History says that in 1867, a Baptist minister named Nathaniel Colver was looking for a space in Richmond for a school he wanted to build to train Black ministers. He set out into the streets, where he found in the midst of a group of Black people “a large, fair-faced freedwoman, nearly white, who said that she had a place” that could serve as a school, wrote the Rev. Charles H. Corey in his history of the school.
Corey identified the woman as Mary Jane Lumpkin, the widow of Richmond slave dealer Robert Lumpkin. Robert operated a slave jail from the 1830s to 1860s, three blocks from the Virginia state capitol. The slave jailer fathered five children with light-skinned enslaved woman Mary, who ultimately acted as his wife and took his name. Although Robert in his will described Mary as a person “who resides with me”, he left her all his real estate when he died, a report by Smithsonian said. Mary thus inherited not only his money and property but also the slave jail.
In 1867 when Colver met her, he entered a three-year agreement to lease Robert’s jail from Mary for $1,000 a year. Known as “The Devil’s Half Acre,” the jailhouse was soon converted to a schoolhouse. It became the site of the school that became Virginia Union University, now on Lombardy Street in Richmond.
“The Devil’s Half Acre” operated as a large slaveholding facility in the South for more than 20 years. Robert, while living and working in Richmond’s slave-trading district for decades, imprisoned thousands of enslaved people over his career, according to Virginia Humanities Fellow Kristen Green, author of the New York Times bestseller “Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County”.
Mary, who was born in 1832, was enslaved by Robert when she was just around eight years old, Green said. By the age of 13, she had already had her first child with Robert. “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,” Green said, adding that Robert however cared for the children. “He left things to Mary in his will, and sent her, and their children, to Philadelphia before the start of the Civil War.”
Not much is known about the circumstances surrounding Mary’s birth, life and death. However, per Green’s research, Mary was likely mixed race. She could read and write. “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,” Green said.
Corey also described Mary as “a pious and intelligent woman,” adding that Mary’s daughters Martha and Annie were “cultivated and refined”.
Philip J. Schwarz, a professor emeritus, said Mary also was heir to property in Philadelphia and Huntsville, Ala. and lived in New Orleans during the 1870s.
It is unclear what Mary’s final years with her daughters, and three sons were. Smithsonian however writes that Mary operated a restaurant in Louisiana with one of her daughters before she passed away in New Richmond, Ohio, in 1905 at 72.
Green believes that even though Mary could not have consented to a relationship with Robert because she was enslaved and young, she did 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,” Green said.