Memory  /  Book Review

A Fable of Agency

Kristen Green’s "The Devil’s Half Acre" recounts the story of a fugitive slave jail, and the enslaved woman, Mary Lumpkin, who came to own it.

Mary Lumpkin had by then returned to Philadelphia and in 1869 left for New Orleans, where she evidently lived for three years. She then headed to Ohio and the vibrant Black community in New Richmond. Green says she may have been following a Union veteran—“perhaps her one true love.” In 1892, Ford sold the rest of the old jail to the Richmond Iron Works, which covered the site with dirt to fill it out. Eventually it was paved over by the construction of the Richmond and Petersburg Turnpike, now Interstate 95.

In 2008 a team of archaeologists began to excavate the Devil’s Half Acre, and in 2014 the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared it a “site of conscience” that would recognize “this dark chapter of American history.” Indeed, Mary Lumpkin is an integral part of that chapter, and Green does not want her forgotten, even by her descendants, whom she has touchingly tracked down. Green understandably wants to help preserve this site of conscience, and each page of her story is written with a principled sense of urgency and mission.

But she at times exceeds the evidence at hand. Noting more than once that Mary Lumpkin “must have been proud that she was able to take the old slave jail and turn it into something good,” Green is certainly proud; it’s the raison d’être of her book. But it wasn’t Mary Lumpkin who liberated or transformed the jail. Black troops unlocked its doors in 1865, and the Baptists converted it into a school, which ultimately became Virginia Union University, one of America’s historically Black universities—“born in the bosom of Lumpkin’s Jail,” said W. Franklyn Richardson, the present chair of the university’s board of trustees, whom Green quotes. Unquestionably Lumpkin facilitated that conversion, and though she may very well have been proud, Green’s alleging that she “accomplished something incredible” creates a fable about someone who “exercised her agency.” Such language unfortunately shoehorns Mary Lumpkin into a neat story about an episode that may or may not have meant much to her.

“We cannot bring back to life those whom we find cast ashore,” writes Arlette Farge. But in Mary Lumpkin, who fleetingly appears and then disappears from view, we can now glimpse an intricate, jangly world in which the actual lives of enslaved women run counter to the tales we tell or to the roles assigned them, then and today: that is, a world where rifts open between what one is supposed to be and what one is, even within the pernicious institution of slavery; a world in which the lives of Blacks and whites were entangled socially, economically, physically, and psychologically through a sadistic, depraved system of exploitative labor, and in which, under the most unthinkable of circumstances, people retained their dignity.

The choices that Mary Lumpkin had to make, the mysterious drama of her internal life, the consequences of being sold, exploited, and assaulted—or of dwelling in fear—are often unimaginable and steeped in horror, courage, acumen, and anguish. Her persistence is a testament to her bravery and her humanity, and to salute it, we need not pretend that she liberated a slave jail or founded a school. What she did, whatever she did, just to survive is no small thing.