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A portrait of surprising harmony

Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom From the 1790s Through the Civil War, Melvin Patrick Ely, Alfred A. Knopf: 644 pp., $35

September 12, 2004|Eric Foner | Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton professor of American History at Columbia University, is the author of "Give Me Liberty!: An American History," "The Story of American Freedom" and "Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World."

Nearly a century and a half after the abolition of slavery, the Old South remains a source of fascination and controversy. Heated debates over issues like reparations, the public display of the Confederate flag, even the nature of Thomas Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, suggest that Americans have yet to arrive at a commonly agreed-upon memory of slavery. But the work of historians of the last 40 years has made clear the centrality of slavery to American history.

Far less attention has been paid to the nearly half-million free blacks who lived in the United States on the eve of the Civil War, a majority in the slave states. In a society that equated "black" and "slave," free blacks were seen as an anomaly. They had the right to enter into legally recognized marriages and own property (including, on occasion, slaves). But in nearly all the states, North and South, they could not vote, serve on juries, testify in court against white people or attend public schools. "Free negroes," a South Carolina judge declared in 1848, "belong to a degraded caste of society" and must conduct themselves "as inferiors."

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." Ely, who teaches at the College of William and Mary, takes as his subject free black life in Prince Edward County, in the Virginia Piedmont southwest of Richmond. Best known today for having closed its public schools in the early 1960s for five years rather than accept integration, Prince Edward before the Civil War was the site of a remarkable experiment in race relations initiated by Richard Randolph, a member of one of the state's most prominent families.

Like many aristocratic Virginians of the Revolutionary era, Randolph became convinced that slavery contradicted the ideals that inspired American independence. In 1796, shortly before his death at 26, Randolph drafted a will that condemned slavery as an "infamous practice," provided for the freeing of his slaves and set aside part of his land for them. Because Randolph died in debt, it took 14 years for his plan to be implemented. But in 1810 his widow gave some 90 men, women and children their freedom and divided 350 acres of land among their families. Steeped in the biblical story of Exodus, they called their settlement Israel Hill.

By 1860, the county's free black population had risen to nearly 500, a number small enough to enable Ely to trace out their experiences family by family. He does this with remarkable energy and ingenuity. Ely has immersed himself in local documents -- tax lists, road repair orders, census figures and especially court records. From them he develops a striking portrait of free black life as a day-to-day social reality, rather than simply a legal category.

Ely insists that despite the legal disabilities under which they suffered and their complete exclusion from political participation, free blacks effectively used local institutions to assert their rights and defend their interests. Local courts and public officials treated them pretty much the same as they did white Virginians. Free blacks accused of crimes were acquitted at the same rate as white defendants and frequently won judgments against whites who owed them money. A landless free black man sued a white employer for unpaid wages and won in court. An all-white jury awarded damages to a free black plaintiff whose hogs were shot by a white farmer after they trampled his crops, since the law required land owners to maintain adequate fences. Meanwhile, state laws such as the requirement that free black tax delinquents be hired out for involuntary labor remained unenforced in Prince Edward.

As the defense of slavery solidified after 1830, articles appeared in the Southern press claiming that the residents of Israel Hill had degenerated since becoming free. Ely shows that this picture grossly distorted reality. Free blacks were hard-working, ambitious and economically successful. Many worked as skilled craftsmen -- carpenters, blacksmiths, bricklayers and boatmen who transported goods to market for both black and white neighbors. Some employed whites to work for them, and a few seem to have owned or hired slaves.

Ely's portrait is of a society of "live and let live" rather than onerous repression. Free blacks shared with their white neighbors, including slave owners, common values -- evangelical religion, devotion to their families, the quest for economic independence. The county even witnessed interracial marriages, which did not seem to stir up much resentment. Ely offers persuasive evidence that in Prince Edward County at least, free blacks were a successful and widely accepted part of the social fabric.

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