By Jenna Dawkins
Three blocks from the Virginia state capitol was, from the 1830s to 1860s, the site of a slave jail. Owned by notorious trader Robert Lumpkin beginning in 1844, Lumpkin’s Jail, sometimes called the “Devil’s Half Acre,” operated as a large slave holding facility in the South for more than two decades.
But this is only part of the story. Though the interpretation of this place tends to focus on Robert Lumpkin and more broadly, the institution of slavery, one author is homing in even further – on an enslaved woman who lived in Lumpkin’s Jail. The recent resurgence of interest in this historic site – the city of Richmond is planning to build an education and memorial site there — has prompted new narratives to come forth, and Virginia Humanities Fellow Kristen Green, author of the New York Times bestseller Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County, is bringing them to life.
Green’s fellowship at Virginia Humanities has allowed her to dive into Richmond’s downriver slave trade, enhancing her understanding of racism and segregation that has survived long past the Civil War. She’s working on a book that will tell the story of Mary Lumpkin, an enslaved woman who is believed to have given birth to at least five children fathered by Robert Lumpkin. Most people know about Sally Hemings – the light-skinned enslaved woman who belonged to Thomas Jefferson and gave birth to at least four of his children, and her life is just as elusive as Mary Lumpkin’s. But the agency of both of these women – as mothers, as negotiators, and as individuals, is undeniable.
We recently caught up with Green to talk about her work and what she has learned about Mary Lumpkin.
Let’s start with your previous work, Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County, and how that took you on a historical journey. You talk often about your idyllic but racially isolated upbringing. You grew up in Prince Edward County, the only community in the nation to close its schools for 5 years rather than desegregate. How did that inspire your work?
While working as a journalist, I came to realize that the most interesting story of my career was in my own hometown, but I didn’t know the whole story of what had happened there. The book sprang from my curiosity about the school closures and from trying to figure out how I fit into Prince Edward County. I learned my family was more involved in the school closures than I previously knew. I had long known my grandfather helped found the private academy for white children that I attended but I didn’t know that he had been involved with a group that advocated for closing the public schools rather than desegregating. I wanted to work through and understand what had happened – the big picture – and my place in it. I didn’t feel like a book had been written that really stepped back and observed this history, and I wanted to explore how the impacts of the school closures are still being felt. The most interesting thing about this story was the people who were affected by it – the students who were shut out of school – and I wanted to tell their stories. The personal part, my connection to the school closures, came later. When it did, I realized I couldn’t remove myself from the story.
How did living in Richmond affect your decision to write your next book about Lumpkin’s Jail?
When I first moved to Richmond, I worked at the Richmond Times Dispatch for a couple of years. During my time there, I was writing a proposal for Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County while exploring the complicated history of race in Richmond and Virginia in articles for the newspaper. While reporting for the paper, I learned of Lumpkin’s Jail and the story stuck with me. I was drawn to the story of this jail and its history, which has only recently been revisited and uncovered. But my interest really piqued when I learned more about Mary Lumpkin, an enslaved woman who had children with jail owner Robert Lumpkin. I immediately believed her story was important to share. The story of Mary’s life, and of her children’s lives, captured my imagination.
Who was Robert Lumpkin?
Robert Lumpkin was one of the main slave jail owners in Richmond and was considered a particularly brutal trader. He lived and worked in Richmond’s slave trading district for decades, imprisoning thousands of enslaved people over his career. Men like Robert Lumpkin are typically portrayed simply as evil slave traders, and of course, they were. But they were also easy scapegoats for everyone else involved in the slave trade.
It is widely believed that Lumpkin had five or more children with Mary—an enslaved child who was his property and unable to consent to a sexual relationship. But he ultimately demonstrated that he cared for his children with Mary. He left things to Mary in his will, and sent her, and their children, to Philadelphia before the start of the Civil War.
Most people have heard of the slave trade – but not everyone has heard of a slave jail. Could you describe them?
Lumpkin’s Jail featured a complex of buildings, including a jail where male and female slaves could be imprisoned while waiting for sale, held after a sale until a coffle could be put together to march them south, or tortured or punished on behalf of their owners. The complex also featured a boarding house where traders and prospective slave buyers and sellers could eat meals and spend the night. Lumpkin and his family also lived on the property.
Your book in progress, is focused primarily on Mary Lumpkin. Could you tell me about her?
Mary Lumpkin has become the center of my work on Lumpkin’s Jail. I want to know what her life looked like and what the lives of her children looked like. Few of her personal papers exist, but I have been able to piece together her story using a mix of letters, court papers and government records.
We know she could read and write. She was identified as light skinned, and was likely mixed race. Like Sally Hemings, these women were referred to as “fancy girls” and were a special category in the slave trade. They could bring in as much money as an 18-year-old male field hand. They were often purchased by slave traders or plantation owners or would end up working as prostitutes in brothels in New Orleans.
