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A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War

Written by Melvin Patrick ElyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Melvin Patrick Ely


List Price: $15.99


On Sale: December 01, 2010
Pages: 656 | ISBN: 978-0-307-77342-5
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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WINNER OF THE BANCROFT PRIZEA New York Times Book Review and Atlantic Monthly Editors' ChoiceThomas Jefferson denied that whites and freed blacks could live together in harmony. His cousin, Richard Randolph, not only disagreed, but made it possible for ninety African Americans to prove Jefferson wrong. Israel on the Appomattox tells the story of these liberated blacks and the community they formed, called Israel Hill, in Prince Edward County, Virginia. There, ex-slaves established farms, navigated the Appomattox River, and became entrepreneurs. Free blacks and whites did business with one another, sued each other, worked side by side for equal wages, joined forces to found a Baptist congregation, moved west together, and occasionally settled down as man and wife. Slavery cast its grim shadow, even over the lives of the free, yet on Israel Hill we discover a moving story of hardship and hope that defies our expectations of the Old South.


Chapter 1
The View from Israel Hill, 1863

In the winter of his ninety-ninth year, Sam White looked out from his Virginia farmhouse by the railroad tracks, across the gentle slope of Israel Hill, his home of five decades, and onto a world that was reminding him yet again what a remarkable life he had led. White was one of the few Americans left who personally remembered the Revolution that his fellow Virginians had championed and the first years of the Republic they had built. Now, early in 1863, the grandsons of those same Virginians were killing and dying in the scores of thousands to break up that Union.

The once glorious, now tragic history of his state and his country formed only the latest chapter in a life of paradox. On the one hand, Sam White was in many ways a typical Southerner of his time, if there was such a thing. He owned a farm, but only a small one; he, his father, and his three brothers had cleared their own land and built unpretentious but comfortable houses on it. Like two thirds of the households in the South, White and his neighbors farmed their tracts with little or no help from slaves.

Sam White's sons and daughters, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren could grow, raise, hunt, or catch much of the food they needed; they cut timber from the back sections of their hundred acres to construct houses and outbuildings, repair their fences, cook their meals, and keep warm during the winter. They earned cash to satisfy their other wants by raising tobacco and vegetables.

Like many other small landowners in the South, some of the men in the White family had found ways besides farming to earn money. A few worked at carpentry, coopering, or other crafts. Two of Sam White's brothers, one of his sons, and a nephew or two had poled cargo boats, or batteaux, filled with hogsheads of tobacco and barrels of wheat down the nearby Appomattox River to market at Petersburg. In more recent years, some Whites had taken work in the small tobacco factories of nearby Farmville, a growing center of trade for the area. Just now, though, there were fewer men than usual on Israel Hill, as almost everywhere else in the South. For by 1863, the Civil War had become what Abraham Lincoln had warned of: a remorseless revolutionary struggle, consuming American citizen-soldiers in staggering numbers.

Sam White could not guess that the war's final drama would unfold on the very ground he looked out upon in 1863. General Robert E. Lee would fight his last major battle a day's march east of Israel Hill in April 1865. Lee would hold one final, urgent meeting with the Confederate secretary of war just two miles from the White farm before he set out toward neighboring Appomattox Court House, and Ulysses S. Grant would write to Lee later that day from the same place suggesting that the Confederate general surrender. Nothing so dramatic had happened in the neighborhood up to 1863. But even by then, the war had hit White and his friends hard: the Confederate Army had called perhaps a dozen men into its service from the little settlement of Israel Hill alone.

Sam White's experience of peace and war reflected that of his society and his time-yet in some ways he had lived a different sort of life than most other small farmers in the South. For one thing, he and Phil White, his kinsman and neighbor, had made enough money to buy and sell a number of lots and buildings in Farmville. In an overwhelmingly agricultural South, White had played his part in the rise of a would-be boomtown.

But there was another, deeper reason White saw the world from a different angle than other Southerners of his economic level. In a society where most landowners, and most free men, were white, and where most African Americans lived out their lives as slaves, Sam White was both free and black. Apparently of purely African ancestry, a tall man in a family of tall men, he still carried his century-old frame erect as he visited the houses of his neighbors-all of them, like him, former slaves or children and grandchildren of former slaves-to talk about developments in a Southern world that Lincoln and his armies were now struggling to change forever.

White's life journey from slave to free man, from property to proprietor and entrepreneur, had been channeled by the great changes his country had gone through since his childhood. The Revolution that liberated America had belatedly freed Sam White as well. His master, Richard Randolph, wealthy son of a great Virginia planter family and brother of the future statesman John Randolph of Roanoke, had become notorious at twenty-two: accused of impregnating his wife's sister and killing the newborn baby, Randolph had been acquitted in a spectacular court hearing with the help of his attorneys, Patrick Henry and John Marshall. But that generation of patriots had given Randolph something grander than a defense of his good name: the legacy of the American Revolution and its Declaration of Independence.

