The New York Times
Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil Warby Melvin Patrick Ely
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.
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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.
Meet the Author
Melvin Patrick Ely, a native of Richmond, Virginia, took undergraduate and graduate degrees in history at Princeton University, studied linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, and served as a postdoctoral fellow at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, University of Virginia. He has taught in public high schools in Virginia and Massachusetts, at Yale University, and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Since 1995 he has taught at the College of William and Mary, where he is currently Newton Family Professor of History and Black Studies. He is the author of The Adventures of Amos 'n' Andy: A Social History of an American Phenomenon, and co-translator, with Naama Zahavi-Ely, of The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle, by Amotz and Avishag Zahavi.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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