A former slave helped found a key American university
Before the Civil War, Lumpkin lived with his five children in Robert Lumpkin’s slave prison in Richmond, a place so diabolical it was known as “Devil’s Half Acre”. But after the Civil War, Mary inherited the prison grounds and leased it to white Baptist missionaries, who turned it into a school for black freedmen.
The prison, a site of horrific violence that housed pre- and post-sale slaves in the Lower South, became the cornerstone of Virginia Union University, which still exists today. W. Franklyn Richardson, chairman of the school’s board of trustees, observed that “the place where we were sold into slavery becomes the place where we are set free into intellectual freedom.”
This HBCU that Mary Lumpkin helped create was one of dozens installed in church basements, schools and homes after the Civil War to educate newly liberated black people. The HBCUs initially taught primary and secondary education because many slaves had been deprived of schooling. In the 20th century, they became the primary means for black Americans to obtain a post-secondary education, as they were denied admission to virtually all white colleges and universities in the South until the 1960s, when many new federal desegregation orders have pressured universities to integrate.
Today, HBCUs remain a vital pathway to higher education for Black Americans, while instilling a sense of pride, belonging, and activism that has fueled groundbreaking achievements and civil rights gains.
The first HBCUs were established before the Civil War, primarily in the Free North, beginning with Cheyney University in Pennsylvania in 1837. In 1856, the White Methodist Episcopal Church established Wilberforce University in Ohio, reflecting the religious roots of many schools.
When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the American Baptist Home Mission Society, which for many years had remained neutral on the issue of slavery, decided to use its teachers and missionaries, who had traditionally worked overseas, to help educate newly freed blacks. The schools’ original purpose was to prepare former slaves to enter Baptist ministry as pastors, but they later offered classes for men and women at different levels.
During Reconstruction, the HBCU movement gained momentum. Aid agencies like the Baptist Home Mission Society joined with the War Department’s Freedmen’s Bureau to establish schools for newly freed blacks in the Old Confederacy.
Within days of Richmond’s collapse, the Mission Society arrived in the former Confederate capital, began giving classes, and by November 1865 had established a school. Still, the Mission Society struggled to find a permanent home for its school because the white population of the South remained opposed to the empowerment of black men through education and would not sell or rent buildings to use as a school. Leaders resorted to classes at the First African Baptist Church and guesthouses around town.
Headteacher Nathaniel Colver was “on the brink of despair” over his inability to find a home for what was then known as the Richmond Theological Institute when he encountered a group of black women on the street in 1867.” In the middle of this group was a tall, blond-faced, almost white freedwoman who said she had a place she thought I might have,” he later said.
Mary Lumpkin, likely of mixed race, agreed to rent Lumpkin’s old prison for three years at $1,000 a year. Lumpkin recognized the value of education, having successfully educated his children and secured their freedom before the Civil War. Black women had long served as educators, and even during slavery they recognized the value of literacy and taught others what they had learned.
The students knocked over the prison cells and ripped the bars off the windows, turning “Devil’s Half Acre” into “God’s Half Acre”. On September 1, 1867, classes began with about 30 or 40 students. “The occupation of these premises,” wrote Colver, “was entirely providential.”
When its tenure ended, the Richmond Theological Institute moved, and over time it was one of four institutions that came together to create what is now known as Virginia Union University.
What made Virginal Union unique among HBCUs was the role a black woman played in making it a permanent institution. Only a handful of other HBCUs claim black women in their founding stories. Bethune-Cookman University, for example, claims Mary McLeod Bethune as its founder, according to Virginia Union President Hakim J. Lucas.
In 1876, as the era of Reconstruction drew to a close, the lack of black leadership became a problem for the more than 90 HBCUs nationwide, as many began to promote scholarship black and to fight for the autonomy of the white churches and the white leaders who had run the schools since their founding.
Half a century later, in 1932, Virginia Union merged with the all-female Hartshorn Memorial College, one of the nation’s first black women’s colleges.
Fundamentally, HBCUs weren’t just a vehicle for education for black students at a time when most American colleges and universities remained segregated. They also nurtured activism and made a black liberation ethos central to black identity. In the Civil Rights era, Virginia Union students and faculty joined forces to desegregate whites-only food counters, marching to department stores in downtown Richmond. On February 22, 1960, for example, 34 Virginia Union students staged a sit-in at the lunch counter of the Thalhimer department store, where black men and women were allowed to shop but not eat.
Today, America’s 101 HBCUs serve approximately 300,000 students. They remain unique institutions playing a vital role in education in the United States. They serve as spaces to achieve high-quality education while creating nurturing environments and instilling a sense of pride and belonging that has helped Black youth to achieve individual success and progress as a group. Their unique mission and militant tradition also continue to shape the push for civil rights and racial equality in America.
Virginia Union assumed a unique place among HBCUs due to Mary Lumpkin’s role in its founding. For decades, she was kept out of the school’s history. But in 2020, a street across campus was dedicated “Mary Lumpkin Drive” and a marker was installed recognizing her as the “mother of VUU”.
Memorializing Lumpkin reinserts black women into the narrative of the push to educate African Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War. Her story reminds us how, despite all the involvement of relief societies and white benefactors, it was black women who recognized the need for education for their community and worked to make it happen.