In 1902, the first class to receive degrees with the name Virginia Union University included (from left) John William Barco, George Leander Bayton, Napoleon Bonaparte Curtis and Samuel Leonidas Wade.
Virginia Union University is planning a Rededication and Prayer Service on April 9, beginning with a 9 a.m. program at the Lumpkin’s Jail site honoring the school’s founders, followed by a visit to Ebenezer Baptist Church on West Leigh Street and a march to Coburn Hall on VUU’s main campus at 1500 N. Lombardy St. for the prayer service.
“Did Northern Baptists design to humiliate Southern Baptists, by using Lumpkin’s Slave Jail, at the opening of their Freedmen School-work in Richmond, Virginia? No, the farthest from it. I remember that it was so hinted, at the time. Some may still believe it. But I am glad to be able to show that the occupancy of those premises was wholly providential.” —The Rev. James B. Simmons, in a letter published as part of an 1895 history of the school that became Virginia Union University.
Slavery vanished in fire overnight.
This sudden circumstance 150 years ago left many of Richmond’s African Americans on a different path than centuries of bondage, humiliation and fear had
Because no formal structure existed to educate and train these newly free people, one group sought to act as an intermediary: the American Baptist Home Mission Society. An outgrowth of the abolitionist movement, the society knew about sending missionaries to spread the Christian Gospel while improving living conditions in distant lands. That system could be adapted to bring schooling to blacks. The society organized the Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C., and the Richmond Theological School for Freedmen, Virginia Union’s predecessor.
“With such strong ties to the abolitionist movement, it was a logical extension in the spiritual and physical struggle,” says VUU professor and historian Raymond Pierre Hylton. His book Virginia Union University is in Arcadia Publishing’s Campus History series. “There haven’t been many histories of Virginia Union,” Hylton observes. “Mine is the first in about 90 years.”
‘Shouting, Singing, Stamping’
The Rev. Joseph Getchell Binney, a Yale-educated Bostonian, came to Richmond in the spring of 1865 as a member of the American Baptist Home Mission Society. He’d already founded the Karen Seminary for training ministers in what is now Yangon, Myanmar, and had served in ministry in Augusta, Georgia. Binney was also a professor at Columbia University. He intended to establish a school where prospective pastors not only could receive biblical instruction, but also undertake literary and scientific studies, “sufficient enough to make them intelligent men and capable of leading colored churches,” as his widow, Juliette Pattison Binney, recorded in a family history.
On Sundays, the Old First African Baptist Church, at the corner of College and Broad streets, was jammed until there was no place to stand. “Sunday evenings,” writes Juliette Binney, “were the great occasions, and sometimes there would be considerable disorder in the crowd that gathered around the church.”
Sometimes there were whites present, including teachers and curious visitors. “Shouting, singing, stamping and hand-shaking of the most emotional kind characterized these meetings, and they would often be held until a very late hour, breaking up amid a good deal of confusion,” Juliette Binney writes.
Joseph Binney at first sought to teach night classes, and he instructed his students to conduct themselves in a respectful and Christian manner and to refrain from creating a ruckus in the evenings, disturbing the sleep of neighbors. His admonishments annoyed some of the white clergy and black parishioners who thought that the freedmen should conduct their services as they saw fit. But Binney argued that there were “laws of good breeding that no man could violate with impunity.” When he preached on Sunday evenings, the audience deferred to his instruction, remained silent and left quietly.
Binney conducted his classes at Old First African and wherever he could find spare rooms, with assistance from other teachers. His efforts were not well-received by everyone. “There’s some evidence of intimidation of Binney and these other instructors,” Hylton says. “The white power structure in Richmond still didn’t want to see blacks educated. There were accounts of white teachers getting horsewhipped in the street.”
Occupation officers and soldiers turned a blind eye to these harassments because, while Federal troops may have been anti-Confederate, that didn’t make them nonracist. “Abolitionists were in the minority in the North,” Hylton says.
In the fall of 1866, after insistent requests by the mission in Yangon for more staff, Binney went again overseas, leaving behind Richmond and its complicated exasperations.
Richmond Institute graduating class of 1892
A Fortuitous Meeting
Further organized teaching awaited the May 1867 arrival of Nathaniel Colver, a longtime abolitionist, minister, educator and administrator who previously had served as a professor of theology at the University of Chicago. He was among the early champions of educating former slaves, but by the time he joined the American Baptist Home Mission Society he was in his 70s, undertaking an enterprise that would daunt men half his age. “He was fearless, and he saw this effort as the crowning achievement of his career,” Hylton says.
In one of the most curious and fortuitous meetings ever made in a Richmond street, Colver ambled past Old First African Church, where a number of people were gathered, probably after a service. He struck up a conversation with Mary Lumpkin, whom he described as a “large, fair-faced freedwoman, nearly white,” a former slave who had lived with the infamous slave trader Robert Lumpkin as his wife. Robert had recently died, and his will named Mary as a “person who resides with me” and left his estate to her. Through the conversation with Colver, she understood that he sought property where he could establish classes for blacks. Colver recalled Mary Lumpkin told him that “she had a place which she thought I could have.”
