The Excavation of Lumpkin’s Jail

*Post by Fiona Carmody


*The following information is taken from chapter 5: “Virginia and the Richmond Market,” of the book Slave Trading in the Old South, by Frederic Bancroft (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1959 edition).

Virginia, and Richmond in particular, was the slave trade control center throughout the persistence of the trade (from sometime around the late 1700s until 1862).  It was from Richmond that most slave-owners throughout the South bought their slaves, and this meant that Richmond held more auctions, shipped off more human cargo by land (train) and sea, and importantly, held the most slaves in jails, than any other US city.  A once-Confederate army general and native of Virginia stated to Frederic Bancroft (the author of the aforementioned book): “In Virginia, negroes were raised and sold;  it was a nursery of slavery.”

1850 Daguerreotype showing Lumpkin's jail in Shockoe Bottom (taken from A.C.O.R.N. website)

Daguerreotype detail (red outline) showing location of Lumpkin's jail (taken from A.C.O.R.N. website)

Bancroft reports: “The largest coastwise cargoes of slaves went from Alexandria, Baltimore, Norfolk, Richmond, and Charleston to places farther south or on the Gulf or the Mississippi, especially New Orleans” (275).  With slaves passing so consistently in and out of Richmond (often in “coffles,” or walking groups shuffling along while linked together with heavy chains), slave jails were booming businesses run by pretty well-to-do slave traders.  These jails were sometimes used as jails as we think of them today (i.e. for imprisonment as punishment for deviant behavior, such as slave escape), but their main function was mainly to house slaves before they were initially sent to market.  This meant that the jails were places where slaves were pampered to appear more appealing to buyers – they were often referred to as “fattening houses.” A Richmond local living throughout the latter part of the trade told Bancroft that: “During the summer and fall [traders] buy them up at low prices, trim, shave, wash them, fatten them so that they may look sleek, and sell them to great profit.”  This was the process performed in the jails, with the addition of low-cost medical attention. This is not to say that they were places slaves wanted to be; as Robert H. Gudmestad writes in chapter 3 his 1964 book A Troublesome Commerce, Slaves were violently kidnapped from the North and South by Virginian traders and forcibly dragged to these jail locations to be sold “by the pound” (72-74).  Slave auctions, both public and private, took place in the jails.

There was a large number of slave-traders living in Richmond during this time period, and most (if not all slave-traders) ran slave jails for the trade (97-98); While there were approximately 28 slave-traders explicitly listed in the Richmond Directory for 1852, it is only Robert Lumpkin’s name we hear today – his name has come to encompass the slave trade in Richmond to modern Southerners.  It was his slave jail that was recently excavated, and that is the focal point of this blog entry.


There were many, many slave-traders in Richmond throughout the duration of the slave trade (for, as Frederic Bancroft explains, there was a stigma attached to slave-trading as abolitionism grew in Northern popularity that caused many traders to register in the city directory under another profession); there were three in Birch Alley alone (the contemporary name of the site where Lumpkin’s was located).  Nonetheless, as Bancroft puts it, “Lumpkin, who also had a livery stable, was so prosperous that this alley took his name.  That was, indeed, distinction in the trade” (101).  It is Lumpkin’s name, due to his trade-related prosperity, that rings throughout the Southern history of slave-trading.

Robert Lumpkin was certainly ferocious in his own right.  His horrendous treatment of slaves is recorded in various historical texts, and his jail is still well-known to have been referred to as “The Devil’s Half-Acre”.  His treatment of refugee Anthony Burns is, perhaps, his most infamous.  Burns had been a free black abolitionist living in the North until being kidnapped by Southern traders upon the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850; his trial was a milestone in abolitionist history, and a huge crowd of his fellow abolitionists followed his from the courthouse march down to the slave boat from the courthouse following the declaration of his fugitive guilt. Lumpkin’s treatment of Burns in the jail  is perhaps the most frequent record of Lumpkin found in texts to date, and no doubt reflects a monstrous nature; Charles Emery Stevens writes in his book, Anthony Burns: A History (Boston: John P. Jewett and Co., 1856) that Lumpkin (who he notes was a “bully trader” that frolicked around the country snatching up choice slaves as he pleased), kept Burns in completely inhumane conditions; “such revolting treatment as the vilest of felons never undergo, and such as only revengeful slaveowners can inflict”(188).  Burns was locked into a 6-8 ft square room, locked to the floor by the ankles and the wrists by chains that cut off the circulation of these limbs.  He could not change his clothes nor move to a bathroom with these chains on, and was given no help to do so; he received one pail of dirty water to use throughout the week to drink in sweltering heat, and one meal a day (very often a piece of dry cornbread or rotting meat). (Interestingly enough, it was Lumpkin’s wife, once a slave herself, who smuggled a hymnal into Burns’ cell for him to occupy himself with).   He fell ill eventually from the foul treatment, and died shortly after his release – upon a ransom paid by abolitionists –  from the four-month-long stay he had in Lumpkin’s Jail.  It’s likely that other prisoners Lumpkin held for rebellious behavior received similar treatment.