Citizen Richard Randolph, as he called himself in the style of the French Revolutionaries, had unwillingly inherited Sam White and scores of other slaves from his father. When Randolph died at twenty-six in the year 1796, he left a will, written in his own hand, that took the form of a ringing abolitionist manifesto. Randolph took special care to "beg[,] humbly beg[,] [his slaves'] forgivness" for his part in the "infamous practice of usurping the rights of our fellow creatures, equally entituled with ourselves to the enjoyment of Liberty and happiness." And he called for Sam White and the others to go free.

Richard Randolph was not the only Virginia emancipator of his era; George Washington left a will at about the same time providing that his slaves be liberated at his widow's death. Contemplating the inhumanity of slavery, Randolph's cousin Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just." Scores of white Virginians set slaves free during the years that followed the Revolution.

But Jefferson and most others who admitted slavery was morally indefensible never pressed for a sweeping emancipation, for they had no idea what would become of liberated African Americans. Jefferson suspected that Africans were intellectually and physically inferior to Europeans; once emancipated, he believed, they would have difficulty surviving among whites. Even worse, Jefferson feared, generations of grievances between master and bondman would lead to race war if slavery ceased to exist as a system of social control. Many whites believed that blacks who did become free should be removed from Virginia.

Sam White's master, Richard Randolph, had offered a radical answer to Jefferson's moral dilemma: he denied that any dilemma existed. Randolph was not content to restore to his slaves their God-given freedom; he also called for them to receive four hundred acres of his land on which to build new lives as independent men and women. When Randolph's family carried out his will in 1810 after years of delay, his ex-slaves gave the name Israel Hill to their new home in the rolling terrain of Prince Edward County, and they called themselves "Israelites." This was their Promised Land, to which they had been delivered out of bondage.

But Israel Hill amounted to more than a personal promise fulfilled; it was a visionary Southern experiment in black freedom. In building this community of free, self-supporting black landowners in the very neighborhood where the Israelites had grown up as slaves, Richard Randolph and some ninety African Americans had launched a small but audacious attempt to demonstrate that a harmonious society containing free people of both races could exist.

Randolph conceived the idea that became Israel Hill, and his widow, Judith, overcame many obstacles to make his wishes come true. But the community's success over the decades had depended squarely on Sam White and his black fellow settlers. Their path, though arduous, had lain clearer before them because other Afro-Virginians had established themselves as free people in earlier years.

By the time Richard Randolph wrote his will, Prince Edward County already had a small free black population; that group would grow noticeably during the period before Randolph's germ of an idea came to fruition on Israel Hill. At least three local black or mixed-race families had bought land in the 1780s and 1790s, and a couple more would do so about the time Richard's former slaves settled on their new acreage. Other pioneering free blacks in Prince Edward owned no ground, yet by the 1790s were already developing strategies to make the most of their freedom.

The central figure on Israel Hill during the settlement's founding years had been Sam White's father, the aptly named Hercules White, a man esteemed by the Randolphs and the emancipated slaves alike for his strength of body, mind, and spirit. By the time Israel Hill was settled in 1810-11, it seemed that the Hill's new residents might in fact need the strength of a Hercules, and not only because there were houses to build, land to clear, and crops to cultivate. Though no longer in bondage, the men and women of Israel Hill lived in a land where both law and custom limited the rights of free blacks and ensured that relatively few African Americans became free in the first place.

In 1806, the state passed a new law requiring any blacks who received their liberty to leave the state within a year. Authorities did not apply that law to Richard Randolph's freedpeople, whose emancipation had been ordained long before. Still, neither Sam White nor any other free Afro-Virginian could vote, serve on juries, or join the militia; the law had required White to secure a license from the county court to possess a gun, and then prohibited black ownership of firearms outright. The people of Israel Hill owned land, but many of their fellow free blacks did not and therefore had to work for whites to earn their bread. White people rarely addressed or referred to an Israelite as "Mr.," "Mrs.," or "Miss"-titles that even the humbler whites felt entitled to.

Great events-the rise of natural rights philosophy, the American Revolution and its aftermath-had brought Sam White his liberty, and momentous developments had continued to shape his life as a free man. A Virginia slave, Nat Turner, led a rebellion in 1831 that killed at least fifty-five whites. In the days after Turner's revolt, a major of militia in Farmville worried that the blacks of Israel Hill might be considering a local replay of Turner's rising. Cooler heads averted any extreme repression of the Israelites and other blacks of Prince Edward County, but the county court did confiscate free Afro-Virginians' weapons.

In the years after the Turner rebellion, a small but vociferous abolitionist movement had arisen in the North. The abolitionists accused white Southerners-who considered themselves industrious, Christian sons and daughters of the founding fathers-of living parasitically off the labor of others in a violently anti-Christian, antidemocratic slaveholding society.

The indignant response of the white South had yet again complicated the lives of Sam White and the people of Israel Hill. Some influential white Virginians now told themselves and the outside world that slavery was just and godly-the most beneficial arrangement for the slaves themselves. Blacks, the argument went, would live in a state of civilization only so long as whites ruled and guided them; free blacks, white Southern apologists insisted, lived miserable, depraved lives.

