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The woman who turned the "Devil's Half Acre" into "God's Half Acre"

Overhead shot of Richmond
A panoramic photo of Richmond as seen from Church Hill taken by Andrew Russel in April, 1865. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Richmond author Kristen Green has just published a new book : “The Devil’s Half Acre: the untold story of how one woman liberated the South’s most notorious slave jail” in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom.

Kristen will be speaking about her new book Thursday evening at the Library of Virginia from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

VPM’s Megan Pauly spoke with Green about the story of Mary Lumpkin, an enslaved girl who at the age of 13 began birthing the children of brutal slave trader and jail owner Robert Lumpkin. Below is a condensed interview transcript of their conversation:

Pauly: You write in your book that Americans’ desire to turn relationships like this into love stories speaks to the country’s collective failure to process the trauma of slavery. What do you hope readers will take away about the true nature of their relationship?

Green: Well, in the book, I compare their relationship to that of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, who many people have romanticized. But I think if we look at the true nature of Robert Lumpkin, his work as a slave trader and as the owner of a slave jail, which held enslaved people not for crimes but either before or after they were being sold to somewhere else in Virginia or more likely to the lower South where they would go to work on cotton plantations and sugar plantations – and where he also brutally punished enslaved people on behalf of their enslavers – then we know what kind of guy he was. He was known to chain those people down and have an overseer whip them. So in that context, we know how brutal and unforgiving he was.

And Mary Lumpkin did not have the ability to consent to a relationship with him. She was a child when she was forced to have his children. So while they may have had some kind of feelings for each other…I don't think of their relationship in terms of a romantic one, but rather a transactional one. One of her descendants told me that she said to him, ‘you can do what you want with me, but these children have to be free.’ So I think of them as having struck a deal about what they would both get out of the relationship.

Pauly: What were some of the most striking details you learned about Mary Lumpkin as a person and a woman and a mother as she lived with Robert Lumpkin?

Green: One thing that drew me to her story was the fact that I knew so few stories about enslaved women. I feel like the stories that we know about enslaved women involve these really outrageous escape stories, kind of a more masculine version of escape where they're going through the woods and taking back roads…like the Harriet Tubman story, returning for her family members to also free them. But women so often couldn't do that. I mean, most women wouldn't leave their children. So I was drawn to telling a different kind of story of an enslaved woman. And I wouldn't say that Mary's story is normal by any account. But I did find all these other women who lived in Richmond’s slave trade district who were in the same situation; likely multiracial women who were chosen by the slave traders to have their children and who, like Mary, were able to educate their children, were able to move their children and themselves to freedom, and who inherited the money and the property of their enslavers. And so I think what I found most interesting was that they shared this in common and may have empowered each other.

Pauly: Mary eventually inherits the “Devil's Half Acre,” upon Robert Lumpkin’s death and you write that she rented out the jail building to a school for free Black men. Tell me about that school, and how it would later become known as “God’s Half Acre?”

Green: A white man from the North, Nathaniel Colver, was working on behalf of the American Baptist Home Mission Society to try to find a permanent location or semi-permanent location for a school for free Black men to train them as preachers. When he ran into Mary Lumpkin on the street, he had almost given up finding a place where he could host the school because white property owners in Richmond after the war didn't want their buildings to be used to teach Black men or women. She agreed to rent him the jail complex in 1867, and they signed a three-year lease for $1,000 a year. When the school moved in, they remade this property that was known as the “Devil's Half Acre” or Lumpkin’s Jail into what became known as “God's Half Acre” because it had this whole new mission. It was redeeming or attempting to redeem this terrible history that the property had previously had.

Pauly: And this school eventually became part of Virginia Union University, where Mary Lumpkin is also known as the “mother of VUU.” How is her story and legacy being honored on campus today?

Green: The school has recently reclaimed this history of her. It's a pretty unusual story for a Black woman to be involved in the founding of a historically Black college or university, and we know that Virginia Union was one of the first such schools in America. I could only find evidence of one other school where a Black woman was involved in the founding story. And I think while Mary Lumpkin’s role has long been known, it's only recently been reclaimed and is being celebrated more. A street was named in her honor in recent years, and a plaque was installed on campus honoring her mothership of this university. I think the school is thinking about what else it could do to make sure that students know her story and that alumni know her story and that that becomes a vital part of the school's history.

Pauly: And what’s the state of current efforts now to continue preserving the original site of this former slave jail in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom?

Green: Well, there was an archeological dig there in 2008. This is on the edge of 95, kind of back behind the Main Street Station, where remains of Robert Lumpkin’s jail were found. This is one of few sites in America where a building connected to the slave trade still exists in some way. This is one of the few places in America where we still have remains of a historic slave-trading site. And so once the remains were uncovered, they were covered back up to protect them. And so the idea is that site will be developed into something that would enable people to walk where Mary Lumpkin walked, walk where thousands of enslaved people walked, by creating some kind of museum and perhaps an adjacent memorial that would honor all the people that came through Richmond.

But right now, if you go to the site, it's covered in part by interstate 95. And there are just three small metal signs that denote the existence of this important place.

I think it's gonna be a long road to create a museum in Richmond, it's going to cost a lot of money. But I don't think that there's really a better use for those resources. I think Richmond could really differentiate itself. By telling this story, we could become a city that's known – instead of for its false telling of history through Confederate monuments – for being a city that's bravely telling its true history through a museum that tells exactly what happened, the exact role that we played in the domestic slave trade and in separating families.

Pauly: Thanks so much for being here and speaking with me about your new book.

Green: Thanks for having me, Megan.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.