Anthony Burn, surrounded by depictions of events from his life.

Lumpkin was, of course, pleasant to wealthy white men (potential buyers). A visiting abolitionist from Syracuse in the 1850s reported an interaction he had with Lumpkin: “I entered a large open court.  Against one of the posts sat a good natured fat man, with his chair tipped back.  It was Mr. Lumpkin….Mr. Lumpkin received me courteously and showed me over his jail.”  He then goes on to describe the jail itself, at least from the outside: “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”(Bancroft 102-103).  Of course, the slaves were not present in the part of the jail described; they were kept on a lower tier, in a more valley-like location relative to Lumpkin’s house.

If you look closely, the upper and lower levels of the set-up are somewhat apparent.

According to a history professor from VCU (taken from an article in the Smithsonian), Lumpkin was “both an evil man and a family man.”  Despite his profit from the slave trade, he married one of his slaves; with Mary Anne Lumpkin, he had five mulatto daughters.  A former Union soldier is recorded to have said that Robert Lumpkin kept his daughters from being thrown into the trade he knew so well by sending them all off to finishing school in the free state of Massachusetts.

Lumpkin made an unusually high profit from his participation in the trade, but this is not why we hear about him today.  At a meeting with researcher Robert Nelson from the Digital Lab here at the University of Richmond, I learned that actually, Lumpkin’s infamy derives from the fact that his jail site has had the longest legacy.   This is because his wife – or rather, the former slave he ended up marrying  – outlived him by many years.  When he died in 1866, Mary Anne inherited the jail.  According to the Virginian African-American Heritage Program website, Mary Anne gave it over to Rev. Robert Colver of the American Baptist Home Mission Board in 1867, and he transformed it into a school to educate newly emancipated slaves (to become known then as “God’s Redeemed Half-Acre”); this school moved to Lombardy Street in 1870, and became Virginia Union University in this new (and current) location in 1899.  Lumpkin’s jail site disappeared.  Until this year’s excavation.


Uncovering the jail site has been yet another push (along with a Negro Burial Ground adjoining the jail and the slave marketplace & docks)  for the city of Richmond to confront its long history of slavery; it wasn’t until 1998 that the Slave Trail Commission was founded as an effort to push this public recognition, as reported in the December 2008 edition of the LA Times.

According again to the Virginian African-American Heritage Program website, Lumpkin’s jail site was covered up entirely by Richmond Ironworks in the late 189s, when the landscape of Richmond was rapidly changing due to the Industrial Revolution; Richmond Ironworks was replaced by the Seaboard Railroad Depot soon thereafter (early 1900s).  When a baseball stadium was proposed for the site, archaeologists moved fast to excavate in time.

The James River Institute for Archaeology (J.R.I.), which conducted phase I of the archaeological excavation, used a map from 1835 to locate the site, which had more recently been paved over by a parking lot (being used for VCU parking, right behind the Main Street Station at 15th Street and

The 1835 map used to locate the site (from the A.C.O.R.N. website)

Franklin, in Shockoe Bottom).

Taken from Richmond Touring website

The J.R.I. began phase I of the project in April 2006, and was sponsored by the City of Richmond, the Richmond Slave Trail Commission, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the Alliance for the Conservation of Old Richmond Neighborhoods (A.C.O.R.N.), and businesses in Shockoe Bottom.  While archaeologists were hopeful, they certainly were not expectant – until they found pottery, glass, nails, wood, and slate shingles from the jail itself (according to the A.C.O.R.N. website).  According to the J.R.I. website, phase I began with 3 test trenches, (600 sq ft). Remnants of the Seaboard Railroad were blatantly present and dangerously still intact (so excavators had to be careful not to be electrocuted); below the railroad was the foundational layer of Richmond Ironworks.  Excavators assumed that everything below this layer was from Lumpkin’s jail site.  Although the aforementioned artifacts were found at this level, there was only small indications that any structural layers of the jail architecture would remain.

the end of phase II brought much more to the surface (literally).  Beneath 8-15 feet of landfill, the J.R.I. found cobblestones from the jail’s courtyard, bricks that had once formed the foundational layer of the jail’s separate

Artifacts found during phase I of the excavation (A.C.O.R.N. website)

kitchen building, the foundational layer of the actual jail, and a huge brick wall that had once divided the site into upper and lower terraces; artifacts found throughout the duration of both archaeological phases included ceramics, bottles, glasswares, animal bone, and various items from everyday 18th century life.  The J.R.I. website asserts that many of these artifacts, made from organic compounds such as leather and wood, would not have been kept in such intact condition had they not been resting in moist soil conditions.  Of course, not all of these items are necessarily from Lumpkin’s jail itself – many may be from the Industrial Era, or even later.  Nonetheless, anything found from Lumpkin’s time period will, the J.R.I. believes, grant greater insight into Richmond’s specific role in the slave trade.