Even a Southern proslavery hawk might utter the occasional good word about a free African American. Sam White himself had had a rare experience for a free black in the South, winning praise in publications from New Orleans to New York as one of the "honorable . . . original settlers" of his community, "a venerable patriarch . . . as highly respected for tried and well sustained character as any man."The bad news for him and his fellow Israelites was the context in which White received those accolades.

Colonel James Madison-not the former president, but rather a leading entrepreneur in Prince Edward County-had written a defense of the Southern way of life in 1836 in the form of a brief, highly inaccurate history of Israel Hill, which other proslavery propagandists later elaborated upon. Defenders of slavery asserted that Sam White's upright character had been molded during his half century as the favored bondman of a refined white family; they used the attainments of White and some of his peers to set in sharp relief the degeneracy they said had overtaken more recent generations of black Israelites, deprived of the supposedly civilizing framework of slavery.

The younger residents of Israel Hill had become "idle and vicious," Madison wrote in the Farmers' Register, a magazine read throughout the South; the Hill's women, he said, had turned to prostitution. The editor of the Register, the famous agricultural reformer and Southern nationalist Edmund Ruffin, added an improbable swipe of his own at the men of Israel Hill: they preferred to pole heavily laden boats up the Appomattox River, he wrote, because of all occupations that one was "nearest to idleness."

Madison, Ruffin, and people like them held one belief that their ideological opposite, Richard Randolph, had apparently shared: if a community of liberated blacks could flourish, it would challenge white people's basic assumptions about the black race and about the organization of Southern society. This Madison and his like could not accept. The bleak picture they drew of Israel Hill in the 1830s proved durable, despite a whole series of achievements by the Whites and their black neighbors; proslavery writers had revived and elaborated on the legend in the press as the North-South struggle deepened during the 1850s. The free black community of Israel Hill, a product of the first American Revolution, had become a potent and tenacious symbol in the great conflict that produced the second.

Sam White had seen other whites in Prince Edward struggle, in a way that Colonel Madison never did, to sort out the dissonance between their desire to defend slavery and their free black neighbors' obvious fitness to function as free people. According to the county's oral tradition, after a series of thefts on neighboring plantations, suspicion had fallen on the free blacks of Israel Hill. White men searched homes on the Hill for stolen goods. Finding none, many Prince Edward whites came to admit, and repeated for years afterward, that the black Israelites were honest and decent even as men like Colonel Madison proclaimed the opposite.

When the need to justify the South's institutions grated against the realities of day-to-day life, race relations became more complex and fluid rather than more uniformly rigid. One historian has written that "the generation preceding the Civil War [saw] the drive against the free Negro . . . so intense that he was branded as the pariah of society"-but that verdict leaves part of the story of race in antebellum Virginia untold.

From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

An Opening Word: Black Slavery, Black Freedom

Chapter One: The View from Israel Hill, 1863

Chapter Two: Liberty and Happiness
Citizen Richard Randolph and His Slaves
Subordination Was Entirely Out of the Question

Chapter Three: The Promised Land
As Comfortable as the Best in Israel Hill
To Inclose His Little Plantation: The Free Black Drive for Independence

Chapter Four: Work
Sweating Like a Harvest Field Hand
Craft, Mystery, and Occupation
To Run the Road with a Waggon or the River with a Boat

Chapter Five: Challenges
Nat Turner
Edmund Young and Free Black Resistance
Idleness, Poverty, and Dissipation: The Birth of a Proslavery Myth

Chapter Six: Law and Order
Boisterous Passions and Paneless Windows
To Maim, Disfigure, Disable, and Kill

Chapter Seven: Worldviews
Kindred Cultures
Callousness and Closeness
Clashing Values
The Wisdom of Solomon

Chapter Eight: Progress and Struggle
For Richer, for Poorer
Black Freedom and the Crisis of the Union

Chapter Nine: Appomattox and the New Birth of Freedom

Postscript: The Search for Meaning in the Southern
Free Black Experience

Will of Richard Randolph
Will of Betty Dwin
Will of Thomas Ford
Colonel James Madison on Emancipated Slaves
Will of Philip Bowman
Will of Anthony (Tony) White

Sources and Interpretations
Abbreviations in Notes and Remarks on Primary Sources
Melvin Patrick Ely|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About Melvin Patrick Ely

Melvin Patrick Ely - Israel on the Appomattox

Photo © Gene W. King

Melvin Patrick Ely, a native of Richmond, Virginia, is Professor of History and Black Studies at
the College of William and Mary. He is the author of The Adventures of Amos ’n’ Andy: A Social History of
an American Phenomenon.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Melvin Patrick Ely

Q: How did you first find out about Israel Hill, a now-forgotten settlement of free African Americans that not even their own descendants remember well today?