That place was what former slaves had called “the devil’s half-acre” — Lumpkin’s Jail. The group of brick buildings included lodging for slave traders, an auction house, a tavern and the dreaded holding cells.
“She was a very curious character,” Hylton says of Mary Lumpkin. “I’ve often wondered about this woman; about what was going on in her mind. Robert Lumpkin, by all accounts, was a brute, and wasn’t particularly faithful.”
But Mary became, for all intents, Lumpkin’s wife; she took his name and bore their five children. Robert Lumpkin sent two of his mixed-race daughters to finishing school in Massachusetts.
Mary Lumpkin rented the property to Colver for $1,000 a month. Not long afterward, she left Richmond to run a restaurant in Louisiana with one of her daughters. She died in New Richmond, Ohio, in 1905 at age 72.
From Whipping Posts to Lecturns
Lumpkin’s property consisted of about half an acre of bottomland near the center of the older portion of Richmond. The turgid Shockoe Creek ran alongside it. The jail stood a few blocks west of St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry coined the American Revolution’s battle cry of liberty or death, and about six blocks east of where Thomas Jefferson, the chief writer of the Declaration of Independence, designed the Virginia State Capitol as a temple of democracy — largely built by slaves. Near Lumpkin’s Jail were the “Burial Grounds for Negroes” and the gallows where a fugitive slave called Gabriel was executed for organizing an August 1800 revolt. In the adjacent blocks, up through the Civil War, were clustered the shops and storefronts of the burgeoning slave industry, of which Robert Lumpkin was just
Colver selected for his schoolhouse “the low, rough, brick building known as the slave jail.” In this building, Lumpkin imprisoned the disobedient. The Rev. Charles Henry Corey, who succeeded Colver, recalled how “the stout iron bars were still to be seen across one or more of the windows during my repeated visits to this place. In the rough floor, and at about the center of it, was the stout iron staple and whipping ring.”On July 1, 1867, Colver preached what must have been a powerful and emotional sermon from the porch of the former Lumpkin lodging quarters. He made reference to the great change in the status of blacks and also to the purpose to which the jail was about to be devoted. “No longer would there go up from within those walls from brokenhearted men, torn from their families forever, an agonizing wail to heaven,” a chronicler later recalled. “No longer would helpless wives and mothers wash those floors with their tears. [Colver] urged all ministers and young men to avail themselves of the opportunity to enter the school.”
He made arrangements with James H. Holmes, pastor of Old First African Baptist, to reside with his family at Lumpkin’s. The school, as a component of the Washington, D.C.-based National Theological Institute and University, took its first students in the fall of 1867. It’s been said that the former whipping posts were used as lecterns — whether the description is metaphorical or physical is not clear. There was no school furniture, and no chalkboards, no library, no course of study and no one to give advice to the administrators. Many of the students could not write their names. “Modes of thought and of expression were entirely different on the part of teacher and pupil, respectively,” one instructor recalled. “Sometimes the teacher found it extremely difficult to convey his ideas. He had to explain what he meant to one of the most intelligent of the pupils, and [that student] would convey the thought so as to be understood by all.”
‘The Field Is New and Peculiar’
In another chance meeting, Colver ran into Robert Ryland, who was returning from the market with a basket on his arm. Ryland was for more than two decades president of Richmond College (later the University of Richmond), and for 25 years pastor of the First African Baptist Church. To support his family in his straitened post-war circumstances, he hauled milk from their single cow around the city for sale to both black and white customers. Colver recruited Ryland for the school, allowing him to concentrate on teaching religious matters while Ryland taught everything else.
In a letter to Corey on Nov. 18, 1867, Colver responded to inquiries about the pupils and their conditions: “The field is new and peculiar, and peculiar treatment is demanded,” he wrote. “I have a class of pastors and preachers with whom I spend an hour and a half daily. I have gone mostly through the Book of Hebrews. We first read a chapter, and I take great pains to have them read properly, slowly, naturally, distinctly, minding the pauses, observing proper emphasis, intonation, pronunciation, etc. Then I seize upon the points of Gospel truth consecutively in the order of Apostolic argument, and try to make them understand it as well
as I can.
“Progress is very slow, and much patience is required. They have never been taught to think consecutively. We take any good young man, whether looking to the ministry or not. Most learn well. Some do not. I exercise a sovereign prerogative to dismiss the hopeless. But I said in the beginning [that] no rule can be given you. You must ‘cut and try.’ My suggestions will be useless. Your own observations must guide you. Our work is a hard, but an important one.”
‘No longer the devil’s half-acre’
Corey arrived in Richmond in September 1868 to pick up the work Colver started. A Canadian by birth, he’d received his ministerial education in Nova Scotia and Boston, and the concept of abolition and improving the lives of freedpeople became his personal mission. He had served at various postings in the South, and in July 1868, he was called to Richmond from Georgia, where he had been directing the formation of Augusta Institute (later Morehouse College). Corey and his wife, Fannie, had taught there.
