Mary Lumpkin: Enslaved Woman Who Freed A Notorious Salve Prison & Taught The Enslaved 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, and she herself was born an enslaved person.

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.

She herself was born enslaved, was raped by her enslaver – a notorious slave prison owner – forced to marry against her will; but despite it all, she did not sink into despair.

She managed not only to regain her own freedom, but to secure the freedom of the people that were enslaved in Lumpkin’s Jail – one of the most notorious prison slaves in the south, that was owned by her enslaver.

She also realized that setting people is not free – is not enough. Without giving formerly enslaved people the tools to success and be able to work, their independence would remain limited in practice.

That’s why she devoted her life to teaching formerly enslaved people.

Amazingly, the school she opened more than 150 years ago still operates today, and is nowadays known as the Virginia Union University (VUU)

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. Despite having light-skin, she was still enslaved.

Mary Lumpkin: Sold to Robert Lumpkin, Notorious Owner of Lumpkin’s Jail

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, Robert sent Mary and her children to the free state of Pennsylvania, to guarantee their freedom and wellbeing.

After Robert’s death in 1866, in accordance with Robert’s will, Mary inherited the jail.

This is a testament to how highly Robert thought of Mary, as leaving property to black people, especially formerly enslaved people, very rare at the time.

It was also a testament to the drastic changes that the Civil War brought to the statues of black people in the South: until 1865, black people were not entitled to own or inherit property from white people. Had Lumpkin died a couple of years earlier, legally he would not have been able to leave the jail to Mary.

Knowing the jail’s tantalizing past, Mary decided to bring light into a place with a dark history. 

Aerial view of where Lumpkin’s Jail used to be in Richmond, Virginia.

Mary Lumpkin: Turning Lumpkin’s Prison Into A School For Formerly Enslaved People

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.

Mary Lumpkin, like many other famous black women in history, stood up to fight the oppressive system she was faced with. Despite being enslaved and illiterate – she not only managed to free herself and her children, she was able to also free the enslaved people jailed at the notorious Lumpkin’s jail. Even more, she was able to provide them meaningful education, and launched a university that still operates today.

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”. 

Robert Lumpkin: Who Was The Notorious Owner of the Infamous Lumpkin’s Jail for Enslaved People?

Robert Lumpkin was a slave owner and businessman who owned Lumkin’s Jail, located in Richmond, Virginia.

He operated the jail from 1845 until his death in 1866, making it one of the most infamous prisons for enslaved people in the United States.

Lumkin’s Jail had a reputation for its brutality and inhumanity towards those held there.

Many of the people in captivity were subjected to harsh punishments without being given a fair trial.

It was said that Lumkin’s Jail had such bad conditions, even hardened criminals refused to stay there.

Despite its reputation, Lumpkin made a significant profit from Lumkin’s Jail, as it held hundreds of enslaved African Americans who he then sold to various places in the south.

He was a major player in the slave trade and profited immensely from it.

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

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