A: Years ago, thumbing through an old history textbook, I came across a single sentence mentioning a Virginia planter named Richard Randolph. The book noted that, in the 1790’s, Randolph decided that his many slaves should go free and receive part of his plantation to settle on and build new lives; the freedpeople named their community Israel Hill. I knew that others, including George Washington, left wills liberating slaves, but the idea of granting land to emancipated black folk was very unusual. I wondered what it was like for newly freed African Americans to live alongside their fellow blacks who remained in slavery, and how they managed to make their way in a society dominated by whites, many of whom were slaveholders.

Q: What kind of person did you find Richard Randolph to be?

A: Richard “Dick” Randolph is actually relatively well-known because he was reputed to have impregnated his wife’s live-in sister and then to have helped her either abort or kill their baby. When Randolph appeared before the county court to try to clear his name, he was represented by a legal “dream team” that included Patrick Henry and future chief justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall. While he never faced formal charges, his reputation remained clouded, and three years later, he was dead at the age of 26.

But Randolph was notable for another reason, too. He had imbibed the Revolutionary doctrine that all people are endowed with the right to life and liberty. He was a dyed-in-the-wool moralist, and that principle meant to him that holding people in slavery was immoral. That’s why he wrote a will that called for his slaves to go free and receive land. (He claimed he would immediately have freed all the slaves he inherited, except that his father had presented them as collateral for loans that had yet to be paid; as long as that was true, it was illegal to liberate those enslaved people.)

Q: Many Virginia planters cherished the ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers, but Richard Randolph was one of very few white eighteenth-century Americans who thought of African Americans as "our fellow creatures, equally entituled with ourselves to the enjoyment of Liberty and happiness." If Randolph was capable of this thought, why, in your opinion, were so few others?

A: More than a few whites of the Revolutionary generation accepted the abstract idea that all people are created equal. But not many were ready to accept the full implications of that thesis. The economy of the South depended on slavery; none other than Patrick Henry–who had once shouted, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”–explained frankly that whites held onto slavery because it was so “convenient.”

Then there was the issue of where African Americans would go if they were liberated. Randolph’s cousin, Thomas Jefferson, suspected that blacks were racially inferior to whites, and he believed that the hostility built up between whites and blacks through decades of slavery would make it impossible for them to live together in freedom.

Like Jefferson, Randolph studied at the College of William and Mary under George Wythe, one of the few white Southerners who seems to have believed wholeheartedly in the doctrine of human equality. Wythe himself raised a boy of color virtually as his own son, taught him Latin and Greek, and wrote a will leaving the young man a large part of his estate. Randolph idolized George Wythe and was deeply influenced by his example. (I should note in passing that years afterward, Wythe paid with his life for his racial liberalism; the old man’s nephew, jealous of Wythe’s “colored” heir, used poison to kill both of them.)

Q: How did the lives led by Randolph’s liberated slaves differ from the lives of white people in the same community?

A: For one thing, the black people on Randolph’s plantation had to struggle for fourteen years simply to obtain the liberty he had wanted them to have. Because of financial tangles, the “convenience” of keeping people enslaved, and sheer inertia, Randolph’s widow Judy only got around to freeing his slaves–ninety-some in number by then–in 1810. During that long purgatory, the black folk on the plantation protested and even demanded their freedom, but I suspect they didn’t want to push too hard for fear of alienating their mistress and aborting their own emancipation.

Once liberated, the Randolph freedpeople, like all blacks who attained their freedom while slavery still prevailed in Virginia, were denied the right to vote, to serve on juries, or to join the militia. According to the law, free blacks had to get special licenses to carry guns, and were barred from owning firearms at all after 1831. In some years, free African Americans had to pay a fairly heavy “special tax” that applied only to them; if they didn’t pay, then the sheriff had the power to hire them out to whites to work off their tax debt.

Free blacks in Virginia were not forbidden to learn to read and write, nor whites to set enslaved people free, as Randolph had done–but lawmakers set up serious obstacles to both. No black person, free or enslaved, could testify against a white defendant in court. Most liberated blacks, unlike those of the Randolphs, began their life in freedom with few possessions; many remained in poverty. And they had to listen as proslavery propagandists slandered them by saying that free blacks led degraded lives and would have been better off had they remained in bondage.

In short, free Afro-Virginians–like free blacks elsewhere, North and South–were defined as second- or third-class citizens.

Q: If all that is true, how did you come to the conclusion that black and white people in Prince Edward County, where Israel Hill is located, treated each other with more respect than is commonly thought to have been possible in the Old South? After all, you write that "the realities of daily life led whites in Prince Edward to admit the humanity of blacks routinely in myriad ways. And blacks, free and slave alike, successfully laid claim to rights and considerations that the theory of racial slavery denied them."

A: Free Afro-Virginians did have some important rights. They could own real estate and personal property without limit, and bequeath it to their children. They could sue white people in court. I examined dozens of boxes of local court records, and I found free black men and women doing precisely these things, seemingly without fear or hesitation. It was not unusual for a black person to defeat a white person in court, or to defend him- or herself successfully against a criminal charge (of which there weren’t many, because free blacks were a very law-abiding group).

