How an enslaved woman created a university where a slave jail once stood

While Mary Lumpkin’s story is remarkable, many other enslaved Black women have been forgotten by history, says the author of a new book.

Virginia Union University is a historically Black college that is home to many notable alumni — ranging from former Virginia governor Douglas Wilder to Detroit Pistons hall-of-famer Ben Wallace. But one of the most interesting things about the college is its origins.

Mary Lumpkin, a former slave, remarkably turned the site of a Richmond, Virginia slave jail into a school that is now the historically Black college. Her story was almost erased from history.

“According to one of Mary Lumpkin’s descendants, Mary Lumpkin negotiated with Robert Lumpkin. And she said to him, you know, you can do whatever you want with me, but quote, ‘these children have to be free.'” — Kristen Green, reporter and author”

Listen: How an enslaved woman’s narrative was preserved in history in a new book.



Kristen Green is reporter and author of the book “The Devil’s Half Acre: The Untold Story of How One Woman Liberated the South’s Most Notorious Slave Jail.” She says the stories of enslaved women have often been erased, adding that we are only taught of the people who ran away from captivity in dramatic fashion.

“Very few narratives got through that didn’t fit this kind of mold of, like, a dynamic escape. But women couldn’t escape like this,” says Green.

“They had children they weren’t going to leave. So, most women stayed and just tried to survive and to keep their children with them if they could.”

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