bring light into a place with a dark history. 

Mary Lumpkin: Turning The Enslaved Prison Into A School

In 1868, Mary helped a white Baptist missionary from the American Baptist Home Missionary Society turn the “Devil’s half acre” into “God’s half acre.”

Instead of being a place of terror and pain, Mary opened a school to teach those that were often overlooked, previously enslaved individuals. The same grounds where people had long suffered became a place of refuge.

Now known as one of the cornerstones of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU), it still operates today as Virginia Union University (VUU).   

After the Civil War, the school, founded as the Richmond Theological School for Freedmen, provided Black students with an education. For over 150 years, the school has taught and nurtured generations of Black men and women. It has become a place of light, a place to shape men and women and bring out their greatest potential. 

Mary Lumpkin: Death & Legacy

Mary died in 1905 at the age of 78.

She left behind a legacy of perseverance during hard times and taking back places that were once drenched in darkness.

Through her unparalleled bravery and selflessness, Mary freed her children and forever changed the course of “The Devil’s half mile”. 

To Read More About Mary Lumpkin check out Kristin Green’s Book:

More Badass Women Who Fought Against Slavery

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