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For the majority of United States’ existence as a nation, the focus of academic history has been on the actions and achievements of educated, well-to-do white men. As the individuals most likely to create and preserve records, they have given us a far better account of their own lives than of any other group. For historians and genealogists struggling to uncover the distant past of people of color, women, and enslaved individuals, this can be frustrating and heart-breaking. If an individual’s identity intersects with more than one of these categories, the challenge becomes even that much more difficult.

In The Devil’s Half Acre, which was released last week, Kristen Green chronicles the life of Mary Lumpkin, an enslaved woman living in Richmond during the Civil War. Lumpkin had children with her enslaver, Robert Lumpkin, owner of the infamous Lumpkin Slave Jail located in Shockoe Bottom in Richmond which was known colloquially as The Devil’s Half Acre.

After Robert Lumpkin’s death, Mary came into possession of the real estate which she then rented to Nathaniel Colver to house what would become Virginia Union University for a total of $1000 dollars for three years.1

After renting Lumpkin's Jail, the school moved to the former Union Hotel on Main and 19th in Richmond.

The Devil’s Half Acre is our Common Ground History Book Group selection for May 2022 and I, for one, am extremely eager to learn what Green has been able to rediscover about Mary Lumpkin and the lives of her children. For several years, I have been researching other women intimately involved in the formation of Virginia Union University, specifically Rosa Daniel Kinckle Jones and her sister, Alice Walker Kinckle Vassar. Although neither of these women taught at Virginia Union, their husbands, Joseph E. Jones and David N. Vasser (close friends whom they married in double wedding), were some of the school’s earliest students, as well as its earliest and longest-serving faculty members.

Richmond Institute Catalog, 1880.

Courtesy of HaithiTrust

The lives of Rosa, a music teacher at Hartshorn Memorial College, and Alice, a public school teacher in Lynchburg, are relatively well-documented since they were both highly educated and well-to-do as Black women living in Reconstruction Virginia. The lives of the other prominent women in Vassar and Jones’s lives, their mothers, is an entirely different story. These two women, the mothers of Vassar and Jones – one free, one enslaved – both risked their lives to make sure that the lives of their sons were better than their own, yet we know so little about them and their day-to-day lives. They fought passionately for their sons’ education, little realizing that, like Mary Lumpkin, they were contributing to the founding of a university that would still be educating young men and women over a hundred and fifty years later.

David N. Vassar was born free in Bedford County in 1847 to Susan Vassar.2 Her name is just about all we currently know about her. Perhaps as we digitize, transcribe, and index Virginia’s Free Negro Registers, we will be lucky enough to learn more. Although not enslaved, her life could not have been easy. We don’t know if she lived with family or about her situation with her son’s father. In a biographical sketch of David Vassar, Charles Corey, the president of Richmond Theological Institute (VUU’s predecessor), relates that although born free, Vassar had been stolen from his mother at the age of three and sold into captivity and enslavement. Corey maintains that “the man who did the deed was punished for his crime,” but we do not know how long David was separated from his mother or how she was able to have him rescued and the guilty party punished.  Perhaps she was not involved at all and never saw him again. Somehow however her son David taught himself to read from business signage in Lynchburg and, at the age of twenty-one, entered the school that later would be known as Virginia Union University. Hardly knowing how to write his own name, he eventually became a celebrated professor and pastor, the Rev. Dr. D. N. Vassar, teaching natural science, biblical studies, and mathematics for over twenty-five years.

Joseph E. Jones’s mother, Sicily Jones, was born around 1830 and by the time of her son’s birth was enslaved by the Langhorne family of Lynchburg, Virginia. According to her son, Sicily worked tirelessly to educate him even though it was illegal to do so. Joseph was first tutored by another man enslaved nearby before the unnamed man was sold further away. Sicily did not give up, she had “a mother’s heart and ambition for her offspring”.3 She embarked on an even riskier plan. While the Civil War raged, she bartered with an injured Confederate deserter. In exchange for food and medical care, he would teach her son. Perhaps Sicily foresaw her son’s emancipation and the benefits that being able to read and write would give him in the new South. After the war’s end, Joseph was able to enroll in a private school, and then matriculated into Richmond Theological Institute.

