- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2006

RICHMOND — Archaeologists are digging up a parking lot thought to be the former site of a slave holding pen whose artifacts could expose new facets of Richmond’s slave past.

Researchers with the James River Institute for Archaeology will spend this week digging into a 90-foot-by-90-foot patch of land behind the restored Main Street train station in Shockoe Bottom, one of the oldest sections of this former capital of the Confederacy.

The dig beneath an elevated section of Interstate 95 is seeking remnants of Lumpkin’s Jail, named after a slave trader. The jail later became a school for freed blacks.

Tuesday, Ziploc bags full of iron pieces and broken bottles lined the sides of the pits. Below, workers tussled with gravel, sewage pipes and old bricks.

The dig, if successful, could lead to a full-scale excavation of the area, said senior researcher Matt Laird.

Success, he explained, is measured by the discovery of either the 19th-century jail’s building foundation or a layer of soil from that era — both likely rich in the type of pottery, animal bones and household goods archaeologists treasure.

Such items would be turned over to the city for possible inclusion in a museum, Mr. Laird said.

The initial dig is being funded by the city and grants orchestrated by the Richmond Slave Trail Commission, said Delores McQuinn, its chairwoman.

“This is the capital of the Confederacy,” she said. “[But] it’s more sides to the history of the city. We want this story to be told.”

That story starts in 1844, which was the beginning of the cotton boom in the Deep South, but was also when Virginia experienced an agricultural shift to crops that required few field hands. The story also includes Robert Lumpkin, a businessman who trafficked in slaves.

“Many people [in Virginia] found themselves with more slaves than they had a need for,” Mr. Laird said.

Men like Lumpkin bought excess Virginia slaves and held them in “jails” until they could be sold down South.

Such jails would have been common in Richmond, the center of the surplus-slave business, Mr. Laird said. But Lumpkin was particularly prolific: he owned so many lots there, the city’s slave-trading center was christened “Lumpkin’s Alley.”

Unlike other jails of the period, Lumpkin’s went on to have a life after emancipation.

When he died in 1866, Lumpkin left the property to his wife, Mary — a former slave who he had purchased. Mr. Laird said she was looking for someone to rent the property when, in 1867, she struck a deal with a white minister hoping to establish a school for recently freed blacks.

That school would become Virginia Union University, a private, black college now found halfway across the city.

The school moved about three years later, and the building was demolished in the 1870s. An iron company and later a train depot occupied the property, now a parking lot.

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