How Virginia Union Emerged From ‘Devil’s Half Acre’

Ashley Jordan & Stefani Zenteno Rivadineira
VCU Capital News Service

Virginia Union University students, faculty and alumni gather at Lumpkin’s Jail, “the Devil’s Half Acre,” to honor the university’s 150th anniversary. VUU was established in 1865 on the half acre land, which formerly was a slavery selling site. photo courtesy of VCU Capital News Service

Draped in maroon and silver, they gathered at 9 a.m. on a seemingly innocuous piece of land. The small plot, tucked away behind Main Street Station, is a quiet reminder of Richmond’s grim legacy in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Lumpkin’s Jail, or “the Devil’s Half Acre,” is where Africans were held before being sold into slavery. It’s also where Virginia Union University was established in 1865, shortly after Union troops took control of Richmond.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe joined other dignitaries and VUU faculty, students and alumni in a tribute to the university’s founders Thursday on the school’s 150th anniversary.

McAuliffe said the anniversary is a reminder to all that Virginia has made a lot of progress, but there is still work to be done.

“Ask yourself everyday: What kind of commonwealth do we want to be in 150 years?” McAuliffe told the audience of about 100 people.

“I thank everybody at VUU. You have shaped the history in our community, the city of Richmond and the commonwealth of Virginia. I thank all of you for your courage, your leadership. But folks, we are just starting; we got a long way to go.

“Let’s build upon what happened 150 years ago, and let’s get out there and fight, and let’s make sure VUU is strong 150 years from today.”

The celebration of Virginia Union’s founding coincided with the 150th anniversary of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the end of the American Civil War. On Thursday afternoon, the governor attended a re-enactment of the surrender at Appomattox Court House. Both events were part of Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial commemoration.

During the ceremony at 15th and Franklin streets in downtown Richmond, McAuliffe gave a short history lesson.

“What I want people to take away from this is to remember what went on with our nation and the horror with the battles that folks fought,” the governor said. He said 700,000 people “lost their lives in the Civil War fighting to free the slaves. And now 150 years later, we still have some battles.”

Other speakers discussed the significance that Lumpkin’s Jail had given birth to Virginia Union University. Here is how that happened:

The jail had been owned by a slave dealer named Robert Lumpkin. It was used as a center for breaking slaves – to destroy their will and make them docile before they were auctioned off.

After Lumpkin died, his widow, Mary Ann Lumpkin, herself a former slave, rented out the land to Baptist missionaries. They turned the jailhouse into a schoolhouse – Virginia Union University – in the former capital of the Confederacy.

Thus, the same area that had been used to oppress African-Americans was transformed into a catalyst to educate former slaves.

Today, Virginia Union offers two dozen majors, ranging from business and education to social work and computer science. It is the second oldest historically black seminary school in the United States. Notable alumni include former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and leaders in civil rights, religion, sports and other areas of society.

The Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, chairman of the VUU Board of Trustees, discussed the symbolism of Mrs. Lumpkin’s gesture.

“This is an important moment in the life of our institution,” Richardson said. He said turning the former slave jail into VUU was like Jesus’ resurrection at Easter.

“VUU from a theological standpoint is an indication of the promise of resurrection,” Richardson said. “For 400 years, our people lived in the worst slavery of the world because it divided our families, it took away our language and dismissed our heritage. That was a slavery as dark as death.”

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