How a Jail Became a Seminary

By Aaron Lumpkin    |    March 28, 2022

Topic:    

In Richmond, Virginia in the early-to-mid 1800s, Wall Street was the hub for trading and commerce. Establishments included not only hotels and businesses but also auctions houses and slave jails. The stretch along 15th Street between Franklin and Broad Streets later became known as “Lumpkin’s Alley.”1 Named for its owner Robert Lumpkin, the alley housed the notorious Lumpkin Jail. Robert has been called “a bully trader,” as well as “both an evil man and a family man.”2 Sitting at the bottom of a steep embankment of approximately 100 feet, and surrounded by a fence between ten and twelve feet high, the jail frequently housed rebellious slaves who were at times bound to a “whipping ring.”3 The whipping ring was a room on the bottom floor where slaves would be stretched out on the ground and secured to rings to be flogged.4 The slave jail was commonly called “the devil’s half acre.”5

Dr. Nathaniel Colver, an abolitionist Baptist preacher from Vermont and former pastor of the Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston, worked with the National Theological Institute to help establish schools to train African Americans, especially for pastoral ministry. Shortly after the Civil War, Colver traveled to Richmond in search of a location for a school. One evening, after committing himself to prayer and fasting, he walked and spoke with a group of people on the street, explaining his hope for the ministerial training school. In the crowd stood one Mary Jane Lumpkin.6

Mary, a slave, had become the wife of Robert Lumpkin after the war, and she had recently inherited his property after his death in 1866. She was described as having very light skin. She and Robert’s children were so lightly skinned that they were able to be sent to the North to avoid their possible enslavement and to receive an education.7 Mary, a woman of faith, sought to instill hope to the hopeless. Though little is known about her piety, it’s recorded that she smuggled a hymnal into the jail for an enslaved man.8 Likewise, she participated in the life of her church as a member of the First African Baptist Church in Richmond.9

When Mary heard Dr. Colver share his hope for the school, she didn’t hesitate to intervene. She brought him and Charles H. Corey back to the jail, offering to lease the property to them for $1,000, which was $500 less than its value.10 And so, the Colver Institute, or the Colored Baptist Theological Seminary, had begun.11

Colver oversaw the seminary until he handed over full responsibility to Dr. Corey. Corey, along with other instructors, taught various courses. Students learned “the usual English branches, mathematics, Latin and Greek, besides the standard theological works of the Baptist denomination.”12 By 1869, the school had forty students. And, over the course of the first seventeen years, the school trained around 450 ministers.13

The jail, once overcome with the sound of woeful cries and locking chains, now paraded the sounds of freedom found through the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

—Aaron Lumpkin

James B. Simmons, a secretary of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, described his visit to the Jail. When he met Dr. Corey, he was astonished to find him teaching freed black preachers in the former slave jail. In fact, students filled several buildings on the property to be equipped for gospel ministry. In the words of Simmons, “The old slave pen was no longer the ‘devil’s half acre’ but God’s half acre.”14

The seminary saw many of its graduates venture into a variety of roles, including pastoral ministry and higher education. For example, Reverend Charles L. Purce graduated from the Institute and went on to serve as a pastor in South Carolina and then as the President of Selma University in Selma, Alabama, a historically black Baptist college.15 Or, consider another graduate—Reverend J. H. Holmes. Holmes lived in Richmond early in his life, and as a slave, was an occupant of the Jail. He eventually returned to Richmond and became the Assistant Pastor of the First African Church in Richmond in 1866; then, he served as the Senior Pastor beginning the following year. While in Richmond, he met Dr. Colver and became a student at the Institute. Holmes went on to baptize over 6,000 people.16 The jail, once overcome with the sound of woeful cries and locking chains, now paraded the sounds of freedom found through the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I (Aaron) am an extended relative of Robert Lumpkin. Going back several generations, my family has a dark history in various places, like many white families from the South. After moving to Richmond in early 2021, I learned of the tragedy and the redemption found at Lumpkin Jail. Recently, I took my family—my wife, children, and parents—to visit the site. As I explained to my children the atrocities that took place there, my oldest son was overcome with shame, while another son said, “That Lumpkin has to be the worse Lumpkin ever.” Possibly. I like to think we’ve moved beyond this, but each generation has its own sins. At the same time, we were able to celebrate the redemptive work that came at the jail site. We cannot forget Mary.