First hints of 17th century architectural foundations found during phase I, consequentially fully discovered as Lumpkin's kitchen building during phase II. (A.C.O.R.N. website)

Now that the site has been fully excavated, the City of Richmond must decide what to do with it.  The J.R.I. states that in addition, all excavated artifacts will belong to the City of Richmond, curated by the Virginia Department of Historical Resources in a storage facility; the most historically significant objects will be put on display for public viewing, probably in a local museum.

Full architectural foundations of Lumpkin's kitchen, phase II (J.R.I. website)


One idea keeps on popping up in recent newspaper articles about the excavated jail, but perhaps the LA times article about the event says it most explicitly; in an article entitled “With unearthing of infamous jail, Richmond confronts its slave past,” journalist David Zucchino writes:

“Richmond, which is 57% black, long has honored its Confederate past with monuments to Gen. Robert E. Lee, President Jefferson Davis and thousands of rebel soldiers. But only with its decade-long examination of the slave trail — which includes the jail, an adjoining Negro Burial Ground, and the slave marketplace and docks — has it shone a light on its legacy of slavery.”

Like many writers addressing the excavation, Zucchino brings up the Slave Trail Commission. The City Council of Richmond did not found this group until 1998, and it was the first effort made towards recognizing Richmond’s history of slavery and the historical/current contributions of black Richmonders to society.  He quotes commission member Charles Vaughn as saying: “This is a part of our history that was covered up for too long.”  He also quotes a woman named Ana Edwards as saying: “[Slavery] was hushed for so long. [It] was not something anyone wanted to address.”

Edwards is a member of the Sacred Ground Project, which worked hard to raise a monument to mark the African Burial Ground (connected to Lumpkin’s jail, mentioned in Zucchino’s quote above) in 2008; the group faced a notable amount of adversity from the City of Richmond, which held its preference for selling the plot of land to Virginia Commonwealth University (to construct a parking lot) over memorializing what the ground had been.  An article posted on a website entitled “Seeing Black” is written in pure political frustration over the ordeal, and makes even stronger statements about the city of Richmond than those quoted above:

“Richmond’s Black community, is facing an immediate and historic

This parking lot covers the Burial Ground (taken from the "Seeing Black" website)

challenge: Can we rescue the city’s oldest Black cemetery? Or will we miss this fragile and narrow opportunity to finally win respect for the ancestors who have been as disrespected in death as they were in life? Will we miss the potential to increase the body of scientific and cultural knowledge of colonial Richmond? Will we, in fact, once again negotiate away the Black community’s right to self-determination?”

Richmond – it appears we have a problem.  If my evidence is valid, it looks as though until (shockingly) recent years, the African-now-Americans that have realistically played starring roles in Richmond’s history have been entirely cut from the plotline until recent excavations, like Lumpkin’s jail.  These excavations are interesting and cool to all of us, but to black Southerners they are extremely, deeply significant – these excavations are helping to rewrite a propagandistic history that has oppressed black Richmonders since the Emancipation Proclamation.  They are helping to force city recognition of what has been done to black Richmonders, what black Richmonders have contributed to city growth, and what still needs to be done before black Richmonders can truly feel at home in the city.

But assistance is not solution, nor will it ever be; these excavations bring truth to light, but “truth” as we know it is less clearly cut from objective

This picture that we took captures, literally, the extent of the jail site.

existences (like artifacts in the ground) than it is from the discourse that surrounds them.  It is vital that Richmond goes out of its way to rewrite its history more accurately – to take responsibility for its major (if not signature) participation in and contributions to the slave trade of the South.  Despite the multiple slavery-related excavations that have occurred throughout the past decade, Richmond appears still to be holding tight to its propaganda; the sign outside of Lumpkin’s jail, for one thing, gave more information about Richmond’s exit from than its activity in the slave trade.  Like a defensive child, Richmond hedges around sharp edges and refuses to apologize even though, clearly, the hedging implies acknowledgment of wrongdoing.  As a casual observer pointed out to me and Mary at the jail site: “This place is hard to find because it’s just not memorialized properly at all.”

She’s right.  It is a torn-up parking lot surrounded by a chain-link fence with a sign posted on it.  We thought we were in the wrong place.

Dear City Council -Why are slavery related sites so difficult to find when other (e.g. Confederacy-related) sites can be seen from outer space?

It’s an interesting question.

A picture taken in Richmond in 1865; Richmond had just fallen, and the rubble can be seen in the background. These former-slaves had just been freed. Whereabouts of mother are unknown. (Taken from the "Son of the South" website/blog)


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