Repressing Repugnant Heritage: Place, Race, and Memory in Shockoe Bottom

lumpkin-jail dig

Excavations at Lumpkin’s Jail in Shockoe Bottom (image James River Institute for Archaeology)

Richmond, Virginia’s Shockoe Bottom is on first glance a prosaic if not unappealing void.  The checkerboard of parking lots and deteriorating buildings became home to a farmer’s market along Shockoe Creek in the 18th century: the core of Richmond’s earliest urban plan, Shockoe Bottom’s 17th Street marketplace was ringed by food wholesalers, Tobacco Row warehouses, restaurants, manufacturing, Main Street Station, and residences, including the city’s oldest surviving structure, the circa 1740 Old Stone House now home to the Edgar Allen Poe Museum.  But much of the farmer’s market business has declined and food wholesaling transformed since World War II; in 1958 the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (Interstate 95) sliced through the middle of Shockoe Bottom; the cigarette companies abandoned Tobacco Row in the 1970s; and most trains stopped running in 1975.


The initial Shockoe Bottom proposal featured a ballpark, hotel, and water feature along 17th Street (image LovingRVA)

Last week I was a discussant for a Society for Historical Archaeology session examining the heritage and archaeology of Shockoe Bottom, a neighborhood that is now under fire from city planners.  Like many more city administrations facing the detritus of the 20th century city, in 2011 Richmond city planners developed a Shockoe Economic Revitalization Strategy (PDF) that optimistically fantasizes “creative, knowledge-based commercial activity” rising from Shockoe’s “vacant and underutilized land.”  The city’s imagined Shockoe will leverage its surviving architectural fabric: though somewhat at odds with the 2011 focus on “vacant” space in Shockoe Valley, in 1999 the city counted 530 buildings in Shockoe Bottom, with only 20 built since 1954 (PDF).  Sounding a mantra familiar to many 21st-century urbanites, the 2011 plan crafts Shockoe as a “tourism gateway” for the “creative class.”  In 2013 Richmond’s Mayor Dwight Jones proposed a transformation of Shockoe Bottom that would construct a gleaming glass hotel, over 500 apartments, an interactive water feature where the market stalls sit today, and a $79.6 million baseball field.


St. John’s Church

The specter of an economically depressed and aesthetically mundane Shockoe Bottom stands in marked contrast to the summit of Churchill directly to its east.  At the top of Churchill sits St. John’s Church, the heart of a Historic District that is today probably more lovely than it was the day Patrick Henry delivered his “Give me liberty or give me death” oration in the church in March, 1775.  In the neighborhood nearby sits the 1923 art deco Nolde Bakery, which is today refurbished as condominiums; the Grace Street overlook on Richmond Hill near St. John’s is home to the former WRVA studio, a 1968 modern building in the midst of a predominately 18th and 19th century neighborhood; and further east on Broad Street sits Chimborazo Hospital, a Civil War field hospital ringed by charming homes in the Oakwood-Chimborazo Historic District.

Shockoe’s problematic history complicates the city’s bourgeois consumer fantasy.  Alongside farm goods, seafood, and tons of tobacco, the Shockoe market was one of America’s busiest captive marketplaces.  After the import of slaves was outlawed in 1808, Virginia found itself with a large enslaved population.  Those people became the foundation for a rich trade of captives into the lower South.  Richmond was more prominent in the slave trade than any American city except New Orleans, and between 1830 and 1860 about 300,000 captives were exported from Virginia (PDF).  In 1857 the Richmond Enquirer estimated that the year’s slave auctions brought in $3.5 million, and three years later the Richmond City Directory identified 18 “Negro traders,” 18 agents, and 33 auctioneers (PDF).  Scores of contemporary Americans inevitably trace their descent from men and women who were bought and sold in the busy Richmond marketplace.

Lumpkin 1860 Census

Lumpkin appeared in the 1860 census managing a “private goal” (that is, jail).

Lumpkins Runaway August 10 1841 Richmond Enquirer

Lumpkin was trading in captives in August, 1841, when he placed this ad seeking two captives, Henry and Zack, who had escaped from him.

One of these captive traders was Robert Lumpkin, who purchased an existing jail in 1844 where he held and auctioned enslaved African Americans until the Union Army captured Richmond.  Charles Emery Stevens’ 1856 account of the life of Anthony Burns recounted Burns’ experience in Richmond, where he was held in Lumpkin’s jail.  After escaping enslavement in Virginia in 1853, Burns was captured in Boston in May 1854 and claimed under the Fugitive Slave Act (Lumpkin’s jail often held returned captives; compare this 1858 example reported in Ohio’s Anti-Slavery Bugle).