Sicily Jones in the 1870 Federal Census

Shortly after the school’s inception, Henry Bill, a Connecticut book publisher, visited Richmond Theological Institute and agreed to sponsor Joseph E. Jones’s further education at Madison (now Colgate) University. This arrangement is mentioned directly and indirectly in several summaries of Jones’s career. What is not mentioned, however, is something I came across by chance; a second arrangement. The 1870 Federal Census lists Sicily Jones, forty years old and blind, living as a servant in Henry Bill’s household. One can imagine that money would not have been the only obstacle keeping Jones from going away to college. He had his mother to take care of, and Reconstruction-era Virginia was not an easy place for a single woman, formerly enslaved, blind, and illiterate.

I hope the arrangement was a pleasant one. Sicily did not live much longer, dying at the age of forty-two. She is buried in Norwich, Connecticut, far from where she probably spent most of her life.

She did live long enough to see her son learn Latin and Greek, which he taught as a professor for over 40 years. He was also a pastor and editor of numerous newspapers, all thanks to his mother’s courage and daring in finding him teachers. Jones was understandably beside himself at her death. Alone in New York after the death of his “dear mother”, he wrote back to Charles Corey in Richmond seeking comfort, “when one is afflicted by the hand of providence he looks to his fellow man for sympathy.”4

The Grave of Sicily Jones, Yantic Cemetery, Norwich, CT.

Picture Courtesy of FindAGrave User Melodye Whatley, 12 Nov 2015

Sicily did not live to see her son married, but her daughter-in-law Rosa Kinckle Jones’s epitaph seems fitting for her and Susan Vassar as well: “She still lives through those to whom she gave her life.” All these women did not just give birth biologically to many inspirational men and women; they helped birth a university that is still changing lives today.

-Jessi Bennett, Digital Collections Specialist


Compiled by Becky Schneider, Senior Reference Librarian

Online Resources

African American Research at the Library of Virginia to 1870 (LVA)

To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade (LVA)

Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative (LVA)

Archaeological Data Recovery Investigation of the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Site (Virginia Department of Historic Resources)

From History’s Shadow (Richmond Magazine)

Lumpkin’s Jail (Encyclopedia Virginia)

Lumpkin’s Jail/Devil’s Half Acre Site Development, Richmond Slave Trail Improvements, and Shockoe Hill African Burial Ground Acquisition (City of Richmond)

Seeing the Scars of Slavery in the Natural Environment: An Interpretative Guide to the Manchester Slave Trail along the James River in Richmond (Friends of the James River Park)

Tell Them We Are Rising (PBS)

Up From Slavery (Style Weekly)

The Woman Who Turned the “Devil’s Half Acre” into “God’s Half Acre” (VPM)



Corey, Charles H. 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.

Deyle, Steven. Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Finley, Alexandra J. An Intimate Economy: Enslaved Women, Work, and America’s Slave Trade. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020.

Hylton, Raymond. Virginia Union University. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2014.

Johnson, Sadeqa. Yellow Wife: A Novel.New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021.

Rothman, Joshua D. The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America. New York, NY: Basic Books, Hachette Book Group, 2021.

Trammell, Jack. The Richmond Slave Trade: The Economic Backbone of the Old Dominion. Charleston: History Press, 2012.


Header Image Citation

Hartshorn, W. N. (William Newton), 1843-1920, and George W Penniman. An Era of Progress And Promise, 1863-1910: the Religious, Moral, And Educational Development of the American Negro Since His Emancipation. Boston: Priscilla Pub. Co., 1910.


  1. Corey, Charles H. 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.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Vaughan, Walter Raleigh, 1848-. Vaughan’s “Freedmen’s Pension Bill.”: Being an Appeal In Behalf of Men Released From Slavery : a Plea for American Freemen And a Rational Proposition to Grant Pensions to Persons of Color Emancipated From Slavery. [Omaha, Neb.?]: [publisher not identified], 1890.
  4. Corey, Charles H. 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.
  5. Letter from Joseph E. Jones to Charles Corey, November 25, 1872., Richmond Theological Seminary AR-008, Box 1, Folder 6, Virginia Union University Archives and Special Collections.

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