Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom From the 1790s Through the Civil War
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 like
reparations, the public display of the Confederate flag, even the nature of
Thomas Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, suggest that
Americans have yet to arrive at a commonly agreed-upon memory of slavery. But
the work of historians of the last 40 years has made clear the centrality of
slavery to American history.

Far less attention has been paid to the nearly half-million free blacks who
lived in the United States on the eve of the Civil War, a majority in the slave
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 and
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 against
white people or attend public schools. "Free negroes," a South Carolina judge
declared in 1848, "belong to a degraded caste of society" and must conduct
themselves "as inferiors."

Previous historians have described the limits of free blacks' freedom. But
none has examined the quality of their lives in the detail or with the
sophistication of Melvin Patrick Ely in "Israel on the Appomattox." Ely, who
teaches at the College of William and Mary, takes as his subject free black life
in Prince Edward County, in the Virginia Piedmont southwest of Richmond. Best
known today for having closed its public schools in the early 1960s for five
years rather than accept integration, Prince Edward before the Civil War was the
site of a remarkable experiment in race relations initiated by Richard Randolph,
a member of one of the state's most prominent families.

Like many aristocratic Virginians of the Revolutionary era, Randolph became
convinced that slavery contradicted the ideals that inspired American
independence. In 1796, shortly before his death at 26, Randolph drafted a will
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 in
debt, it took 14 years for his plan to be implemented. But in 1810 his widow
gave some 90 men, women and children their freedom and divided 350 acres of land
among their families. Steeped in the biblical story of Exodus, they called their
settlement Israel Hill.

By 1860, the county's free black population had risen to nearly 500, a number
small enough to enable Ely to trace out their experiences family by family. He
does this with remarkable energy and ingenuity. Ely has immersed himself in
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 and
their complete exclusion from political participation, free blacks effectively
used local institutions to assert their rights and defend their interests. Local
courts and public officials treated them pretty much the same as they did white
Virginians. Free blacks accused of crimes were acquitted at the same rate as
white defendants and frequently won judgments against whites who owed them
money. A landless free black man sued a white employer for unpaid wages and won
in court. An all-white jury awarded damages to a free black plaintiff whose hogs
were shot by a white farmer after they trampled his crops, since the law
required land owners to maintain adequate fences. Meanwhile, state laws such as
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 the
Southern press claiming that the residents of Israel Hill had degenerated since
becoming free. Ely shows that this picture grossly distorted reality. Free
blacks were hard-working, ambitious and economically successful. Many worked as
skilled craftsmen -- carpenters, blacksmiths, bricklayers and boatmen who
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 than onerous
repression. Free blacks shared with their white neighbors, including slave
owners, common values -- evangelical religion, devotion to their families, the
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. He
persistently attributes misconceptions to unnamed "modern observers." He singles
out for frequent criticism Ira Berlin, whose "Slaves Without Masters," published
in 1974, remains the standard account of the free black experience in the
antebellum South.

Ely chides Berlin for assuming that repressive laws accurately reflected
day-to-day social reality. Yet the broad compass of Berlin's account, which
covers free blacks in the entire South from 1790 to 1860, allows far more scope
for generalizations, regional comparisons and examination of change over time
than Ely's investigation of a single county, especially one where their
connections with the prominent Randolph family may well have affected the
overall treatment of Israel Hill's residents.

Local histories, so valuable in bringing into sharp relief the details of
daily life, seem to have an inherent bias toward continuity as opposed to
historical change. The rhythms of life in agricultural societies change slowly,
and national events seem remote. Indeed, Ely insists that the momentous events
of that era -- Nat Turner's rebellion, the growing slavery controversy, even the
Civil War itself -- had "astoundingly little effect" on day-to-day race
relations. His treatment of the effect of the Civil War and emancipation on free
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 step
forward during Reconstruction to take positions of political leadership. But he
fails to offer an explanation or to consider whether this reticence may have
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 itself
as a living institution. In this, his reach far exceeds his grasp. He insists
that master-slave relations were marked by the same "human empathy" he finds
operated with regard to free blacks. This conclusion cannot be sustained by the
evidence he offers.

The court records and other public documents on which Ely relies do not
reveal the texture of slavery as a lived experience. Nearly all discipline and
punishment took place on the plantation, at the whim of individual owners. Ely's
local focus, moreover, makes it impossible for him to place slave life in its
full context. He never tells us how many of the county's slaves were sold. As
slave trading became a more central element in Virginia's economy, the number
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 between individual
blacks and whites." Moreover, since so many free blacks married slaves or in
other ways enjoyed close ties to the slave community, the buying and selling of
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 classes
appear simply as victims rather than actors on the stage of history. Too much
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 he
falters is precisely where Edward P. Jones succeeded in his fine recent novel
about free black life, "The Known World." For Jones makes clear the system's
capriciousness with regard to free blacks' privileges and delineates the overall
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.