Lumpkin's Jail

Richmond, Virginia to build memorial on former site of the country’s largest slave prison

Architecture East
Lumpkin's Jail can be seen on the left. To the right is The Winfree Cottage. (Courtesy Yale National Initiative)
Lumpkin's Jail can be seen on the left. To the right is The Winfree Cottage. (Courtesy Yale National Initiative)

200 years ago, Richmond, Virginia, was home to the largest slave penitentiary in the United States: Lumpkin’s Jail. The slave holding facility, also known at the time as “the Devil’s half acre,” held the title for more than twenty years and was a hub for the country’s slave trade. Two centuries on, and after much deliberation, Richmond has decided to move forward with plans memorialize the site where many slaves were once held and lost their lives.

In doing so, authorities have recruited the architecture firm SmithGroupJJR. The Detroit-based practice recently worked on David Adjaye’s much celebrated National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., being named as “associate design/construction architect.” The decision was made by Richmond’s Slave Trail Commission who said they are now ready to lay down some plans.

The move has been a long time coming. An emotional Delegate Dolores McQuinn, a Democrat from Richmond, spoke to WVTF Radio. “You know you dream, you pray, you seek direction, input, help, and it’s just phenomenal to be at this place now,” she said.

News of the plans, however, has not been well received by everyone. Aside from the city’s steps to memorialize the site, a large grassroots movement has been running too—though the two haven’t always shared the same view. According to WVTF, criticism has fallen on the city for not including a nearby African burial ground in the memorial.

Ana Edwards, a leading figure of the grassroots movement, spoke positively of the news. “This is a very good first step, and it is a logical first step,” she said. “Our primary goal is that they protect the rest of the footprint, so that it will be there when the funds are available for that development to take place.”

While SmithGroupJJR has joined the project, whether the site becomes a memorial and/or museum remains to be determined. This project also comes on the heels of a new museum and a memorial to the victims of lynching in Montgomery, Alabama, set to open in 2017.

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