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An oasis of freedom amid slavery

Study of unique settlement reveals some surprises

Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom From the 1790s Through the Civil War
By Melvin Patrick Ely
Knopf, 640 pp., illustrated, $35

More than 150 pages of documents and notes accompany ''Israel on the Appomattox," a testimony to the meticulous scholarship that undergirds Melvin Patrick Ely's fascinating account of a free black community that not only survived but thrived in Prince Edward County, Va., from the late 18th century through the years when the Civil War brought a decisive end to slavery. Formidable as this scholarly apparatus may be to casual readers, its presence is indispensable for Ely's argument, and careful readers will find their attention to it rewarded by a deeply enriched understanding of dimensions of American life that remain unexamined in many discussions of the South, slavery, and race relations in the United States.

When a Virginia aristocrat named Richard Randolph died in his mid-20s in 1796, his handwritten will took on the overtones of an abolitionist manifesto, begging his slaves' forgiveness for usurping their rights as human beings and liberating them; not only did he set them free, he also granted them 400 acres of his land to create their new lives as independent men and women. When, after almost 15 years of delay, Randolph's heirs finally carried out his wishes, his former slaves named their newly acquired land Israel Hill, calling themselves Israelites to signify their passage to the Promised Land. By the 1830s the residents of Israel Hill had become the subject of praise by some local white residents but the target of derision by others, one of whom described the community to a national readership as a monumental failure, a breeding ground for ne'er-do-wells, harlots, and thieves.

Ely, a professor of history and black studies at the College of William and Mary and the author of the critically acclaimed ''The Adventures of Amos 'n' Andy: A Social History of an American Phenomenon," sees in Israel Hill a testing ground for the possibilities of American life, even in the midst of slavery -- and in his hands the story of this community becomes one of a triumph over adversity: ''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."

Drawing upon a ''rich but underused class of primary documents: county court papers," Ely meticulously reconstructs the lives of Hercules White, Rose Johnston, Syphax Brown, Milly Homes, and other beneficiaries of Randolph's will and their descendants. In the process he creates a subtle, highly nuanced, and complex portrait of the dynamics that shaped their relationships with their white neighbors. Free Afro-Virginians could not vote, Ely readily acknowledges, nor could they serve on juries or join the militia; they required a license from the county court to possess a gun. In short, many of the rights their white fellow citizens took for granted were routinely denied them. Still, Ely argues very strenuously, there is a sharp distinction to be made between official racial ideologies and the realities of everyday life and practices.

His painstaking detective work investigates the challenges of land ownership encountered by free blacks; the worlds of work, idleness, and poverty; the reactions of white Virginians in Prince Edward County to the bloodiest slave revolt in American history, led by Nat Turner (relatively muted, according to Ely); and the administration of law and order, particularly in relation to episodes of interracial violence -- uncovering the ways in which free blacks negotiated their relationship to a racialized social order. In a chapter called ''Worldviews," Ely, following in the footsteps of the pioneering work of Eugene Genovese in ''Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made," argues that blacks and whites in Prince Edward County shared values and beliefs -- in music, folk medical practices, notions of timekeeping, patterns of speech, and naming practices, and religion -- that facilitated an ease of familiarity and empathy between them: ''Shared attributes and assumptions amid difference helped make possible the tolerant, sometimes friendly relations that linked whites and free blacks."

Indeed, as ''Israel on the Appomattox" unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Ely is undertaking no less than a systematic deconstruction of the ways in which many Americans have come to think of race, slavery, and the Old South. Many of the racial attitudes we associate with the Old South, Ely indicates, belong to other historical moments, from the Reconstruction period onward -- such as the 1950s and 1960s, when the white officials of Prince Edward County closed the public schools rather than desegregate them. In this respect ''Israel on the Appomattox" takes sharp exception to the view that ''free African Americans lived under the heel of relentlessly hostile white neighbors," a view, Ely points out, that has a pedigree extending at least as far back as the 1920s and extends into the work of the distinguished contemporary historian of American slavery Ira Berlin.

Ely clearly registers a sharp dissent from the prevailing wisdom: ''The Old South, like any other long-vanished society, is distant from us, and strange. The more we learn about it, the more we realize we do not know. If the story of free Afro-Virginians in Prince Edward County teaches us anything, it is the danger of making assumptions about that past and its people based on what we see around us today, or on what we think we know about the history of other periods, or on the hubristic notion that our own society is superior to theirs in every conceivable way."

Just as Edward P. Jones's critically acclaimed recent novel ''The Known World" has subverted and disrupted what many readers imagined to be the truth about slavery, so does ''Israel on the Appomattox" promise to unsettle the waters in ongoing dialogue and debate about slavery, freedom, and the Old South.

James A. Miller is a professor of English and American studies and director of Africana studies at George Washington University.

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