In the decades just prior to the Civil War, Richmond served as a hub of the interstate slave trade. Slave owners or brokers transported enslaved men, women, and children to the city to sell, usually to new owners in the Deep South, where cotton production required increasing amounts of labor. Auction houses handled such sales, and for the few days to weeks that such transactions required, buyers and sellers often confined their slaves in so-called slave pens or jails. Lumpkin’s Jail was one such facility.
The large, two-and-a-half-story brick jail building was part of a larger complex located on Wall Street, later known as Lumpkin’s Alley and sometimes Birch’s Alley. The narrow lane connected Fifteenth Street to Broad Street in the city’s Shockoe Bottom district, which was bordered, roughly, by Broad Street to the north, Cary Street to the south, Fourteenth Street to the west, and Seventeenth Street to the east. The compact city lots on Wall Street backed onto flood-prone land bordering Shockoe Creek, a sluggish and polluted waterway that meandered through the Shockoe Valley to the James River. Although hardly prime real estate, this is where Richmond’s slave trade—the largest in the Upper South—was centered and therefore became the ideal location for slave jails.Robert Lumpkin was not the first to operate a facility at this site. In May–June 1830 the slave trader Bacon Tait purchased three thirty-foot-wide lots there, which contained structures worth about $400. By 1833, he had built a two-story brick house facing Wall Street valued at $1,500. On July 6 of that year he sold the three lots, which included a small jail, to Lewis A. Collier, who improved the property so that its buildings were valued at $3,000 in 1836, $5,000 in 1837, $5,720 in 1838, and $6,000 by 1840. Collier, like Lumpkin after him, catered to slave owners and traders passing through town. He built a boardinghouse, a detached kitchen, and possibly a new, larger jail, which he used to confine enslaved African Americans waiting to be sold.
Collier lost the property when he used it as collateral for a loan from the Bank of Virginia that he failed to repay. The bank seized the property and sold it to Lumpkin for $6,000 on November 27, 1844. Prior to this, Lumpkin had worked as an itinerant trader, traveling across the South buying and reselling slaves. Thirty-six years old in 1844, he settled down and established a business similar to Collier’s on the three lots. Lumpkin probably did no new building himself, and the value of the structures on his property had actually dropped to $5,000 by 1854. During the 1850s, however, he purchased three additional lots adjacent to his property, all on the east side of Wall Street.
Insurance policies owned by both Collier and Lumpkin note that the brick residence fronted Wall Street. The jail, meanwhile, was probably set back at the east end of the lots, nearest Shockoe Creek. According to A History of the Richmond Theological Seminary (1895), by, the “old jail stood in a field a few rods from the other buildings. It was forty-one feet long and two stories in height, with a piazza to both stories on the north side of the building.” An accompanying sketch suggests that the jail faced north toward Broad Street, had bars on the windows, and was separated from the rocky creek bed only by a rough wooden fence.
Otis Bigelow, who visited from Syracuse, New York, early in the 1850s, later described Lumpkin’s establishment:
On one side of the open court was a large tank for washing, or lavatory. Opposite was a long, two-story brick house, the lower part fitted up for men and the second story for women, the place, in fact, was a kind of hotel or boardinghouse for negro-traders and their slaves. I was invited to dine at a large table with perhaps twenty traders, who gave me almost no attention, and there was little conversation. They were probably strangers to one another. As the historian Maurie D. McInnis has pointed out, just as likely they preferred “not to talk in front of a stranger who could easily have been an abolitionist.”
Exactly how many enslaved people passed through Lumpkin’s Jail, or who most of them were, remains unknown. Aside from a single incomplete ledger, Lumpkin’s business records do not survive. He frequently held slaves belonging to others for varying period of time, typically for a daily fee. (A nearby jail charged thirty cents per day.) Referring to an enslaved man named Richard, one seller instructed a trader, “Put him into Lumpkin’s jail until $600 can be had for him—be sure to put him into jail allow me to urge that point.” Another seller requested that Lumpkin be “careful to keep them [three male slaves] from the small pox & measles.”
Contemporary accounts portrayed Lumpkin’s Jail as a brutal and dehumanizing place. Anthony Burns, a Virginia slave whoin 1854, was returned to Richmond and held there for four months. In an account of Burns’s life published in 1856, Charles Emery Stevens described “the place of his confinement [as] a room only six or eight feet square, in the upper story of the jail, which was accessible only through a trap-door. He was allowed neither bed nor air; a rude bench fastened against the wall and a single, coarse blanket were the only means of repose.” In this room, according to Stevens, Burns suffered “torture” by overly tight irons, which held his arms behind his back, ground into his wrists, and caused his feet to swell. He was not able to remove his clothes or properly relieve himself. Once a day he was fed cornbread and a small amount of meat, without utensils, and drank from a pail of water that was refreshed once or twice a week. His health quickly deteriorated, leaving Burns permanently crippled and in ill health. He died in 1862, at the age of twenty-eight.
Burns may have been treated especially harshly because he was nationally known for having beenunder the provisions of the . He was allowed out of his cell only when curiosity seekers gathered and demanded to see the infamous slave. Stevens notes that other slaves were allowed to communicate with one another but not with Burns. Corey’s history, meanwhile, suggests that the jail was set aside for only the most disobedient of inmates. He noted that “more peaceable slaves” were kept in other buildings. “The stout iron bars were still to be seen across one or more of the windows during my repeated visits to this place [after the war],” he wrote. “In the rough floor, and at about the center of it, was the stout iron staple and whipping ring.”