Burns’ case was followed closely by abolitionists, and Stevens detailed the brutality of Burns’ imprisonment for four months in a “room only six or eight feet square, in the upper story of the jail, which was accessible only through a trap-door.  He was allowed neither bed nor air; a rude bench fastened against the wall and a single, coarse blanket were the only means of repose.  After entering his cell, the handcuffs were not removed, but, in addition, fetters were placed upon his feet.  In this manacled condition he was kept during the greater part of his confinement.  The torture which he suffered, in consequence, was excruciating . . . .  His room became more foul and noisome than the hovel of a brute; loathsome creeping things multiplied and rioted in the filth.  His food consisted of a piece of coarse corn-bread and the parings of bacon or putrid meat.  This fare, supplied to him once a day, he was compelled to devour without Plate, knife, or fork.  Immured, as he was, in a narrow, unventilated room, beneath the heated roof of the jail, a constant supply of fresh water would have been a heavenly boon; but the only means of quenching his thirst was the nauseating contents of a pail that was replenished only once or twice a week.  Living under such an accumulation of atrocities, he at length fell seriously ill.”

Lumpkin ad Oct 31 1864 Daily Dispatch v3

Lumpkin placed an October 31, 1864 Richmond Daily Dispatch ad seeking captives he planned to subsequently re-sell.

Stevens described Lumpkin’s Jail as “a large brick structure, three stories in height, situated in the outskirts of Richmond, and surrounded by an acre of ground. The whole was enclosed by a high, close fence, the top of which was thickly set with iron spikes.”  An 1876 account described Lumpkin’s jail as four brick buildings, one of which “was used by the proprietor of the establishment as his residence and his office.  Another was used as a boarding house for the accommodation of those who came to sell their slaves, or to buy.  A third served as a bar-room or kitchen.”  In 1880 an observer remembered that “the `old slave pen,’ was situated near Shockoe Creek, in `Lumpkin’s bottom.’  . . .  `The old jail’ stood in a field a few rods from the other buildings.  It was forty-one feet long, eighteen feet wide, and two stories in height, with a piazza to both stories, on one side of the building.  Here men and women were lodged for safe keeping until they were disposed of at private or public sale.  In this building, in the windows of which some of the iron bars remain until this day, students were invited to assemble for instruction in matters pertaining to the Christian ministry.”

Lumpkins Jail 1880

An 1880 image of the Lumpkin’s Jail

That closing phrase was indeed correct: the former jail was used as a religious school after Emancipation.  Robert Lumpkin fathered five children with one of his captives, Mary, who came to be known as Mary Lumpkin after marrying Robert Lumpkin.  Robert died in 1866, and a year later Mary Lumpkin leased the property to Baptist minister Anthony Colver to train African-American religious students.  In September, 1867 30-40 African-American students began their schooling at the former jail, moving to a new location at Main and 19th Streets in Fall 1870.  The Colver Institute became known as the Richmond Institute in 1876, Richmond Theological Seminary in 1886, and in 1899 combined with Wayland University to form Virginia Union University.  The Lumpkin’s Jail buildings were torn down by 1876.

Lumpkins Slave Jail_Living Learning Programs_2010

Excavations at the Lumpkin’s Jail in 2010 (image Living-Learning Programs)

Between 2005 and 2010 the James River Institute for Archaeology conducted archaeological excavations at Lumpkin’s Jail.  The 19th-century jail site sits in the shadow of the interstate, which dumped tons of fill along the western edge of the former Lumpkin’s lot.  In 2006 Matthew Laird directed James River Institute archaeologists who conducted preliminary excavations at the parking lot covering the remaining Lumpkin’s lot (see video of his lecture in the 2014 Before It’s Too Late symposium).  As urban archaeologists realize, such parking lots and dense filling episodes may appear banal, but they typically provide exceptionally stable preservation.  The 2006 excavations (PDF) confirmed that more than a century of fill covered the remains of mid-19th century street cobble surfaces and structural foundations in and around the Lumpkin’s jail site.  Subsequent excavations in 2008 (PDF) identified foundations of Lumpkin’s jail whose dimensions correspond to a detailed 1876 description of the structure, and much of the mid-19th century remains were 15 feet below the contemporary parking lot surface.


The African Burial Ground boundaries today.

