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A Formerly Enslaved Woman Helped Found a Key American University

Mary Lumpkin’s life helps us to better understand the post-Civil War push for education.

Most Americans have never heard of Mary Lumpkin, an enslaved woman forced to have the children of her enslaver — an all-too-common occurrence during slavery. Yet, the unique aspects of Lumpkin’s life help us to appreciate Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and the role that Black women played in advancing education for the African American community over the past century-and-a-half.

Before the Civil War, Lumpkin lived with her five children in Robert Lumpkin’s slave jail in Richmond, a place so evil it was known as the “Devil’s Half Acre.” But after the Civil War, Mary inherited the jail compound and rented it to White Baptist missionaries, who transformed it into a school for Black freedmen.

The jail, a site of gruesome violence that housed enslaved people before and after sale to the Lower South, became the cornerstone for Virginia Union University, still in existence today. W. Franklyn Richardson, chairman of the school’s board, observed, “the place we were sold into slavery becomes the place we are released into intellectual freedom.”

This HBCU that Mary Lumpkin helped create was one of dozens set up in church basements, schoolhouses and homes after the Civil War to educate newly freed Black people. HBCUs initially taught primary and secondary education because so many enslaved people had been deprived of schooling. In the 20th century, they became the main way for Black Americans to earn a post-high school education, as they were denied admission to virtually all White Southern colleges and universities until the 1960s, when new federal desegregation orders pressured universities to integrate.

Today HBCUs remain a vital pathway to higher education for Black Americans, while inculcating a sense of pride, belonging and activism that has fueled pathbreaking achievements and civil rights gains.

The first HBCUs were established before the Civil War, mostly in the free North, beginning with Cheyney University in Pennsylvania in 1837. In 1856, the White Methodist Episcopal Church established Wilberforce University in Ohio — reflecting the religious roots of many of the schools.

When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, the American Baptist Home Mission Society, which had for many years remained neutral on the issue of slavery, decided to use its teachers and missionaries, who had traditionally worked abroad, to help educate newly free Black people. The original goal of the schools was to prepare formerly enslaved men to enter the Baptist ministry as pastors, but they later offered courses to men and women at a variety of levels.

During Reconstruction, the HBCU movement picked up steam. Aid agencies like the Baptist Home Mission Society joined with the War Department’s Freedmen’s Bureau to establish schools for newly free Black people throughout the former Confederacy.

Days after Richmond collapsed, the Mission Society arrived in the former Confederate capital, began teaching classes and by November 1865 had established a school. Yet the Mission Society had trouble finding a permanent home for its school because the Southern White population remained opposed to empowering Black men through education and would not sell or rent buildings for use as a school. Leaders resorted to conducting classes at First African Baptist Church and in spare rooms around town.

The school leader Nathaniel Colver was “close to despair” about his inability to find a home for what was then known as Richmond Theological Institute when he ran into a group of Black women on the street in 1867. “In the midst of that group was a large, fair-faced freed-woman, nearly White, who said she had a place which she thought I could have,” he said later.

Mary Lumpkin, probably mixed-race, agreed to lease the former Lumpkin’s Jail for three years at the cost of $1,000 a year. Lumpkin recognized the value of education, having managed to educate her children and secure their freedom before the Civil War. Black women had long served as educators, and even during slavery they recognized the value of literacy and taught others what they learned.

Students knocked down jail cells and ripped the bars off the windows, transforming the “Devil’s Half Acre” into “God’s Half Acre.” On Sept. 1, 1867, classes began with some 30 or 40 pupils. “The occupancy of those premises,” Colver wrote, “was wholly providential.”

At the end of its lease, Richmond Theological Institute moved, and over time, it was one of four institutions that came together to create what is now known as Virginia Union University.

What made Virginal Union unique among HBCUs was the role a Black woman played in turning it into a permanent institution. Only a handful of other HBCUs claim Black women in their founding stories. Bethune-Cookman University, for example, claims Mary McLeod Bethune as its founder, according to Virginia Union President Hakim J. Lucas.

By 1876, as the era of Reconstruction came to an end, the lack of Black leadership became an issue for the more than 90 HBCUs nationwide, as many of them began promoting Black scholarship and fighting for autonomy from the White churches and White leaders that had run the schools since their founding.

Half-a-century later, in 1932, Virginia Union merged with the all-female Hartshorn Memorial College, one of the country’s first colleges for Black women.

Crucially, HBCUs weren’t just a means to an education for Black students at a time when most American colleges and universities remained segregated. They also nurtured activism and made a Black liberation philosophy central to Black identity. During the civil rights era, students and faculty at Virginia Union joined the efforts to desegregate White-only lunch counters, marching to downtown Richmond department stores. On Feb. 22, 1960, for example, 34 Virginia Union students staged a sit-in at the lunch counter at Thalhimer’s department store, where Black men and women were allowed to shop but not eat.

Today America’s 101 HBCUs enroll approximately 300,000 students. They remain unique institutions with a critical role in education in the United States. They serve as spaces to achieve a high-quality education while creating nurturing environments and instilling a sense of pride and belonging that has helped young Black people achieve individual success and progress as a group. Their unique mission and activist tradition also continues to shape the push for civil rights and racial equality in America.

Virginia Union has assumed a unique place among HBCUs because of the role of Mary Lumpkin in its founding. For decades, she was left out of the school’s story. But in 2020, a street through campus was dedicated “Mary Lumpkin Drive” and a marker was installed recognizing her as the “mother of VUU.”

Memorializing Lumpkin reinserts Black women into the narrative about the push for educating African Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War. Her story reminds us how, for all of the involvement of White relief societies and benefactors, it was Black women who recognized the necessity of education for their community and worked to make it happen.