He taught day and evening classes for more than 120 students. In May 1869, the American Baptist Home Mission Society took responsibility for the developing theological school, popularly called the Colver Institute in honor of its first superintendent.
Fannie taught, along with Mrs. H. Goodman Smith, who served four years with the school. Their afternoon classes numbered some 80 students, including mothers and some grandmothers, who took to their studies with great eagerness. Mrs. Goodman-Smith, in a letter of memoir, recalled a man whom they called “Old Jeffrey,” who helped around the place. He’d suffered at the hands of a cruel master and was bent and almost toothless. Toward the end of the war, the former master of 300 slaves hanged himself. When Corey asked Jeffrey how he felt when learned his former owner had died, he placed a restricting hand over his mouth, “ ‘You see. Doctor, I tried to be resigned,’ ” the teacher recalled, “but the merry twinkle in his eye and the suppressed tee-hee showed that, to say the least, his grief had not lasted very long.”
The Coreys lived in the tall, old Lumpkin house. James B. Simmons, an administrator from the American Baptist Home Mission Society, visited the seminary and recalled that, “They were happy in the work and so was I. For hideous as were the surroundings, a whole race had been born in a day into liberty. In the other buildings above Richmond Theological Seminary, colored students for the ministry were living and boarding in common. They too were happy. Glad faces greeted me on every side. The old slave pen was no longer the ‘devil’s half acre’ but God’s half acre.”
From 1867 to 1870, the seminary graduated some 200 students.
Pencils and Hammers
Finding properties in which to undertake the education of blacks wasn’t a favorable proposition in many Southern localities. Simmons, who traveled in the attempt of such undertakings, wrote with evident surprise that even by 1870, five years after the war’s end, he witnessed “white property owners in Southern cities almost turn pale with fear when I asked them to sell me a piece of land for one of the Home Mission Society’s colored schools. They would exclaim: ‘No, no. Never, never. My neighbors would blame me.’ One man said to me: ‘Sir, the price of that land is one thousand dollars an acre, but as you want it for a Negro School, you cannot have it at any price!’ ”
After five years, the Lumpkin’s Jail site had become crowded not just by students, but the memories of what occurred there. An opportunity arose with the United States Hotel (until 1853 known as the Union Hotel) on the corner of 19th and Main streets. Otis Manson (who also designed Linden Row on Franklin Street) had built the hotel in 1817, and its proximity to the State Capitol provided lodging to many legislators. The Marquis de Lafayette was entertained during his 1825 visit in its second floor ballroom.
But the hotel couldn’t compete with modern amenities such as central heating and indoor toilets offered by the Exchange a few blocks away. By 1870, boards covered many of its windows, pigeons had made rookeries of some of its rooms and plaster had fallen throughout. The owners wanted to sell for $10,000. Corey and Simmons arranged to purchase the building with funds from the federal Freedmen’s Bureau. Beginning in January 1870, Corey and the students spent several months repairing the building.
He remembered that after the school day, the sounds of repeated phrases and pencils on pages transformed into the contrapuntal rhythm of hammers accompanied by saws. The students “contributed fully a thousand dollars’ worth of labor. They also gave of their own means. They went through the city, and from people, both white and colored, they collected $1,000. This was secured in small sums, and the list containing the names of contributors was more than six yards in length.”
Those who worked and studied there referred to the seminary as the Colver Institute, though by act of the Virginia General Assembly on Feb. 10, 1876, it became The Richmond Institute. Corey directed the school for 41 years and finally left in 1898 because of the affliction of Bright’s disease, which claimed him the next year.
‘One of the most gifted colored men’
Joseph Endom Jones started his formal education in the former Lumpkin’s Jail cells. He grew up a slave in Lynchburg. Despite his mother’s protests, his master forced Jones to work at age 6 in a tobacco factory. Jones’ mother wanted him to have an education, and despite the law forbidding it, she arranged for him to receive lessons in secret, first from another slave, then from a convalescing Confederate soldier who taught Jones on Sundays when the other whites were at church. The soldier exchanged his teaching for food. Jones then attended private schools, and on Oct. 6, 1868, he entered the Colver Institute to prepare for the ministry.
He later pursued studies at Colgate University and Selma University. In 1876, the American Baptist Home Mission Society of New York appointed him instructor of language and philosophy at his former school, by then renamed The Richmond Institute. In 1877, he was ordained to the ministry. After Richmond Institute became the Richmond Theological Seminary, Jones occupied the chair of homiletics (the techniques of preaching) and Greek Testament. The Religious Herald of Richmond wrote of him, “Professor Jones is one of the most gifted colored men in America. Besides being Professor in Richmond Theological Seminary, he is Corresponding Secretary of the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention. He has the ear and heart of his people, and fills with distinction the high position to which his brethren North and South have called him.”
Jones spent 46 years teaching at the college. At the time of his death in 1922, he was the last connection from the brick cells of Lumpkin’s Jail to the old Union hotel, and in 1899 to the granite walls of Virginia Union University. No personal written accounts of his experience have surfaced. “You always hope there’s a relative out there, that they’ll find something in a trunk,” says Hylton, the VUU historian. “It would be valuable to find.”