Place  /  Book Excerpt

The Enslaved Woman Who Liberated a Slave Jail and Transformed It Into an HBCU

Forced to bear her enslaver's children, Mary Lumpkin later forged her own path to freedom.

Described as “nearly white” and “fair faced,” Mary, who was born in 1832, may have been the multiracial child of an enslaved woman and her enslaver, one of his relatives, or a white overseer. Sold away as a young girl, probably from one or both of her parents, she was purchased by the slave trader Robert Lumpkin, a violent white man 27 years her senior. When she was about 13, she was forced to have the first of five children with him. According to a descendant, she told him he could do with her what he wanted but demanded that their children be freed. She and the children likely lived with him on the compound of his slave jail, where he imprisoned thousands of enslaved people between 1844 and 1866. Some were imprisoned there before sale, and others were held after sale. Nearly all were eventually shipped away to the Deep South.

In this wretched place, Mary managed to educate her children and find a path to freedom, moving them and herself to the free state of Pennsylvania with Robert’s blessing prior to the Civil War. She inherited the jail in 1866, when Robert died and bequeathed the property to her. Two years later, she helped a white Baptist missionary from the American Baptist Home Mission Society turn the “Devil’s Half Acre”—a greatly feared place where countless enslaved people had long suffered—into “God’s Half Acre,” a school where dreams could be realized. The same grounds where enslaved people were imprisoned and beaten became the cornerstone for one of America’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU). Virginia Union University (VUU) is still in existence today.

“Virginia Union ... was born in the bosom of Lumpkin’s Jail,” says W. Franklyn Richardson, chairman of the university’s board and an alumnus. “The place we were sold into slavery becomes the place we are released into intellectual freedom.”

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the school, founded as the Richmond Theological School for Freedmen, provided Black students with an education. For more than 150 years, it has elevated and nurtured generations of Black men and women, helping them to realize their potential. It has shaped civic, education and business leaders and developed activists who worked to desegregate whites-only lunch counters in Richmond department stores.

It is also one of the rare HBCUs in America that can tie its origins to a Black woman.

“For Virginia Union to have a forming story rooted in Black womanness ... it’s a story of its own,” says VUU president Hakim J. Lucas.