The records I looked at revealed free blacks and whites doing lucrative business with one another, working side by side for equal wages, joining forces to found a Baptist congregation, moving west together, and even settling down as man and wife. The accomplishments of some free Afro-Virginians–buying boats and lots, erecting buildings, selling at profit, winning respected places in the community–were formidable, and most whites did little or nothing to block their path to success.

Some of the cultural similarities between whites and blacks in old Prince Edward County were striking, too. One of the most enjoyable parts of researching Israel on the Appomattox was collecting phonetic dialect-spellings from documents written by half-educated whites and using them to reconstruct the local dialect. White speech was remarkably close in many particulars to the way black Virginians spoke.

Much of Virginia, and of the Old South in general, operated on two levels when it came to free blacks. The reigning white ideology proclaimed that the only status appropriate for African Americans was that of slaves. But many whites found it more pleasant and convenient to relate to blacks in a civil manner in day-to-day practice, and to let most of the anti-free black laws go unenforced most of the time.

Q: Did any of this surprise you?

A: I knew some of these things before, but the extent of black-white cooperation and the myriad forms it took did catch me off guard. If anyone had been watching me in the archives as I did my research, I suspect they would have seen my brow wrinkle in surprise fairly often.

Historical accounts up to now have concentrated, understandably, on the oppression free African Americans faced in the Old South. Some important historians have drawn the conclusion that whites treated free blacks much as they did slaves, and that most free people of color were fortunate if they managed simply to survive. I find a much wider repertoire of white-black interactions than those writers do. I think that’s partly because they look more at laws and the writings of editorialists and ideologues, while I try to zero in on the way local people actually behaved from one day to the next.

The part of Israel Hill’s story that surprised me less was that free African Americans achieved so much economically and socially. As a longtime student of black history, I knew that black folk had managed to achieve remarkable things in every era even though there was never a time when the odds favored them.

I should mention that I was born in the segregated South, so I was very familiar with the phenomenon of white people dealing civilly with blacks one-on-one even as those same whites played their part in a racially oppressive system. The real surprise was that I found an even greater range of black-white interaction in the Old South than I recalled from my childhood–and especially, a greater degree of physical contact between the two races.

Q: What kind of physical contact?

A: I found white and black folk sleeping in the same room, applying ointments and other medical treatments to each other’s bodies, drinking liquor and playing cards with one another, and having sex together, sometimes in lifelong spousal relationships that produced large families.

Q: Do you think that Prince Edward County was an anomaly in the ways black and white people interacted?

A: Actually, studies of other communities suggest that most of what I’ve found occurred in lots of other places. As for interracial sex and the rearing of families, a recent book by Josh Rothman documents the same patterns of black-white sexual contact, and tolerance for that contact, throughout Virginia that I find in Prince Edward County.

In Israel on the Appomattox I take what I think is a new approach by looking into every aspect of life in a particular community and piecing together an overall picture of free black life, slave-master relations, and black-white contact generally.

Q: Is there any evidence to suggest that the slave-holding, white landowners whose land adjoined the Israel Hill plot protested the settlement of free black people in such close proximity to their slaves?

A: Little to none, which is especially significant as the Israelites’ next-door neighbors were among the wealthier and more influential white planters in the county. Proslavery propagandists who wrote for publication proclaimed that the people of Israel Hill were a constant nuisance to nearby whites. In fact, the court records show those whites complaining about each other from time to time, but not about the black Israelites. The one partial exception is an early case in which a young man from Israel Hill was charged with receiving stolen corn from the slave of a white neighbor. But the court acquitted the black defendant after whites from the neighborhood testified, apparently to his benefit. A couple of white landowners who lived near Israel Hill conducted business with the Israelites; one administered the estate left by Phil White Sr., who was a founding father of Israel Hill.

Q: Did any specific residents of Israel Hill particularly impress you?

A: Yes. Hercules White was deeply admired both by the Randolphs and by his fellow blacks. Early in the nineteenth century, even before he became officially free, White was advancing himself economically–plowing fields, hauling cargo, slaughtering hogs, carpentering, coopering, growing corn and tobacco. As a free man, Hercules White didn’t hesitate to sue a white man for an overdue debt; when he died, he left behind considerable property, and white and black men alike owed him hundreds of dollars. The White family became the most successful on Israel Hill and in the neighboring town of Farmville.

Syphax Brown had been the valet of Richard Randolph and of his stepfather and father before him. Our stereotype of the house servant is of a person who maintained his privileged position by kowtowing to whites. But when Syphax Brown became a free person and a white man shot some of Brown’s hogs, he took the offender to court and won substantial damages.

Three other black Israelites, Sam, Phil, and John White, bought and sold thirteen lots and part-lots in Farmville, some of which they built on and earned large profits. Sam and Phil, along with two dozen white citizens, became founding members of the town’s first Baptist church. They began life as other people’s property, but they became proprietors on a large scale.

