The Story Beneath Our Feet

by Meghna Melkote

Meghna Melkote is a rising sophomore from Scranton, Pennsylvania majoring in Political Science and Philosophy and minoring in Music. This is her first summer working with the Race & Racism Project as a member of Team Archive. She is involved with the Mock Trial and Debate teams, performs in chamber music ensembles, is a member of the Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity, and is a content curator for public history platform

I visited Lumpkin’s Jail (also known as the Devil’s Half Acre) and the African Burial Ground in Richmond–Lumpkin’s Jail was the largest slave-holding facility in Richmond during the mid 19th century. The jail historically has been home to the typical cruel and unusual treatment of enslaved people by Robert Lumpkin, who purchased the property and created a two story brick slave jail that held enslaved people until they were sold. After emancipation, a historically black seminary was founded and later on, a parking lot covered the area. We also visited the African Burial Ground, or, as it was originally titled in a city map, the “Burial Ground for Negroes.” As we learned from the historical markers on the site, it was a poor quality burial ground, with the danger of heavy rains washing the remnants and land into the James River, and also was where convicts were hung. After a new site opened, the grave site was abandoned and the construction of what would later become I-95 destroyed the land. In the 1990s, activists like Defenders for Freedom, Justice, & Equality and the Slave Trail Commission began working on commemorating and memorializing the site. It currently rests as a large field with information signs explaining the history, surrounded by memorials – it is not clear who left the current ones, but it is known that memorials left by survivors had disintegrated with time.

It was sobering to see both sites. The signs posted were informative, but also showed the hard work that people had to do to get the recognition it deserved. It emphasized the importance of burying the dead, saying that for many African Americans, it is “an expression not only of their love for their family members, but also a defiant affirmation of their own humanity.” The slave jail is marked by a simple marker that states what the structure is, and marks the mail as a site of “reflection and contemplation”. I found that the structure of the exhibit (focused mostly on the actual acre, jail, and informational plaque) helped the exhibit achieve its goal of being a site of contemplation and reflection. While there was no guided tour or real structure, this added on to the appropriately somber tone of the location. Additionally, the narrative of self-determination is very clearly commemorated here in the fight of Black activists to reclaim this space and give it the appropriate honor and historical context it requires. It required activists to speak up from the very beginning–speak up about how poor the grave site was, speak up about how in disrepair the remains were, and speak up about how necessary a new memorialization was.

This exhibit would be best viewed alongside a study of the concurrent history. This would require it being visited in conjunction with a museum visit or prior reading only because there was not much structure/direction to the exhibit. It served as an almost standalone piece aside from the two informational markers that, while effective at imposing gravity on the environment, were less thorough in their historical survey. The exhibit, however, is a critical part of the history of Richmond because it is so easily forgotten (and it was, for some time). It was so easy to put a parking lot over it or allow the site to degrade or to destroy the remnants of Lumpkin’s slave jail. However, the revitalizing of this location and its memorialization shows that the work of activists has not gone unnoticed, and that it is up to activists to encourage real historical preservation.