The second phase of an archaeological dig at the former Lumpkin's Jail in Shockoe Bottom is expected to begin sometime this summer. The site was once one of the most notorious slave auction houses and warehousing facilities in Richmond, nicknamed by slaves the "Devil's Half Acre."
Bids on the city's request for proposals on the project were due May 1. The city's procurement office was unable to say how many bids had been received, but Matthew R. Laird, an archaeologist with James River Institute for Archaeology Inc. in Williamsburg, says his company is among them.
Between the 1830s and 1865, Richmond was a center for the domestic slave trade, exporting monthly as many as 10,000 slaves bred locally to plantations further south. Today Lumpkin's is a parking lot behind Main Street Station.
Laird's group conducted the original exploratory dig at the site in 2006. His team spent six days in the field, trenching down 8 feet or more into the earth to uncover innumerable objects dating to the period when Lumpkin's Jail occupied the site.
"We did not find direct evidence of the jail building itself," Laird says. "It's like finding a needle in a haystack."
Laird believes his survey uncovered the corner of the jail's foundation, remarkably well-preserved by the low, wet soil under the Shockoe Bottom parking lot. The house owned by Robert Lumpkin and his slave wife is likely under Interstate 95, Laird says, but much more of the Lumpkin's complex may be covered only by parked cars, including the jail, a hotel building and a separate kitchen.
The complex also would be of interest to Virginia Union University, which was founded on the site with the cooperation of Lumpkin's widow. Laird is clearly excited about the prospects; the contract has yet to be awarded and he's already talking as though he'll be laying spade to earth tomorrow.
"We're going to expose as much as we can and look at the entire complex as possible -- that's our proposal anyway," he says. "If you're going to do it, you may as well do it as extensively as possible."