Q: How did you piece together the personalities of these free African Americans from the limited written record they left behind?

A: I found perhaps ten sentences written by free African Americans themselves over a period of sixty years. But I did find box upon box of court records. In many civil suits, a plaintiff filed a long narrative of his or her grievance against another person, and then the defendant responded at equal length; sometimes additional people gave depositions or affidavits. Litigants also submitted store accounts that tell you what people consumed, documents that show what they earned and spent, and other revealing items.

Although some of this material comes through the filter of attorneys, we still have free black folk telling their stories, sometimes in vivid language, and white people talking about African Americans. If you dig long enough, I believe you can find windows into the minds and souls of people–whatever their color–who never wrote a word in their lives.

Q: In Israel on the Appomattox, you challenge the firmly established notion that poor whites were more antagonistic toward free blacks than any other social group. How did you arrive at this conclusion?

A: The “better sort” of white Southerner has always tended, conveniently, to blame the most repulsive features of southern life on the “poor white trash.” What I find instead is a spectrum of racial behavior–ranging from hardline to open-minded–among the privileged and also among whites of modest means. One slaveless white man bought expensive gifts for an enslaved woman whom he identified to a friend as his “sweet heart.” A number of white women of simple origins bore children by black men and raised them to adulthood. One impoverished white woman championed her nephew, a boy of color, when he found himself apprenticed to an abusive master craftsman. Simple whites sometimes entertained and played cards with free or enslaved blacks. One white man of modest means frequently received an enslaved friend into his home; when a white female neighbor gossiped about the arrangement, the white man and the slave teamed up to cut the woman’s throat.

Q: What was the practice of "processioning," and what effects did it have on relations between black Israelites and their white neighbors?

A: Processioning was an ancient custom whereby every few years, two men in each neighborhood would walk the boundary lines of all the landed property in their bailiwick to clarify where one person’s tract ended and the next person’s began. The landowners on either side of a given boundary had the right to accompany the processioners, and free African American landowners such as the Israelites regularly made use of that right. It was a way of asserting their status as people who owned ground of their own, and the white processioners don’t seem to have found it odd that blacks would do that.

Processioning also tended to blur distinctions of class and even of race as, regardless of social standing, every man involved had to hack his way through underbrush and risk getting his shins bruised. Then too, processionings were often accompanied by gossip and banter–and, I suspect, by liquor (it was a heavy-drinking society).

Q: Besides farming the land on Israel Hill, what trades were common among Israelites and other free black people in the area? Were they paid the same wages as whites who practiced these trades? Did white planters tend to employ primarily white tradesmen?

A: Free black people worked as carpenters, coopers, shoemakers, brickmasons, ditchers, millers, wagon-drivers, boatmen, midwives, farm laborers, spinners, weavers, knitters, seamstresses, and clothes washers. Some worked as servants to white people, but nowhere near as many as we might tend to think. The plantation records I’ve seen suggest that, at least when it came to skilled trades, planters hired whomever they thought would do the best job, regardless of that person’scolor. The exceptions are the positions of overseer or of supervisor in a tobacco processing plant, where I don’t find blacks being hired.

Free blacks often earned the same wages whites did. Wheat harvesters of both races worked side by side, and both earned a dollar a day–very good money in old Virginia. Hercules White seems to have gotten the same money for barrels and hogsheads he made as white coopers did. Both black and white women worked as midwives, and the fees they earned depended mainly on the status of the client rather than on the color of the midwife.

It is essential to remember, however, that most black workers were not free people like the Israelites, but rather slaves whom the employer either owned directly or hired (rented) from someone else. The fee for hired slaves might be the same as the wage for whites or free blacks, but of course most or all that money went to the master of the enslaved person. Many slaves were allowed to earn some money on their own time, but we must never forget that on the whole, this was a system that extracted unremunerated work from enslaved black people who had no choice in the matter.

Q: Did the free African Americans of Israel Hill and vicinity have much contact with fellow blacks who remained in slavery?

A: Yes, and sometimes with heartbreaking results. Several of Israel Hill’s first settlers, though free, were married to people who remained in bondage. At a minimum, this meant living apart from one’s spouse. But the results could be far more traumatic even than that. Tony White, one of Hercules’ sons, married an enslaved woman; the couple had to watch, powerless, as the white master who owned three of their children moved to Missouri and took the young ones with him. A free black miller named Phil Bowman likewise had an enslaved wife, named Priscy; when her master failed financially, the sheriff confiscated and sold off the man’s property, including Priscy, and Phil Bowman had to bid on his own wife at a public auction. (With a loan from his white employer, Bowman succeeded in buying Priscy.)

At the same time, there were free blacks who actually bought slaves. Many who did so were in fact liberating family members, but a few, both on Israel Hill and off, actually worked slaves whom they hired or purchased from others, at least on a temporary basis.

Q: What were batteaux and how were they significant in the Israel Hill community?

