Excavation could reveal more on slave trade in Virginia

Sunday, April 9, 2006

RICHMOND, Va. -- Archaeologists are digging up a parking lot believed 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 have been digging into a 90-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, broken bottles and pottery jags 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, he said.

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

"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, with Robert Lumpkin, a businessman who trafficked in slaves, and during an agricultural shift in Virginia to crops that required few field hands but the beginning of the cotton boom in the Deep South.

"Many people found themselves with more slaves than they had a need for," Laird said. "In the deep South, the opposite was happening."

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, 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, Lumpkins' 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. 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.

"We're having to get down about 8 feet before we get to the Civil War layer," said Laird, standing outside two deep pits Tuesday.

Ideally, they hope to find trash pits where Laird said tenants often threw refuse and personal items.

The trail commission, which is compiling a string of Virginia slave history landmarks, hopes to add markers to the site, she said. A replica of the two-story, brick structure believed to have stood there might also be in the works, serving either as a museum or a genealogy center, McQuinn said.

A slavery reconciliation statue is planned about a block from the site.

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