Mary, who was born in 1832, was enslaved by Robert Lumpkin at a young age, possibly around the age of eight. When I think about Mary, I picture my own mixed-race daughters, who are about the same age as Mary was when Robert likely acquired her.
By the time she was 13, she’d already had her first child with Robert Lumpkin. She had five children with him that lived to adulthood.
The agency and determination of enslaved women is being discussed more openly now than ever before. Can you discuss Mary’s role in shaping her own life, and that of her children?
I’ve struggled with a good way to refer to her. Concubine and wife aren’t the right terms, and I don’t believe that she could consent to a relationship with Robert Lumpkin, both because she was enslaved and because she was so young. That’s not to say she didn’t have agency over other parts of her life. The fact that someone in the worst of conditions was able to learn to read and write, to see that her children were educated and to move out of Richmond was incredible. She clearly had a role in lobbying for the rights of her children. I believe she also played a role in the jail business. She may have run the boarding house or been responsible for clothing slaves. In addition to the money and property Robert Lumpkin left to Mary in his will; she also inherited the slave jail. I believe she played a part in these decisions. She wanted a better life for her children, as all mothers do.
Research and documentation on the enslaved community can be difficult to find. Could you talk about filling in the gaps in these stories and what may prevent them from being told?
It is often so difficult to track down details about women like Mary, who are, as a result, lost to history. People think you can just go to a library and ask for the “Mary Lumpkin Papers” – this makes me laugh. My background as a journalist helped me lay the groundwork for the book by reading widely about slavery, including the sale of Virginia slaves to the Deep South, the trade of children, and Richmond’s role in the slave trade. My time at the Library of Virginia has been focused on learning more about Mary, and I’ve been able to track down government and private papers to sketch out her life.
I started my work at the library by building a genealogy for Robert Lumpkin, as well as his siblings and parents, and then I built genealogies for Mary and her children using census data, city directories and advertisements and stories in historic newspapers. I also looked at other big slave trading families that had connections to the Lumpkins, and branched out into wills, slave ship manifests, marriage records, death records, funeral and burial records, and more. By also using personal stories and anecdotes from others who came in contact with Mary as well as her own words from letters and court records, I have added more details.
Slavery is often a difficult subject to tackle in the public rhetoric. How do you approach it for your audiences?
Stories like Mary’s are valuable on their own, but they are also a conduit to talk about slavery. Richmond was the second largest slave trade center in the country, and there’s no way around that. Narratives, particularly of enslaved women, can provide context and make slavery feel more accessible. Readers will want to know if Mary, against all odds, managed to secure freedom, be educated, and make the most of life for their children. I’m determined to tell her story the best that I can. I believe that when Americans learn that women like Mary existed, they will want to learn more, and her story deserves to be told.
What impact do your books have on contemporary culture and our understanding of racism and slavery in America?
I became interested in these hidden histories when working on Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County. There are so many amazing histories in Virginia and around the South in particular, that have yet to be written. The extent of the domestic slave trade, and the magnitude of trading of children alone is incredible – people don’t realize the sheer number of families that were split.
Mary’s story sheds light on a bigger picture of what was happening in Richmond during her lifetime – a huge slave trading district sat at the foot of the Virginia State Capitol, ripping apart thousands of families that would never be reconnected. It has also become increasingly obvious that women’s contributions have been overlooked. Mary’s story is an inspiring true story that I can’t wait to tell.
What does your Virginia Humanities fellowship enable you to do that couldn’t otherwise?
Virginia Humanities developed a partnership with the Library of Virginia in Richmond two years ago that places Fellows in the library to work closely with the Library’s historians. This has allowed me to serve as a Fellow and conduct the work I need to do in Richmond, where I live. It’s been great to work one-on-one with historians and get help with my research and advice about how to proceed. The historians have helped teach me how to build genealogies, and they have provided wonderful suggestions of where I might look to find more information on Mary Lumpkin and her family. Tapping into the Library’s resources also has been amazing, and the documents I’ve found have really shaped my research. I couldn’t have done this work without the fellowship that Virginia Humanities offered me, and I am truly grateful.
About Kristen Green
Kristen Green has worked for two decades as a journalist at newspapers including The San Diego Union-Tribune and the Boston Globe. She has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Mary Washington and a Master in Public Administration from Harvard Kennedy School.
Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County was her first book. It was a New York Times bestseller in race, civil rights, and education, and was long-listed for the Andrew Carnegie Medal in Excellence in Nonfiction. The Washington Post recognized it among notable nonfiction for 2015. It won the Library of Virginia Literary Award for nonfiction and People’s Choice for nonfiction in 2016. Kristen and her husband, Jason Hamilton, live in Richmond with their two daughters.
About the Author
Jenna Dawkins is the Foundation & Corporate Relations Officer at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. She holds a BA in English from Elon and an MA in American/Museum Studies from GWU.
As part of her fellowship, Kristen Green will deliver two free, public talks about her research on Mary Lumpkin. Join her in Charlottesville on May 1 or in Richmond at the Library of Virginia on May 3,