A: Boating cargo up and down the Appomattox River between Farmville and Petersburg became the occupation for which men of Israel Hill and other free blacks were best known. These men did their work in a remarkable kind of vessel called a “batteau,” which was fifty or sixty feet long, but only six feet wide and two feet deep (the river is pretty narrow, and shallow in spots). The batteau’s relatively flat bottom allowed boatmen to load five to seven tons of cargo (often tobacco or wheat) and still float their boat in a mere two feet of water; in a pinch, even twenty inches would do.

Two men poled the batteau during its voyage upstream, while a third–the captain or “headman”–guided the boat with a steering oar at the stern. White men, free blacks, and enslaved men all worked both as captains and as crew, and men of both races sometimes, perhaps often, voyaged together. Yet it was the black boatmen who became legendary as practitioners of what one white author called “truly a man’s job, demanding skill, courage, and strength to a high degree.”

Q: How did white propagandists depict Israel Hill in their pro-slavery smear campaigns? Were these campaigns effective?

A: Most white Virginians at least passively accepted slavery as a given. Many depended on the institution, both economically and socially. Then there were those who actively defended bondage as the best possible system, for blacks as well as whites. That last group became more and more vocal as Northern criticism of slavery mounted. Those who wanted to prove slavery was good for both races felt they had to demonstrate that freedom would turn black people into helpless paupers, criminals, and parasites. Richard Randolph’s argument that the races were equal and that blacks could achieve success as free people, if proven correct, would refute the whole idea of slavery as a positive good.

So prolavery propagandists proclaimed Israel Hill a definitive experiment in black freedom, and they declared it a complete failure. The first generation of free blacks born on the Hill, they said, had turned into poverty-stricken, disease-ridden thieves, prostitutes, and layabouts. These things were not true and in fact, a number of people in the community had prospered, but some whites who wanted their racist convictions confirmed were all too ready to believe the slander. These misrepresentations of Israel Hill were eventually published across the United States, from New York to New Orleans. Israel Hill, a product of the first American Revolution, became a political football in the conflict that led to the second–the Civil War.

Was the propaganda against Israel Hill effective? I see no evidence that it altered day-to-day life on the Hill, or interactions between free blacks and whites in Prince Edward County. Did these stories change the minds of any waverers in the North? I don’t know; there was a sea of pro- and antislavery propaganda engulfing the landscape. I do believe the smear campaign against Israel Hill was designed partly to persuade those white Southerners who had inner doubts about the morality of slavery that their worries were misplaced.

Some of the published smears were still being quoted as fact by historians well into the twentieth century, and I’ve run into people who refer to them as gospel even today. One of the pleasures in writing Israel on the Appomattox has been the opportunity to paint what I hope is an accurate picture of what Israel Hill actually was.

Q: What happened to the Israelites and other free blacks during and after the Civil War?

A: Many free black men were drafted to do manual labor for the Confederate Army. Some worked near home, but a number were sent to faraway parts of Virginia to build fortifications. After the war, in 1867, African American men received the right to vote and hold office. No black Israelites were elected to public office, but free blacks on and off the Hill had bought more real estate than ever before during the 1850s and 1860s, and African Americans played a growing role in the post-Civil War economy of the area.

Q: The first Baptist church in Farmville was founded by a biracial group that included Sam and Phil White, prosperous free blacks of Israel Hill. How was such a thing possible in a white supremacist society, and how was this joint venture viewed by non-Baptists in the community?

A: Here again, the Old South was a society of paradoxes. Churches in the region seated blacks and whites separately; that sometimes meant that black worshipers had to stand along the walls or even outdoors. At the same time, every church in and around Prince Edward County was biracial; white evangelical Christians of all denominations recognized the validity of black members' conversion experiences and spiritual gifts, as well as their capacity for salvation. Few people seem to have thought less of Farmville's Baptist congregation because its founders included free blacks; white non-Baptists contributed money toward the building of the church.

Q: How does Prince Edward County's reaction to Brown v. Board of Education (i.e. closing public schools for years rather than allow integrated education) fit with your revelations about the earlier fluctuations of racial attitudes in Prince Edward?

A: I’ve thought a lot about that. As Israel on the Appomattox doesn’t cover the century between Emancipation and the Prince Edward school closings of 1959, I’m reluctant to trace the deep roots of the desegregation crisis of the 1950s and 1960s.

But I will say a couple of things. First, in Israel on the Appomattox I show that the African American community in Prince Edward County has been a creative and impressive one for many, many years. That held true in the mid-twentieth century, and it helps explain why black high school students in the county staged a protest against unequal schools, which in turn led to a desegregation suit that was one of four that the U. S. Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education.

The second thing I’ll say lies at the very heart of Israel on the Appomattox. Historians have long written that whites in the Old South saw free African Americans as walking contradictions to the logic of slavery, and therefore treated them almost as badly as they did enslaved people. I agree that free blacks were oppressed, but I’ve found that they interacted with whites in a stunning variety of ways. It seems to me that slavery ironically helped make such flexible relations possible: before the Civil War, most blacks remained securely in bondage, and that left many whites feeling that decent relationships with and accomplishments achieved by free African Americans posed no threat to white supremacy.

