Israel on the Appomattox:
A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom From the 1790s Through the Civil
Melvin Patrick Ely
Alfred A. Knopf
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 12, 2004
Nearly a century and a half after the abolition of slavery, the Old South
remains a source of fascination and controversy. Heated debates over issues
reparations, the public display of the Confederate flag, even the nature
Thomas Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, suggest that
Americans have yet to arrive at a commonly agreed-upon memory of slavery.
the work of historians of the last 40 years has made clear the centrality
slavery to American history.
Far less attention has been paid to the nearly half-million free blacks
lived in the United States on the eve of the Civil War, a majority in
states. In a society that equated "black" and "slave,"
free blacks were seen as
an anomaly. They had the right to enter into legally recognized marriages
own property (including, on occasion, slaves). But in nearly all the states,
North and South, they could not vote, serve on juries, testify in court
white people or attend public schools. "Free negroes," a South
declared in 1848, "belong to a degraded caste of society" and
themselves "as inferiors."
Previous historians have described the limits of free blacks' freedom.
none has examined the quality of their lives in the detail or with the
sophistication of Melvin Patrick Ely in "Israel on the Appomattox."
teaches at the College of William and Mary, takes as his subject free
in Prince Edward County, in the Virginia Piedmont southwest of Richmond.
known today for having closed its public schools in the early 1960s for
years rather than accept integration, Prince Edward before the Civil War
site of a remarkable experiment in race relations initiated by Richard
a member of one of the state's most prominent families.
Like many aristocratic Virginians of the Revolutionary era, Randolph
convinced that slavery contradicted the ideals that inspired American
independence. In 1796, shortly before his death at 26, Randolph drafted
that condemned slavery as an "infamous practice," provided for
the freeing of
his slaves and set aside part of his land for them. Because Randolph died
debt, it took 14 years for his plan to be implemented. But in 1810 his
gave some 90 men, women and children their freedom and divided 350 acres
among their families. Steeped in the biblical story of Exodus, they called
settlement Israel Hill.
By 1860, the county's free black population had risen to nearly 500,
small enough to enable Ely to trace out their experiences family by family.
does this with remarkable energy and ingenuity. Ely has immersed himself
local documents -- tax lists, road repair orders, census figures and especially
court records. From them he develops a striking portrait of free black
life as a
day-to-day social reality, rather than simply a legal category.
Ely insists that despite the legal disabilities under which they suffered
their complete exclusion from political participation, free blacks effectively
used local institutions to assert their rights and defend their interests.
courts and public officials treated them pretty much the same as they
Virginians. Free blacks accused of crimes were acquitted at the same rate
white defendants and frequently won judgments against whites who owed
money. A landless free black man sued a white employer for unpaid wages
in court. An all-white jury awarded damages to a free black plaintiff
were shot by a white farmer after they trampled his crops, since the law
required land owners to maintain adequate fences. Meanwhile, state laws
the requirement that free black tax delinquents be hired out for involuntary
labor remained unenforced in Prince Edward.
As the defense of slavery solidified after 1830, articles appeared in
Southern press claiming that the residents of Israel Hill had degenerated
becoming free. Ely shows that this picture grossly distorted reality.
blacks were hard-working, ambitious and economically successful. Many
skilled craftsmen -- carpenters, blacksmiths, bricklayers and boatmen
transported goods to market for both black and white neighbors. Some employed
whites to work for them, and a few seem to have owned or hired slaves.
Ely's portrait is of a society of "live and let live" rather
repression. Free blacks shared with their white neighbors, including slave
owners, common values -- evangelical religion, devotion to their families,
quest for economic independence. The county even witnessed interracial
marriages, which did not seem to stir up much resentment. Ely offers persuasive
evidence that in Prince Edward County at least, free blacks were a successful
and widely accepted part of the social fabric.
Ely has done a remarkable job of examining how a complex system of race
relations operated on the local level. Unfortunately, he sometimes caricatures
the views of others to exaggerate the originality of his own findings.
persistently attributes misconceptions to unnamed "modern observers."
out for frequent criticism Ira Berlin, whose "Slaves Without Masters,"
in 1974, remains the standard account of the free black experience in
Ely chides Berlin for assuming that repressive laws accurately reflected
day-to-day social reality. Yet the broad compass of Berlin's account,
covers free blacks in the entire South from 1790 to 1860, allows far more
for generalizations, regional comparisons and examination of change over
than Ely's investigation of a single county, especially one where their
connections with the prominent Randolph family may well have affected
overall treatment of Israel Hill's residents.
Local histories, so valuable in bringing into sharp relief the details
daily life, seem to have an inherent bias toward continuity as opposed
historical change. The rhythms of life in agricultural societies change
and national events seem remote. Indeed, Ely insists that the momentous
of that era -- Nat Turner's rebellion, the growing slavery controversy,
Civil War itself -- had "astoundingly little effect" on day-to-day
relations. His treatment of the effect of the Civil War and emancipation
blacks is cursory, to say the least. He notes, for example, that in Prince
Edward, unlike other parts of the South, formerly free blacks did not
forward during Reconstruction to take positions of political leadership.
fails to offer an explanation or to consider whether this reticence may
reflected a dependence on white goodwill fostered by the very racial closeness
that his book depicts.
"Israel on the Appomattox" presents a valuable account of
free black life.
But Ely has a larger ambition -- to recast our understanding of slavery
as a living institution. In this, his reach far exceeds his grasp. He
that master-slave relations were marked by the same "human empathy"
operated with regard to free blacks. This conclusion cannot be sustained
evidence he offers.
The court records and other public documents on which Ely relies do
reveal the texture of slavery as a lived experience. Nearly all discipline
punishment took place on the plantation, at the whim of individual owners.
local focus, moreover, makes it impossible for him to place slave life
full context. He never tells us how many of the county's slaves were sold.
slave trading became a more central element in Virginia's economy, the
surely reached into the thousands.
The constant threat and frequent reality of sale undercuts Ely's conclusion
that "at its core," slavery "revolved around personal bonds
blacks and whites." Moreover, since so many free blacks married slaves
other ways enjoyed close ties to the slave community, the buying and selling
slaves affected them as well. This was why Willis A. Hodges, a free black
Virginian whose brother was jailed for assisting fugitive bondsmen, later
described slaves and free blacks as "one man of sorrow."
Scholars who study laboring people often find themselves torn between
emphasizing the repressiveness of the social system and making their subjects
active historical agents. Too much stress on oppression makes the lower
appear simply as victims rather than actors on the stage of history. Too
attention to resiliency and accomplishment may obscure the system's inhumanity.
Ely hopes to shift the emphasis in the study of free blacks from disempowerment
to accomplishment, and he goes a long way toward reaching this goal. Where
falters is precisely where Edward P. Jones succeeded in his fine recent
about free black life, "The Known World." For Jones makes clear
capriciousness with regard to free blacks' privileges and delineates the
structure of power, the "known world" within which people lived
their lives and
which determined the limits of the possible for white and black alike.