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Mary Lumpkin: Founder of the country’s first HBCU

If you’ve ever driven through Richmond, Virginia along I-95, you’ve no doubt noticed one of the city’s most visible landmarks: the renovated Main Street train station. What you probably didn’t notice at the end of the station’s parking lot were the remains of Lumpkin’s Jail, the South’s most notorious slave holding prison. In fact, the place once known as “The Devil’s Half Acre” had been entirely paved over in asphalt until 2005, when archeologists rediscovered this important site.

From 1844 to 1865, Lumpkin’s Jail was owned by the notoriously ruthless Robert Lumpkin,

who ran a boarding house for slave traders and a jail for thousands of slaves awaiting sale or punishment for having escaped. As was common for the time, Robert Lumpkin bought a young girl, Mary, to be his concubine. Mary was repeatedly raped, and at the age of 13, gave birth to the first of the five children she’d share with Robert. For twenty years, Mary was forced to participate in the running of the wretched jail. In an era where only 10% of the country’s slaves were literate and in a state where it was illegal to teach slaves to read or write, she managed to educate herself and her children. She also used what power she had to stealthily provide small comforts to those who suffered Robert Lumpkin’s wrath. She apparently struck a deal with Lumpkin that he could do with her what he wanted, provided her children be freed. Because Mary was fair skinned herself, her daughters could apparently pass as white. As the Civil War approached, Mary convinced Lumpkin to send their oldest two daughters to Massachusetts for schooling, thus avoiding the possibility they could be sold into slavery to pay for any war-time debts Lumpkin might incur.

When Robert Lumpkin died in 1866, a year after the war, he left his land and buildings to Mary. Mary and her children had moved to Philadelphia when the war had started to avoid being captured or sold, and she had no desire to return to a place that held such horrid memories. She leased the land to Nathaniel Clover, an abolitionist minister who was seeking a place to start a seminary for former slaves. The chains and bars were removed and cells were converted into classrooms. On a land once used for torture, free black men now gained an education at the Richmond Theological School for Freedmen. After several successful years, the school expanded and relocated to a different part of the city. It is now known as Virginia Union University and is one of the oldest Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the country.

Mary sold the property in 1873 and the structures were demolished in 1876. She used the proceeds to purchase her own home in Philadelphia and then later moved to an abolitionist community in Ohio, where she died in 1905 at the age of 73. Through her resilience, compassion, and commitment to seeing good come from so much pain, Mary Lumpkin’s role in establishing one of the first HBCUs changed the lives of the generations that followed her.

As is the case for most slaves, no known photos of Mary exist. To learn more about Mary Lumpkin, we recommend The Enslaved Woman Who Liberated a Slave Jail and Transformed It Into an HBCU and Mary Lumpkin. An in-depth book about Mary’s life can be found in The Devil’s Half Acre by Kristen Green.

*To learn more about the man identified as “Whipped Peter,” we recommend Will Smith’s recent movie “Emancipation” and the related Washington Post article discussing the true story behind the movie.

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