In the 1950s, whites in the South had no such assurance. Indeed, national institutions seemed more and more sympathetic to the black struggle against segregation. Under those conditions, whites circled the wagons and resisted integration in every way short of secession and armed rebellion against the federal government (which had been tried in 1861-1865 and turned out disappointingly). Why Prince Edward of all counties in the South decided simply to abolish public education is a story Bob Smith told effectively in the 1960s through his book, They Closed Their Schools.

Q: Is there anything left of Israel Hill today?

A: There are still a few African American families who live there, at least one of which consists of descendants of the early settlers. But over the last three generations, many Israelites left to seek opportunities in Baltimore, New York, and elsewhere. The Hill’s population is very small today, and much of the area is now wooded.

During my work for Israel on the Appomattox, I did have the privilege of interviewing people who grew up on Israel Hill early in the twentieth century. I conducted one of those interviews with Ms. Pearl Walker Hartwill, in her family home on the crest of Israel Hill–a memorable experience. My job as a historian is to find the truth without romanticizing anything, but I won’t deny that I feel a connection both to the Israelites and to some of their white neighbors, or that, after years of research and writing, Israel Hill has a permanent place in my heart.

From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

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.

Praise | Awards


“Fascinating . . . . No less than a systematic deconstruction of the ways in which many Americans have come to think of race, slavery, and the Old South.” –The Boston Globe "Fascinating . . . . Ely’s story is so rich and compelling–and so persuasively documented–that it is sure to leave its mark on Southern history for years to come." –The Washington Post Book WorldIsrael on the Appomattox [is one of] the first works that attempt to describe with precision the texture of day-to-day interaction across the color line. . . . A remarkably rich story.” –Atlantic Monthly“[An] absorbing story . . . . The value of this book lies in the many stereotypes the author has debunked.” –St. Louis Post-Dispatch"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 . . . . A striking portrait . . . . 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." –Los Angeles Times“A remarkable civics lesson in hope, strength, endurance and quiet courage that most will find important and uplifting.” –Rocky Mountain News“Compelling, well-written, and thoroughly researched. The author knows Israel Hill and Prince Edward County inside and out, and his study is clearly a labor of love. . . . [Ely] challenges many of our assumptions concerning white and black Southern life in the antebellum period.” –Civil War Book Review“Ely brings to life the black personages who demonstrated that self-determination was possible in the South prior to the Civil War . . . . A rare slice of history recounted by an uncommonly fastidious historian who is as passionate about the Hill as he is about the Israelites who dwelled there.” –Black Issues Book Review“[Ely] explores as few others have done the meaning of independence, of the metaphor of a river in America, and the role of faith and brotherly love.” –Decatur Daily“An astonishing act of historical research and imagination. Ely has given us the fullest and most humane account we have ever had of free black people.” –Edward L. Ayers, author of In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863Israel on the Appomattox recovers a fascinating biracial world–right in the middle of the slave-based Old South. . . . The book shows whites, enslaved blacks, and, most especially, freed blacks working, living, trading, competing, cooperating, fighting, and (at least occasionally) loving together, in and around a special little place called by the freedpeople Israel Hill. The story stretches from the Virginia of Thomas Jefferson to the Virginia of Appomattox Court House. And it is extraordinary–inspiring and heartbreaking by turns.” –John Demos, author of The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America“This remarkable account . . . is rich with new insights on the dimensions of bondage and freedom in the slave South. The author's meticulous research and elegant writing make the experience of reading it both a reward and a pleasure.” –James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of FreedomIsrael on the Appomattox is a surprising and often heartening story of human struggle, personal dignity and complex interracial cooperation in the deep shadow of slavery. It upends traditional assumptions about race in the Old South and, in so doing, poses striking possibilities for America’s future.” –James Oliver Horton, co-author of Slavery and the Making of America “The book unfolds as a revelation, and it contributes profoundly to the revision of our understanding of African American life in the nineteenth century.” –Michael Kammen, author of American Culture, American Tastes“Melvin Patrick Ely previously wrote a wonderfully original and significant book on the popular radio and television series Amos ’n’ Andy that upset a number of facile assumptions. He has now done exactly the same for Israel Hill . . . . Once again we are indebted to him for enabling us to take a deeper look at aspects of our past and our culture we thought we fully understood.” –Lawrence W. Levine, author of Black Culture and Black Consciousness“A path-breaking analysis of antebellum Virginia, Ely’s superbly documented discussion of race relations is seminal and destined for controversy.” –Gerald Jaynes, author of Branches Without Roots: The Genesis of the Black Working Class


WINNER 2005 Bancroft Prize
WINNER 2005 Albert J. Beveridge Award (AHA)
FINALIST John Hope Franklin Publication Prize
FINALIST Frederick Douglas Book Prize

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