When one hears the name “Lumpkin’s Jail” what should he think, and how should it make him feel about this state’s history and its role in perpetuating slavery? It should mean something to us all, because even before Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, it already had left a shameful chapter in the annals of the American enslavement of African people.
As Virginians we need to ask a fundamental question: Do enough citizens of this commonwealth know Shockoe in Richmond was the home to Robert Lumpkin’s Slave Jail, an international slave-trading hub so notorious it was referred to as “the Devil’s half-acre”? And if the residents of this state aren’t cognizant of the horrors that were inflicted on human beings on our own soil, how can Americans anywhere else be aware of that fact? Going even further, if we don’t know this history, how can we hold up the stain that is Lumpkin’s for those outside our borders as an example of what must never be repeated?
Does Virginia need a slavery museum? Does America need Virginia to have a slavery museum? Does the world need Virginia to make sure we never forget what happened here, which spawned a greater institution? The answer to all three of those questions is, “Yes.”
Former Gov. Bob McDonnell expressed an appreciation for the importance of us telling this story — and the appropriateness for that to take place in Virginia and its capital city — when he included in his final budget funds to make it happen. Leaders of the General Assembly and Gov. Terry McAuliffe have been right to keep the effort moving forward. These actions are historically responsible, and as Virginians we should be proud to walk down this path. With the nation a mere five years from commemorating the 400th anniversary of the first Africans being brought to North America for servitude in 1619, we have no time to waste. The events of 1619 inexorably shaped the history of America’s founding, and continue to ripple through to this very day. Although slavery was not codified in Virginia for those Africans for another 50 years, the first Africans arrived on these shores in the red-letter year, 1619.
When the idea of the U.S. National Slavery Museum was first conceived, the board — of which I still am chairman — thought that the best place for such a museum would be Jamestown, Virginia — the place where the first Africans were brought, along with indentured servants and women, for the first time. Property rights and legal authority to convey the necessary land for the museum were stalled by litigation — to which our project was not a party — and caused interminable delay for that site.
The City of Richmond then became the first local government we approached with our interest in locating the slavery museum there. For reasons yet unknown, the city did not act upon our offered suggestion. The decision was then made, upon a consultant’s advice, to locate elsewhere.
There now has come a new opportunity for the museum to be located in Richmond, in Shockoe Bottom.
As I told then Gov. McDonnell and the City of Richmond officials, we are prepared to work with the commonwealth and the city to create a sober and reflective remembrance of the 400th anniversary at a facility in Shockoe. The facility and institution that history compels us to create will not merely mark a point in time, though; it will be formed to stand the test of generations. It will serve as a standard to ensure no one ever forgets the ignominy initiated on these shores — one that tore families apart, scarred portions of this great country’s effort to herald freedom and equality and led to the bloodiest war in American history.
There also are other, brighter reasons to build this facility in this very portion of Richmond. My father, Robert J. Wilder Sr., was the child of slaves. He was not one to talk about slavery and what his parents had been through. Yet when I was a child we would go to the horse stables in Shockoe and he would point to the site of Lumpkin’s Jail. By that point, though, the portion of the city also stood as the founding site of an educational institution for freedmen that would evolve into the school we today know as Virginia Union University. (The site had been donated for the purpose of educating freed slaves by Robert Lumpkin’s wife, Mary Ann, herself a black woman.) So a catalyst for black education, VUU, was founded in 1865 on a piece of land that formerly was one of the world’s most notorious parcels of black hell on earth.
Lumpkin’s Jail represented pure evil, but the story we can tell in Shockoe also offers hope. That is highlighted by the fact that after an educational institution for black men was formed on the Lumpkin’s site the land went from being know as “the Devil’s half acre” to “God’s half acre.”
This important piece of Virginia presents the American paradox of darkness and light in a manner that cannot be matched. This patch of Richmond land has the ability to showcase despair that opened to the promise of education and the fundamental freedom it can bestow — even upon the descendants of those human beings once defined basically as little more than chattel by our Founding Fathers.
Since the inception of the slavery museum, we on the board have been fortunate to interact with a great number of people who are enthusiastic to see its shelves lined with artifacts and its lobby full of waiting visitors. This uncommon history will be dedicated to the human rights of all individuals worldwide, some presently enslaved, as slavery has never been a respecter of race, religion, ethnicity or nationality.
This is an American story worth telling. A full conceptualization of the American Dream is impossible without it.