After the WarLumpkin’s business abruptly ended in 1865 with the conclusion of the Civil War and the . Lumpkin died in 1866, leaving the property to his widow, Mary, an African American woman who once had been his slave and with whom he had several children. In May 1867, Mary Lumpkin happened to meet on the street the Reverend Nathaniel Colver, a representative of the National Theological Institute recently arrived in Richmond. He was seeking to establish a school to train African Americans for the Baptist ministry but was having difficulty finding a suitable location. She offered to lease the Wall Street property to him, and for the next three years it accommodated the Colver Institute, with the former jail serving as a classroom. As Corey wrote: “the old slave pen was no longer the ‘devil’s half acre’ but ‘God’s half acre.'” Later known as the Richmond Institute and then the Richmond Theological Seminary, the modest school located for a brief time at Lumpkin’s Jail ultimately became Virginia Union University, which continues to thrive as a historically black institution of higher education in Richmond.
In 1873 Mary Lumpkin sold the property to Andrew Jackson Ford and his wife, Mary Lucy Ford. Sometime in the next three years they demolished the jail, using the site’s other buildings to house employees of the nearby Ford’s Hotel. In 1892 they sold the six lots to John Chamblin and James H. Scott who, with their partner Alexander Delaney, leveled the lots and established Richmond Iron Works. The foundry was demolished early in the twentieth century, and in its place the Seaboard Air Line Railway erected a large freight depot, part of which sat atop the former jail site. Late in the 1950s, the western portion of the former Lumpkin lots was buried during construction of the Richmond and Petersburg Turnpike, which later became Interstate 95.
Late in 2005, the James River Institute for Archaeology Inc. (JRIA), of Williamsburg, began a preliminary historical and archaeological investigation of the Lumpkin’s Jail site. The project was a voluntary research effort directed and funded by Richmond City Council’s Slave Trail Commission in partnership with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods. Through extensive documentary research using city land records, historic maps, and photographs, JRIA re-established the location of Lumpkin’s Wall Street lots. The results were promising. While it appeared that the western part of the property, including the house and hotel, were covered by Interstate 95, the available evidence suggested that a substantial portion of the site, including where the jail had been located, remained accessible beneath an existing parking lot. Whether any pre–Civil War features had survived repeated episodes of construction and demolition, however, remained unclear.
Once the testing area had been defined, a backhoe was used to mechanically excavate three large trenches across the suspected jail site. At depths ranging between 8 and 11 feet below the ground surface, archaeologists encountered a well-preserved section of cobble paving and other historic features, along with a variety of household artifacts dating to the Lumpkin period of occupation. Based on these findings, the Slave Trail Commission determined that the site offered the potential to yield significant archaeological information and commissioned JRIA to undertake a full-scale archaeological excavation.
The second phase of the archaeological investigation began in August 2008. This time the testing area was significantly larger, measuring roughly 160 feet long by 80 feet wide. For the first several weeks, archaeologists worked with heavy equipment operators to painstakingly dig through the fill layers covering the site, removing thousands of cubic yards of soil and debris. Early on, the remains of the Seaboard Air Line Railway freight depot and the Richmond Iron Works foundry were identified. Once these had been documented and removed, continued excavation began to reveal an array of intact features associated with the Lumpkin’s Jail complex.
The first major find was a large area of the cobble paving identified in the preliminary study. This represented the central courtyard of the slave jail complex described in several historical accounts. Running along its eastern edge was a V-shaped brick drain which still channeled water after more than 150 years. Another significant discovery included the brick foundation of the kitchen building measuring twenty-eight feet long by eighteen feet wide. One completely unexpected feature was a massive brick retaining wall which ran north-south across the lots. This imposing barrier divided the property into upper and lower terraces, with a difference in elevation of about eight feet. Evidently the original lots had sloped considerably eastward to Shockoe Creek. Construction of the retaining wall allowed the “public” portion of the lots fronting on Wall Street—including the main residence, boardinghouse, and kitchen—to be raised and leveled. This suggested that the jail had been situated below the other buildings on the lower terrace in the less desirable area nearer Shockoe Creek. This spatial arrangement was typical of southern cities, in which slave buildings were situated “down and at the back” of urban lots, reinforcing their inferior status.
The excavations continued for several more weeks before archaeologists finally found evidence of the jail building buried nearly fifteen feet beneath the modern ground level. Unfortunately, this deepest part of the site was prone to flooding, with groundwater continually seeping in from below. Gas-powered pumps temporarily reduced the water level, but only limited testing could be conducted without damaging the sensitive historic features. Despite the challenging conditions, archaeologists identified another well-preserved section of cobble paving and brick drain. More importantly, they found two building wall foundations situated exactly eighteen feet apart in the location predicted from the historic photographs. An 1876 account had described the building as measuring eighteen feet wide, so it was clear that these features were part of the infamous jail.
Over the course of the eighteen-week excavation, which lasted from August to December of 2008, archaeologists retrieved thousands of artifacts spanning the entire history of the site, from the 1830s through the twentieth century. These included a variety of household artifacts, such as ceramics, bottles, and animal bone; items that may have been related to the site’s subsequent use as a school, including large stoneware ink bottles, inkwells, and graphite pencils; and many personal items, such as clay tobacco pipes, bone-handled toothbrushes, clothing buttons, spectacle lenses, tiny porcelain doll heads, and a carved bone ring. In addition, the site’s damp soil conditions helped to preserve many organic items, such as leather shoes, fabric, and wood that normally would have disintegrated long ago.
Once the excavation had been completed, the site was carefully reburied to preserve it from continued exposure to the elements.
Since the Lumpkin’s Jail site was reburied in 2009, it has been interpreted and commemorated as one of seventeen sites on the Richmond Slave Trail. In 2015, the City of Richmond and the Richmond Slave Trail Commission launched an initiative called “Richmond Speaks,” an ongoing dialogue with Richmond residents about the future of the Lumpkin’s Jail site.