Lumpkin's Jail

Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike Richmond

American Civil War Museum
Written By American Civil War Museum

The mission of The American Civil War Museum is to be the preeminent center for the exploration of the American Civil War and its legacies from multiple perspectives: Union and Confederate, enslaved and free African Americans, soldiers and civilians.

In the 1840’s Robert Lumpkin, an itinerant businessman who bought and sold slaves purchased the compound that became known as Lumpkin’s Jail or the “Devil’s Half Acre.” The compound consisted of the owner’s house, a guesthouse, dining facilities and a barroom in addition to the infamous jail.

One of the most famous prisoners at Lumpkin’s was Anthony Burns. Burns was an enslaved man who seized his freedom by stowing away a Boston bound cargo ship in February 1854. However, after only enjoying his freedom for a month, Burns was arrested as a fugitive slave and returned to Richmond where he was confined here at Lumpkin’s in a small upper room measuring only six or eight feet square. He was kept in handcuffs and leg irons that caused his legs to swell and was provided with a course blanket and a bench on which to sleep. His food, which “consisted of a piece of coarse corn-bread” paired with putrid meat was served once a day. Water in a pail was replenished only once or twice a week. Burns eventually found a way to communicate with the slaves below and somehow was befriended by Mary Lumpkin, Lumpkin’s enslaved “wife.” She provided him with a Bible and a hymnal. After four months, Burn’s was sold to a slave trader in North Carolina, who eventually allowed Burn’s friends in Boston to purchase his freedom. Burns joined the abolitionist lecture circuit and sold copies of the book written about his escape and trial (rendition hearing that was held to determine whether he was a fugitive slave), but the true impact of his story is not so much in what he did once he gained his freedom but in the effect his trial had in stirring up abolitionist sentiment in the North. Burns was the first slave returned under the fugitive slave act and the last to be returned from a New England state. His trial brought the full meaning of slavery to northerners. Only a few years after this, John Brown was able to gain support for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. During the war, enslaved people continued to be bought, sold, and jailed her at Lumpkin’s. In fact, on the day of Richmond’s evacuation Robert Lumpkin made a belated attempt to take about 50 enslaved men, women, and children south by train. He failed. On the morning of April 3, upon entry of the Union troops, the doors to the slave pens were opened. Tradition has it that these newly freed slaves were the first to sing, “Slavery chain done broke at last! Broke at last! Broke at last! Slavery chain done broke at last! Gonna praise God till I die.” After Robert Lumpkin died in 1867, Mary inherited his estate. She ended up renting the property to Doctor Nathan Colver, who started a school for black students—this school was the beginnings of Virginia Union University. Charles Corey who became president of what would become Virginia Union University recalled:

“The stout iron bars were still to be seen across one or more of the windows during my repeated visits to this place. In the rough floor, and about at the center of it, was the stout iron staple and whipping ring.”

Almost 110 years later, on February 22, 1960, 34 students from Virginia Union University would stage a set-in at the “whites only” lunch counter at Thalhimer’s Department Store.

From Civil War to Civil Rights

Lumpkin's Jail

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