Melvin Patrick Ely

Israel on the Appomattox

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Israel on the Appomattox Summary

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Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War, is (2004), a non-fiction book by American historian Melvin Patrick Ely, tells the story of Israel Hill, a free black community in the slave state of Virginia. For Israel on the Appomattox, Ely received the prestigious Bancroft Prize.

The narrative begins in 1863 as 98-year-old Sam White sits in his Virginia farmhouse in Israel Hill. “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.” After listing the ways in which White resembles a typical small farmer in the South, Ely reveals what sets White apart: he is free and black. The same is true of virtually all of White’s neighbors, making these former slaves and descendants of former slaves anomalies in the still-slave-owning state of Virginia.

Ely traces the roots of White’s community back to the 1790s when the young aristocrat and fierce abolitionist Richard Randolph unwittingly inherited dozens of slaves including White. A cousin of Thomas Jefferson, Randolph disagreed with Jefferson’s insistence that while slavery was morally deplorable, African Americans were intellectually inferior to European Americans and freeing them would start a race war. On the contrary, Randolph argued for widespread emancipation. In 1796, Randolph died at the young age of 26, leaving behind a will begging forgiveness from his slaves, freeing them, and deeding 400 acres of land to them and their families. This is the community that would become Israel Hill, White’s home.

Unfortunately, a lengthy delay ensued before Randolph’s wife, Judith finally was able to carry out the stipulations in the will. She faced a number of legal obstacles put in place by people who did not want to see free black landowners in their county. Finally, in 1810, the group of around ninety free African Americans inherited their land, calling it Israel Hill and themselves “Israelites.”

Part of what made the settlement so unique was that in 1806, Virginia passed a law requiring any freed slaves to vacate the state within a year. However, because the residents of Israel Hill were freed 10 years before the law passed, they were “grandfathered” in and this law did not apply to them. That meant, however, that there were no newly freed slaves who could settle in Israel Hill, only the families and descendants of those original settlers.

While whites in the surrounding Farmville community largely did not interfere in the settlers’ lives, they rarely treated them with the same respect as neighbors of their own race. Moreover, the community of Israel Hill found itself at risk in 1831 after the Nat Turner slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia resulted in the deaths of more than fifty whites. Despite the fact that the residents of Israel Hill were not slaves, whites in Farmville feared they might incite a similar rebellion. The county court went so far as to confiscate the community’s guns. Fortunately, there were no further actions taken, and Israel Hill continued to survive and thrive.

This posed a problem for Southern slave-owners and politicians sympathetic to slavery who sought to counter a growing abolitionist movement by arguing African-Americans needed whites to rule them or else they would cease to live in a state of civilization. “Free blacks, white Southern apologists insisted, lived miserable, depraved lives.” The broad success of the Israel Hill community, however, stood as a strong rebuke to these anti-abolitionist arguments. In an attempt to dismiss this obvious flaw in their argument, pro-slavery advocates like Colonel James Madison—not the former president—spread anti-Israel Hill propaganda filled with outright lies. For example, Madison fabricated an alternative explanation for White’s character, attributing his success to a white benefactor. Further, they argued without evidence that the generation after White’s in Israel Hill had fallen into moral and economic degeneracy. These bad optics had very real consequences for Israel Hill. For example, when a rash of thefts broke out on nearby plantations, whites immediately suspected the residents of Israel Hill. Based on these suspicions, they turned Israel Hill’s storehouses inside out looking for the stolen goods and finding nothing.

Yet, Madison’s fabrications persisted, and the Israel Hill community became a political flashpoint during the 1850s in the lead-up to the Civil War. “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.” Nevertheless, despite intermittent bouts of suspicion or hostility from neighboring whites, the people of Israel Hill were largely left to their own devices. In some cases, they even successfully brought lawsuits against whites who wronged them, decided in their favor by white juries and white judges. This, Ely argues, punctures the myth that “free African Americans lived under the relentlessly hostile white neighbors.”

Israel on the Appomattox is a fascinating case study that may cause readers to question their assumptions about the Antebellum South.