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A Note from Melvin Patrick Ely
I grew up in a white, Christian family in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, when it became difficult to ignore issues of democracy and racial justice. But it was far from clear back then what I was supposed to think. The black individuals I encountered day to day–the postman, an employee at the local grocery store, the maids and kitchen staff at my school–were bright and friendly. My parents’ behavior confirmed what our religion taught: those people, like all human beings, were to be treated with respect.
Yet I knew children at school who spoke dismissively about African Americans, and I’m ashamed to admit that there were times when I found it all too easy to join in. Even some of the adults charged with molding me as a citizen traded in bigoted repartee. My own parents seemed to have trouble deciding how the ethical principles they followed when dealing with individuals might apply to the great social issues of the time. The activities of civil rights crusaders, for example, clearly made my father uncomfortable.
One day in my early adolescence, I asked my mother what she thought of Martin Luther King. The prevailing atmosphere in the South at the dawning of the 1960s led me to expect a derisive verdict, perhaps cloaked in the sort of racist jocularity that passed for humor among some whites I knew. Instead, my mother–the supreme moral authority in my young life–said of Dr. King, “I think he’s the savior of his race.” My inner world, already buffeted by the contending forces of the times, suddenly looked more complicated than ever. In later years, the gradual desegregation of schools in my hometown, Richmond, Virginia, introduced me to African American peers, and the bracing complexity of real life left no room for the simple axioms of prejudice.
In my writing and teaching, I try to respect the sharp differences that distinguish any given historical era from other periods. Yet my own experience in a special time and place does affect my reading of history: it pushes me to look beyond the cliches and the glib certainties, some of them well-intended, that pervade much of our thinking about race and class in American life.
My previous book, The Adventures of Amos ’n’ Andy, examined a monument of American popular entertainment in which white men portrayed black characters on the radio; the responses of black and white listeners, I believe, reveal the beginnings of significant racial change in American life. Yet Amos ’n’ Andy had been all but banished from polite discussion–for fear, it seemed to me, that a second look might challenge easy assumptions about the past and upset our comfortable view of ourselves.
The idea for Israel on the Appomattox was born when I found a brief reference to Richard Randolph, a Virginia aristocrat of the latter 1700s whose unusual will called for his slaves to go free and bequeathed them land in Prince Edward County on which they could take control of their own future. What kind of lives did those ex-bondpeople lead, I wondered, alongside thousands of still-enslaved African Americans toiling under white masters?
As I sought answers to that question, I found that Israel Hill, the community of former Randolph slaves, had become a striking symbol in the antebellum conflict between North and South. I also came to appreciate an irony I hadn’t considered before: because most southern blacks remained firmly under slavery’s yoke, many white people in the rural South felt they could afford to deal fairly, even amicably, with the minority of African Americans who had their liberty.
The faded documents I examined told a story of free black assertiveness and achievement in an Old South where ties of religion, culture, economic interest, and personal regard could span the barrier between races. In a society built on the blatant exploitation of one race by another, courts in this part of the South treated free black defendants, and sometimes even slaves, more fairly than I would have guessed. Anti-free black laws were numerous and harsh, but many of them went unenforced much of the time. Most things that people did at all, blacks and whites at least sometimes did together; interracial couples reared families with minimal interference from the authorities or white neighbors. White propagandists railed against the idea of freedom for blacks, yet whites who set their slaves free were not shunned by their peers, nor were emancipated blacks generally forced to emigrate. I was surprised by these specific contradictions,but the existence of complexity and paradox resonated with everything I knew about the South–in my own lifetime and in days long past.
The story of Israel Hill has special meaning for me because it takes place in Virginia, the state in which I was born and grew up, and to which I eventually returned to make my home. There, in a changed South, I still hear echoes of a past shared–often grudgingly, but sometimes cordially–by black and white folk.
As I was writing the final chapters of Israel on the Appomattox, I took my family on a drive eastward out of downtown Richmond along the James River, past the “intermediate terminal” which straddles one of the city’s historic canals. A few miles outside the city, we stopped at a little store. Two white men, one middle-aged, the other younger, pulled in behind us, towing a large motorboat on a trailer. The older man, whose speech and demeanor many would associate with the stereotypical Southern “good ol’ boy,” approached our car and asked whether we wanted some catfish.
As a lifelong angler, I asked to see the men’s catch. They showed me a large cooler filled with two- to four-pound channel catfish, still writhing, their scaleless, slimy skin glistening in the bright sunlight. “What are you gonna do with all these fish?” I inquired.
“You know where the black guys fish down by the intermediate terminal?” the older man asked in reply. I knew very well. He continued: “I take my fish down there, those guys cook ’em up, and then we all eat ’em.”
Any number of differences separated that man’s world from the one inhabited before the Civil War by the black residents of Israel Hill and their neighbors. Still, his fish fries with the black men at the terminal brought to mind things I knew by then about relations between white and black in old Prince Edward County. In particular, I was struck by the guileless way in which the man had answered my question. I was as white as he was, and I spoke to him in the local accent. He did not know me or my racial views, nor I his. He would never see me again, had nothing to prove to me, and indeed would never have mentioned the regular fish fries had I not asked him about his plans. Eating catfish with African Americans on the canal bank was simply part of his typical Saturday afternoon; so, perhaps in another legacy of the past, was the apparent division of responsibilities under which the cooking (and cleaning?) of the fish was the province of the black men.
We blacks and whites are still players in a shared if sometimes anguished drama, even in a post-Emancipation, post-agrarian, post-industrial, suburbanized, class-stratified America. As the story of Israel Hill abundantly shows, we always have been.
One should not leap to extract large points from small events or to conflate past with present. Yet my conversation with the catfish man evoked both the history I was then exploring in the archives and my own boyhood nearly forty years earlier, when a patient but authoritative Afro-Virginian gentleman taught me to catch channel cats on that same stretch of the James River. That experience, along with many others in the 1950s and 1960s, helped me to welcome the crumbling of Jim Crowism in the society that my fishing instructor and I, like our ancestors, inhabited together.