The slave trade sites in Shockoe Bottom simply extended a long and rather un-American history of captivity and dehumanization.  Within blocks of Lumpkin’s Jail sits a patch of grass once referred to as the “Burial Ground for Negroes” (compare this video clip from Shawn Utsey‘s “Meet Me in the Bottom: The Struggle to Reclaim the African Burial Ground” documentary).  Now commemorated as the African Burial Ground, an untold number of African Americans were buried in the space from the 18th century until about 1815 (compare Urban Scale Richmond’s thorough 2015 post and Christopher Stevenson’s 2008 PDF report).  The cemetery was also the site for the city’s gallows.  In 1800 an ambitious slave revolt was planned in neighboring Henrico County by Gabriel, a captive held by Thomas Prosser, but the planned insurrection was betrayed and Gabriel was among more than 70 captives arrested.  Of that number, 26 were sentenced to death, and Gabriel was hung at Richmond’s gallows at the Burial Ground, where he may now be buried.

In 1811 African-American author Christopher McPherson visited the gallows and burial ground and provided one of the most detailed descriptions of the cemetery.  Born enslaved about 1763, McPherson was freed when he was 29 and converted to Christianity in 1799.  He embarked on a life proselytizing and warning of the Biblical prophecy that a third of the world’s population would be destroyed June 4, 1812.  McPherson wrote in 1811 that “in the summer of 1810, the Holy Spirit desired me, and I took a particular view of the grave yard in Richmond, set apart for the free people of color and slaves.  It is very much confined as to space, inaccessible to a carriage by a steep hill, and it is on the margin of the Shockoe Creek, which has already washed away some of the graves, and will continue to wash them away; and to crown the whole, it is the express gallows ground where all the malefactors are interred.”

Richmond from Oregon Hill 1865

Shockoe Bottom from Richmond Hill, 1865 (Library of Congress)

McPherson repeated this description in slightly more detail in a December, 1810 letter indicating that “I had an inspection, the other day, made of the present burying ground. It lies . . . on the margin of Shockoe Creek, where every heavy rain commits ravages upon some one grave or another, and some coffins have already been washed away into the current of Shockoe stream, and in a very few years the major part of them will no doubt be washed down into the current of James river; added to this, many graves are on private property adjoining, liable to be taken up and thrown away, whenever the ground is wanted by its owners, (this is owing, either to confined space, or want of knowledge of what was public ground;) and furthermore, we may add the humiliating circumstance, that this is the very express gallows ground where malefactors are interred” (italics from original).

The burial ground was largely forgotten by the 20th century, and the interstate was built alongside and on top of much of it in the mid-1950s.  It eventually became a Medical College of Virginia parking lot, as is much of Shockoe Bottom.  The asphalt eventually was removed over part of the MCV lots to memorialize the cemetery (2011 aerial images show cars still parked in the lot), but it is very unlikely that the cemetery’s boundaries conformed to the lines drawn on an 1810 map, probably extending in all directions beyond the modest confines commemorated as the cemetery today (cf. Michael Blakey and Grace Turner’s 2008 preservation recommendations for the cemetery).

tobacco factory 1899

Laborers in the T.C. Williams tobacco factory, 1899 (Library of Congress)

In the wake of World War II Shockoe Bottom was fast becoming an artifact just as global ideologues committed to an extraordinary scale of destruction and rebuilding.  In 1946, 64 businesses sat on 17th Street between Main and Broad Streets, dominated by wholesale grocers for whom the war had been a windfall.  Fifteen of those businesses stood vacant, and the remaining included 27 White-managed businesses, 21 African American, and Charlie Woo’s Chinese laundry.  My grandfather’s brother Fitzhugh Xenophon Mullins was a co-owner of one of these businesses, M&M Seafoods, with Leslie Martin, first on 17th Street and then on Franklin Street beside the Randolph Masonic Hall completed in 1787.  Charlie Woo’s laundry was still there in the early 1960’s, by when Shockoe Bottom was fast becoming an increasingly alien landscape: today the farmer’s market is unknown or invisible to most suburbanites; the trains no longer run; the tobacco industry’s collapse removed one of Shockoe’s most prominent industries; and Chinese laundries are something most 21st-century people know only from television shows.