Mary, with the help of Dr. Colver, saw the need for equipping men to serve as pastors. She could have easily rejected Colver’s dream. She could have sought to make even more money as a landlord. But, in a moment when new opportunities emerged for the black community, when new freedoms were promised (though slowly and painfully delivered), she realized the importance and necessity of theological education for the sake of building healthy churches. Simply put, she used her resources to serve the Lord Jesus Christ.

Far too long have there been too many pastors who have been ill-equipped or who have lacked biblical qualifications to lead the church. Don’t misunderstand. There have been many faithful pastors who have carried on the gospel. I have benefitted from several pastors who have faithfully served the Lord Jesus Christ. The church needs more men who are qualified to serve as local church pastors, whether vocationally or bi-vocationally.

And we need more schools like the Colver Institute. Schools that recognize and adapt their training to contextual needs of the day. We need more individuals like Mary Lumpkin who are willing to make sacrifices to see individuals equipped for pastoral ministry. And we need more men. Men willing to count the cost, deny themselves, and serve Christ in his church humbly, sacrificially, and competently. We need the church to see how places that are considered “the devil’s half acre” can become “God’s half-acre.”

  1. Matthew R. Laird, “Archaeologial Data Recovery Investigating of the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Site (44HE1053) Richmond, VA,” Research Report (Williamsburg, VA: James River Institute for Archeology, Inc., August 2010), 7.
  2. Abigail Tucker, “Digging up the Past at a Richmond Jail,” Smithsonian Magazine, March 2009, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/digging-up-the-past-at-a-richmond-jail-50642859/.
  3. Charles Henry Corey, A History of the Richmond Theological Seminary, with Reminiscences of Thirty Years’ Work Among the Colored People of the South. (Richmond, VA: J. W. Randolph Company, 1895), 76.
  4. Corey, History, 50.
  5. As Laird has noted, the slave jail was likely in operation before Lumpkin presumed responsibility for it. However, Lumpkin became one of the most successful and notorious slave trader’s in Richmond. See Laird, “Archaeological Data,” 7. The nickname, “the devil’s half-acre” comes from a letter regarding the Lumpkin slave jail from James B. Simmons, a secretary of the American Baptist Home Mission Society. See Corey, History, 77.
  6. See Jesse Leonard Rosenberger, Through Three Centuries: Colver and Rosenberger Lives and Times, 1620-1922 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1922), 105.
  7. Charles H. Corey, “Reminiscences,” The Baptist Home Mission Monthly X, no. 11 (November 1888): 284–86. Also, see Laird, “Archaeological Data”, 12.
  8. Abigail Tucker, “Digging up the Past at a Richmond Jail.”
  9. Corey, History, 50. Newman had known Mary from years past, when he himself had experienced the whipping ring at Lumpkin Jail.⁠ When Mary arrived at Newman’s church, she recognized him. They remembered how they met, and then said nothing more about it.
  10. Rosenberger, Through Three Centuries, 106. Also, see J. H. Holmes, “Reminiscences,” The Baptist Home Mission Monthly X, no. 11 (November 1888): 286–87.
  11. “Colored Baptist Theological Seminary,” The Richmond Whig, February 25, 1869, Thursday Morning edition, sec. City and Suburban.
  12. “Colored Baptist Theological Seminary,” The Richmond Whig, February 25, 1869, Thursday Morning edition, sec. City and Suburban.
  13. Charles H. Corey, “Reminiscences,” The Baptist Home Mission Monthly X, no. 11 (November 1888): 284–86.
  14. Corey, History, 77.
  15. Holmes, “Reminiscences,” 286–87.
  16. Corey, “Reminiscences,” 284–86.
Aaron Lumpkin

Dr. Aaron Lumpkin previously served as a professor of historical theology at Grimké Seminary. He co-authored The Sum and Substance of the Gospel: The Christ-Centered Piety of Charles Haddon Spurgeon.

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