Image of historic "Lumpkin's Jail", photo of book "Yellow Wife". Caption: What do this building have to do with this book?

Yellow Wife, A Novel by Sadeqa Johnson

When a Place Tells You A Story

Mixed Race People in the Story of Slavery

It took me a while to make up my mind to read Yellow Wife. Reading ANOTHER book about slavery wasn’t exactly at the top of my “to do” list, especially the stereotype of the “tragic mulatto. Nella Larsen wrote about it so brilliantly in Passing that her work was under rated for decades: she is hard to top. Edward P. Jones’ similar novel The Known World directly addresses many of the same complexities of Yellow Wife, yet he fearlessly takes his characters places Johnson won’t.

I became intrigued, however, about the idea of an African-American woman married to the owner of a “slave jail”. The story is also based on historical events: if it weren’t, it would stretch credibility much too far.  Of course, the fact that it’s NOT completely fiction makes it worse, of course, but paradoxically, more believable.

And the term “paradox” is the best way to describe everything about this story, and the whole slavery system itself.  Remember how they taught us that it is the “peculiar institution” in school?  It really was.

The Plot of Yellow Wife

The story centers on a mixed-race woman with a privileged upbringing as the daughter of the “master” and his enslaved concubine. Naturally, the “mistress” doesn’t enjoy having her husband’s lover and illegitimate daughter in her home. While some of the mistress’ behavior stretches the limits believability, even in this sick situation, one totally expected thing response is to get rid of Pheby as soon as possible. “Slave jails” did slave owner’s dirty work on commission. Most light-skinned, mixed-race women in this situation were sold into prostitution, but Pheby instead becomes the “wife” of the jailer.

In one sense, Pheby is “lucky” in that she doesn’t have to be a prostitute. But being “married” to the owner of the “slave jail”, as you can imagine, is worse in another sense.

She becomes the mother of the jailer’s children:how’s that for mixed loyalties?

On paper, both she and the children are his slaves.

She has to watch her own people suffer everyday, and even participates in preparing people for sale.

The Basis for Yellow Wife

The bulk of Yellow Wife takes place in a “slave jail” in Richmond, Virginia. Owners could sent their enslaved people to one of these institutions for punishment or sale. The jail depicted in Yellow Wife is based on the historic “Lumpkin’s Jail” in Richmond, VA, which is about 90 minutes’ drive from where I live.

Visiting the Richmond Slave Trail, which ends at the original site of the jail, in Richmond inspired Sadeqa Johnson to write Yellow Wife.

A historical photo of Lumpkin's Jail appearing on a historical marker in Richmond, Virginia.
This image of “Lumpkin’s Jail” appears on a historical marker at the sight once known as “the devil’s half acre” that later became the site of Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia. Senator Mark Warner via Flickr, 16 February 2021.

“Mary” and Robert Lumpkin

Johnson based Pheby on a historical figure named “Mary”, and  the Jailer is based on Robert Lumpkin.  Like the character in the book, the real Robert Lumpkin paradoxically took good care of his mixed-race family and treated the slaves in his jail cruelly.

Apparently it wasn’t that uncommon for African-Americans to be enslaved to relatives, even free African Americans. “Manumission” was a complicated legal process that also left the free person vulnerable to being illegally re-enslaved. Perversely, having a relative as an owner was safer.

Robert Lumpkin legally married Mary after her Emancipation. Because Emancipation left him in debt, he also sent Mary and his daughters north at the end of the war to prevent his creditors from selling them.

After Robert Lumpkin’s death, Mary Lumpkin sold the land to a Baptist minister who wanted to build a seminary for Black students. The land went from being known as “the devil’s half acre” to “God’s Half Acre”. The seminary is now HBCU Virginia Union University.

Anthony Burns

A key subplot in Yellow Wife is based on a man named Anthony Burns who was from Stafford, Virginia. In the novel, Pheby has a prior relationship with this character, but in real life, Burns and Mary Lumpkin never met.

Why You Should Read Yellow Wife

Although Yellow Wife is based on real people and events, Johnson reconfigures them into one heck of a story. She writes a fast paced and engaging narrative that does not unnecessarily dwell on violent, sexual, or feculent details. We all know it happened, no need to drag it out.

As a Virginia native, I also know all of the places she mentions, and she gets that right too. I spotted just one tiny error when she mentions Jamestown, which didn’t exist in the 19th century.

Why You May Not Want to Read Yellow Wife

The weakness of this novel, and what keeps it from being a literary achievement in my mind, is Johnson’s inability to effectively deal with the central paradox of this book. She just can’t reconcile the characters of Pheby and the Jailer to portray their relationship in a believable way.

Although she explains the Jailer’s dilemma: a “good” family will never accept the man who is paid to do the slave owner’s dirty work. The illegitimate enslaved daughter of a plantation owner is the closest he’s going to get, and probably a nicer person to be around than the sort of “white” woman who would marry him.

To make it believable that Pheby continues to recoil from him, she makes him much less likable than the real Robert Lumpkin reportedly was. But she makes him so awful that she can never show why he wants Pheby as his wife rather than as his concubine. At any rate, I don’t buy it.

Final Words

Sadeqa Johnson’s accomplishment here is that she has written a great story that sheds light on two events near the end of the slave era that deserve attention, if only to serve as exemplars for exactly how twisted the “pecular institution” was and how it twisted everyone, Black and White, who were a part of it. 

Although Johnson has the skill, she just couldn’t allow her characters a little bit more complexity. If she had, she might have written a truly great novel, such as The Known World.

Perhaps next time. Yellow Wife is still worth reading.