An artist’s rendering of the Lumpkin’s Jail Museum (image Loving RVA)

Some observers seem unable to fathom the potential for archaeology in the midst of Shockoe’s prosaic parking lots.  Champions of the project argued that Shockoe Bottom contains “no historic buildings” or is “mostly underdeveloped or vacant,” and the city has argued that “the ballpark will be constructed on land that today contains empty, asphalt parking lots.”  This inelegantly ignores Shockoe Bottom’s documented archaeological preservation and dismisses the consequence of heritage in a space so seemingly devoid of historical materiality (a point also made by Terry Brock, and one of the factors that fueled the formation of RVA Archaeology).  In 2013 Mayor Jones did not dismiss the neighborhood’s heritage, but he did argue that the ballpark would be “a dramatic improvement over these crumbling parking lots.”  However, in May 2014 the Mayor was faced with the potential that City Council would likely reject his proposal, so he withdrew it and hopes to revive it and build support for some iteration of the development plan.

Shockoe Revitalization 2011 Page 6

The city’s 2011 plan seeks to bring a “creative class” to Shockoe Bottom.

Richmond’s chief administrative officer said in 2013 that “What we’re trying to do is light up the area and take out the dark corners and have more people downtown,” and countless cities today sound this same bourgeois consumer fantasy hoping to lure suburbanites into the city to mingle with creative millennials.  In January, 2014 Style Weekly’s Ned Oliver somewhat rhetorically captured the hyperbolic desperation of the ballpark proposal’s boosters: “Desolate.  Dark.  Vacant.  City officials, developers and assorted ballpark boosters have been painting a gloomy picture of Shockoe Bottom’s future should the mayor’s stadium proposal fail.”  The city’s chief administrative officer, Byron Marshall, warned the City Council that “if there’s no baseball stadium, there will be no other development,” but it now is unclear if he and the city linked the heritage sites in Shockoe Bottom to the ballpark.  The city in apparent good faith advocated a National Slavery Museum and Genealogy Center to interpret the Lumpkin’s Jail remains alongside the African Burial Ground, but that project now seems in limbo with the baseball plan on hiatus (in December, 2015 Richmond Magazine reported that the National Slavery Museum Foundation was “suspended” by the IRS for failing to file tax forms).


Excavations at Lumpkin’s Jail site (image James River Institute for Archaeology)

Shockoe Bottom risks being ignored and forgotten because of its apparently repugnant materiality and heritage; that is, Shockoe Bottom now looms in planners’ imagination as prosaic or even unsightly urban fabric and its parking lots reduced to ruination.  In this landscape captivity and racism surface as simply another banality embedded in the parking lots and the past and devoid of apparent materiality.  Consumer spaces like Richmond’s imagined Shockoe Bottom are often dependent upon invoking historicity even as they simultaneously evade the most unsettling and contemporaneous dimensions of heritage.  The city’s proposal for a meandering water fountain, over-sized baseball stadium, or an Urban Outfitters is not especially distinctive to Shockoe Bottom.  These fantasies of revitalization have no genuine connection to the place’s heritage or community and make unusual neighbors for a cemetery and captive jail (a community group, the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation project, has proposed a quite different memorial; compare the proceedings for the Before Its Too Late symposium).

Preserving Lumpkin’s Jail and the African Burial Ground is but a slice of a city with a rich color line heritage, but many cities remain even more reluctant than Richmond to contemplate such a heritage.  Such historical sites and neighborhoods certainly could be important stages for a discussion about racism that has historically failed Americans (a point Ellen Chapman made in the SHA session).  These places could fuel heritage tourism in Shockoe Bottom connected to Churchill and historic sites in every direction from Shockoe, but after proposing an ambitious confrontation of its heritage Richmond hazards failing to sustain its initial creative courage.



Michael L. Blakey and Grace S. Turner

2008 Institute for Historical Biology (IHB) Review of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR) Validation and Assessment Report on the Burial Ground for Negroes, Richmond, Virginia by C. M. Stephenson, 25 June 2008.  William and Mary Institute for Historical Biology, Williamsburg, Virginia.


Elsa Brown and Gregg Kimball

1995 Mapping the Terrain of Black RichmondJournal of Urban History 21(3):296-346.


Ellen Chapman

2015 Richmond’s Archaeology of the African Diaspora: Unseen Knowledge, Untapped PotentialAfrican Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter 15(1)


Kimberly Merkel Chen and Hannah W. Collins

2007 The Slave Trade as a Commercial Enterprise in Richmond, Virginia, MPS #127-6196.  National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form.


City of Richmond

2011 Shockoe Economic Revitalization Strategy.  City of Richmond, Richmond, Virginia.


Gerald G. Eggert

1985 Notes and Documents: A Pennsylvanian Visits the Richmond Slave MarketThe Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 109(4):571-576.  (subscription access)


Ana Edwards and Phil Wilayto

2015 The Significance of Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom: Why it’s the wrong place for a baseball stadiumAfrican Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter 15(1).


