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African American History of Richmond
Item 3 of 11
Also known as "The Devil's Half Acre," Lumpkin's Jail was at the same time a slave holding facility, an action house, and the home of the Lumpkin family. Before the Civil War, Richmond was the most important slave-trading hub outside of New Orleans, and Richmonders would bring their slaves to this place in order to have them broken, tortured, or auctioned.

  • A depiction of Lumpkin’s Jail, 1895. This is where Richmonders brought their slaves to be broken.
  • Foundations of the kitchen building.
  • Digital reconstruction of Lumpkin’s Jail Complex Reconstruction, by BAM Architects
  • Lumpkin's Jail Markers. The complex was commonly known as "The Devil's Half-Acre".
  • Lumpkin's Jail as it looks today

The owner of Lumpkin's Jail was Robert Lumpkin, a prominent slave owner and trader, who is described as being “both an evil man and a family man.”  Although Lumpkin would submit slaves to countless horrors, he also married a former slave named Mary, with whom he fathered 5 children. All his kids, both boys and girls, were sent to school. When times were economically hard for him, he sent his life and children to Pennsylvania to avoid having them sold back into slavery to pay off his debt; and after he died his sole heir was his wife.  

At the same time, he led a brutalizing enterprise that thrived on tormenting fellow humans. Thousand of slaves came and went through Lumpkin's Jail, a complex that included four separate buildings: the Lumpkins’ home, a guest house, a kitchen/bar, and the slave pen. The latter was a two-story brick building, about forty feet long, which comprised the main jail area. The living conditions of these quarters were absolutely unfit for human habitation: there were neither windows nor toilets, and many slaves were crammed, often in shackles, in tiny rooms. Those who died were unceremoniously dumped into the area surrounding the jail.  

 The buildings in Lumpkin's complex were all demolished in 1876, and it wasn’t until archaeological excavations began in the mid-2000s that the foundations of the jailhouse were discovered. Archeologists also found numerous items such as toys, clothes, and shoes, although none of the artifacts traditionally associated with slave-holding were found in the area, such as iron bars or whipping rings. However, we knoe they were in use as Anthony Burns, a slave who was held in this complex, managed to escape and tell his story to an biographer.  
Richmond City Council Slave Trade Commission. "Preliminary History of the Lumpkin's Jail Property."

Tucker, Abigail. "Digging up the Past at a Richmond Jail." Smithsonian Magazine. March 01, 2009. Accessed April 15, 2017.