Many of us don’t want to think about the past, especially the unpleasant and embarrassing parts of the past. Not wanting to remember also applies to thinking about history. I was reminded of this the other day when I came across Maurie D. McInnes’ essay in the New York Times “Disunion” series.
We don’t know exactly when the last sale of enslaved persons occurred in Richmond, Va., known as “the great slave market of the South,” but it must have taken place before April 3, 1865. On the previous day, the order had come to evacuate in advance of the arrival of Union troops who liberated the city.
Amid the chaos, a slave trader named Robert Lumpkin still had a jail full of people he was hoping to sell. According to the journalist Charles Carleton Coffin, who was there to witness the fall of Richmond, after learning of the order to evacuate, Lumpkin “quickly handcuffed his human chattels,” about 50 men, women and children, and marched them four blocks south to the Danville-Richmond Railroad depot on the banks of the James River. He was hoping to whisk them away, and find buyers for them in another city.
When they arrived, however, “there was no room for them on the train which whirled the Confederate Government from the capital. Soldiers with fixed bayonets forced them back. It was the last slave gang seen in this Western world.” Lumpkin was angry, but there was nothing he could do. So, “with oaths and curses loud and deep,” Coffin reported, Lumpkin was forced “to unlock their handcuffs and allow them to go free.” These 50 people were worth about $50,000, according to Coffin, “but on that Sunday morning were of less value than the mule and the wagon which had drawn the slave-trader’s trunk to the station.”
Richmond was a major slave trading hub and Robert Lumpkin, one of the most prominent traders. His jail and auction house were located in Shockoe Bottom, a low point along the James River. Abigail Tucker wrote about the archeology of the site and Lumpkin in a 2009 Smithsonian Magazine article, “Digging up the past at a Richmond jail”. She writes
Lumpkin, a “bully trader” known as a man with a flair for cruelty, fathered five children with a black woman named Mary, who was a former slave and who eventually acted as his wife and took his name. Mary had at least some contact with the unfortunates her husband kept in chains, on one occasion smuggling a hymnal into the prison for an escaped slave named Anthony Burns.
The slave trade was important to the economics of both North and South before the Civil War. McInnes reminds us
The economic engine of the slave trade helped to fuel America’s prosperity. The profits from the trade in enslaved people flowed to many places. Traders were not the only ones to profit from America’s internal slave trade. Slave owners in the Upper South profited because they received cash for the people they sold. Slave owners in the Lower South profited because the people they purchased were forced to labor in the immensely productive cotton and sugar fields. The merchants who supplied clothing and food to the slave traders profited, as did steamboat, railroad and shipowners who carried enslaved people.
Capitalists in the North profited by investing in banks that handled the exchange of money for people, or in insurance companies that provided insurance for the owners’ investments in enslaved people. So did foreign investors in Southern securities, some of which were issued on mortgaged slaves. The hotbed of American abolitionism — New England — was also the home of America’s cotton textile industry, which grew rich on the backs of the enslaved people forced to pick cotton. The story of America’s domestic slave trade is not just a story about Richmond or New Orleans, but about America.
When I read McInnes’ column the current controversy about preserving the site of Lumpkin’s jail and auction house came immediately to mind. The National Trust for Historic Preservation explains
Today, Shockoe Bottom is an urban archaeological site imminently threatened by “Revitalize RVA,” the controversial plan to construct a minor league baseball stadium, a Hyatt hotel, a Kroger grocery store, and residential and commercial office space at the site. The ill-considered stadium project, which is heavily promoted by the mayor of Richmond, members of the City Council, and influential real estate developers, threatens to destroy the remarkable archaeological remains which survive below the asphalt.
The cruelty of slave traders like Robert Lumpkin, the wealth America enjoys, and the stories of the men and women held in the jail and sold at Shockoe Bottom deserve to be remembered.
I can’t remember another time I have used this blog to urge readers to take action, but I hope you will go the the National Trust link and sign on to save Shockoe Bottom.
Reproduction of Douglass note from Preservation Virginia.