Robert H. Gudmestad

1993 The Richmond slave market, 1840-1860.  Master’s Thesis, University of Richmond.


Mai-Linh K. Hong

2013 “Get Your Asphalt Off My Ancestors!”: Reclaiming Richmond’s African Burial GroundLaw, Culture and the Humanities 13. (subscription access)


Matthew R. Laird

2006 Preliminary Archaeological Investigation of the Lumpkin’s Jail Site (44HE1053) Richmond, Virginia.  Report prepared for City of Richmond by James River Institute for Archaeology, Inc., Williamsburg, Virginia.

2010 Archaeological Data Recovery Investigation of the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Site (44HE1053) Richmond, Virginia, Volume I: Research Report.  Report prepared for Richmond City Council Slave Trail Commission by James River Institute for Archaeology, Inc., Williamsburg, Virginia.


Lord Cultural Resources

2015 Richmond Speaks about Lumpkin’s Jail: Draft Report on Community Engagement.  Lord Cultural Resources


Maurie D. McInnis

2013 Mapping the Slave Trade in Richmond and New OrleansBuildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum 20(2):102-125. (subscription access)


Christopher McPherson

1855 A Short History of the Life of Christopher McPherson, Alias, Pherson, Son of Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords: Containing a Collection of Certificates, Letters, &c. Written by Himself. Second Edition, originally published 1811.  Christopher McPherson Smith, Lynchburg, Virginia.


Samuel Mordecai

1856 Richmond in By-Gone Days.  George M. West, Richmond, Virginia.


Selden Richardson

2008 Built by Blacks: African American Architecture and Neighborhoods in Richmond.  History Press, Charleston, South Carolina.


Richmond City Planning Commission

1999 Shockoe Bottom Land Use and Development Strategy, Richmond, Virginia.  Richmond City Planning Commission, Richmond, Virginia.  Chapter II Profile of Shockoe Bottom


Richmond Institute

1880 Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the Richmond Institute.  William Ellis Jones, Richmond, Virginia.


Jeffrey Ruggles

2009 The Burial Ground: an early African-American site in Richmond, Notes on its history and location.  Unpublished document.



Mary Wingfield Scott

1950 Old Richmond Neighborhoods.  Revised edition circa 2011.  Valentine Museum, Richmond, Virginia.


Charles Emery Stevens

1856 Anthony Burns: A History.  John P. Jewett, Boston.


Christopher M. Stevenson

2008 Burial Ground for Negroes, Richmond, Virginia: Validation and Assessment.


Midori Takagi

2001 Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction: Slavery in Richmond Virginia, 1782-1865.  University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville.


Jack Trammell

2012 The Richmond Slave Trade: The Economic Backbone of the Old Dominion.  The History Press, Charleston, South Carolina.


Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission

1981 Shockoe Valley and Tobacco Row Historic District National Register of Historic Place Nomination.  Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission, Richmond, Virginia.



Lumpkin’s Jail archaeology images from James River Institute for Archaeology

Lumpkin’s Jail image from 1880 Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the Richmond Institute

Lumpkin’s Jail Tour image 2010 from Living-Learning Programs flickr account

Lumpkin runaway ad August 10, 1841 Richmond Enquirer Library of Congress

Richmond City Planning Images from Loving RVA

Richmond from Oregon Hill [sic] 1865 image from Library of Congress

Robert Lumpkin ad October 31, 1864 Daily Dispatch from University of Richmond

St. John’s Church and African Burial Ground images by author

T.C. Williams factory images from Library of Congress

Vision for Shockoe Slide image from Shockoe Economic Revitalization Strategy.

Wellington Goddin Real Estate ad May 8, 1852 Daily Dispatch from Library of Congress

For images of Shockoe Bottom and construction of the interstate in the 1950’s, visit the Valentine Museum database page (digital reproduction rights are restricted)

Goddin May 8 1852 Daily Dispatch.png

On May 8, 1852 the Daily Dispatch ran this ad by auctioneer Wellington Goddin for properties opposite Lumpkin’s Jail.

Posted on January 18, 2016, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Spectacularly done and quite timely. People seem to forget or ignore that you cannot get past the landscape of enslavement anywhere in Richmond. If people have not read Midori Takagi’s book in particular, I strongly recommend it.

  2. Dan Mouer posted a link to this.. it’s great..

  3. I think that is a nice place. Very country sort of area.

  1. Pingback: The Archaeology of Nothing: Grand Challenges and Everyday Life | Archaeology and Material Culture

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