Praise for Melvin Patrick Ely's
Israel on the Appomattox
Likely to shake the usual orthodoxies. . . . 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.
--Edwin M. Yoder Jr., Washington Post Book World
This remarkable account of a free black community in the
heart of antebellum Virginia is rich with new insights on the
dimensions of bondage and freedom in the slave South. Ely'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 Freedom
Melvin Patrick Ely's Israel on the Appomattox recovers a
fascinating biracial world---right in the middle of the slave-based Old
South---that history had long since forgotten. Based on meticulous and
deeply empathic research in a surprisingly rich trove of local records,
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
Courthouse. And it is extraordinary---inspiring and heartbreaking, by
--John Demos, author of The Unredeemed Captive
In this extraordinary book, Melvin Ely unfolds the drama of
three generations of African Americans successfully building a
community on the banks of Virginia's Appomattox River, negotiating
business and even social relations with white neighbors. 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
Invite[s] us to imagine . . . the more optimistic vision of
an America that might have been, one in which 'generous energy'
prevailed over bloodshed.
--Adam Goodheart, New York Times Book Review (front cover)
Further proof that [Ely has] a knack for finding subjects with unusual potential. . . . I am much taken with Israel Hill.
--The late C. Vann Woodward
Ely has given us the fullest and most humane account we
have ever had of free black people. . . . In an astonishing act of
historical research and imagination, Melvin Ely has recreated an entire
world in a forgotten corner of the slave South. The people of his
remarkable story---black and white, free and enslaved---emerge from a
dark past to stand before us in sharp relief. By understanding their
lives, we understand the American South in a new and more profound way.
--Edward L. Ayers, author of In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863
A pathbreaking analysis of antebellum Virginia, Ely's superbly
documented discussion of race relations is seminal and destined for
controversy. Imaginative use of evidence such as court records shows
that black-white interactions ranged from commerce to marriage; courts
often treated Afro-Virginians fairly, and blacks were self-regarding
actors far removed from Sambo stereotypes.
--Gerald David Jaynes, author of Branches Without Roots: The Genesis of the Black Working Class
This model work of local history succeeds in illuminating
both individual lives and large structures, both limits and
possibilities, and the result is a complex and arresting story that
will make us all think harder about the history of race relations in
the antebellum South.
--Bancroft Prize citation, 2005
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. . . . With remarkable energy and ingenuity, . . . he
develops a striking portrait of free black life as a day-to-day social
reality, rather than simply a legal category. . . . Ely offers
persuasive evidence that, in Prince Edward County at least, free blacks
were a successful and widely accepted part of the social fabric. Ely
has done a remarkable job of examining how a complex system of race
relations operated on the local level. . . . 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.
--Eric Foner, Los Angeles Times Book Review
Ely brings to life the black personages who demonstrated
that self-determination was possible in the South prior to the Civil
War. . . . This is 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.
--Herb Boyd, Black Issues Book Review
[Israel on the Appomattox offers] 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. . . . [A] subtle, highly nuanced, and complex portrait .
. . . 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.
--James A. Miller, Boston Globe
Melvin Ely achieves an astonishing project by meticulously
mining rich veins of archival sources to give us a fresh (and
refreshing) view of the constraints and possibilities for rural free
blacks living in antebellum times. 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
Important . . . . Present[s] fresh and especially nuanced
views of the South's anguished and ambiguous history, and of the
ambivalence at the heart of history and in the heart of man. . . . Ely
has unearthed a remarkably rich story. . . . A creative and exhaustive
feat of archival research . . . . Accentuate[s] the biracial---and
tragic---aspects of Southern history.
--Benjamin Schwarz, Atlantic Monthly
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
This is a remarkable book. Based on exhaustive research in
county records, it reconstructs in extraordinary detail the experiences
of a distinctive free black community in antebellum Virginia. In the
process, it sheds new light on black-white relations in the Old South
and challenges some of our conventional views.
--George M. Fredrickson, author of White Supremacy and Racism: A Short History
Ely challenges many of our preconceived notions about
African American life in the antebellum South. . . . He separates the
rhetoric from the reality. . . . 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
treats the people he examines---whether the free black Sam White or the
emancipationist Richard Randolph---humanely and carefully. . . . An
impressive work of social history that challenges many of our
assumptions concerning white and black Southern life in the antebellum
--Colin Woodward, Civil War Book Review
There's nothing like digging into original sources to shake up stereotypes. That is what Melvin Patrick Ely did.
--Donald D. Breed, Providence Journal
Masterful . . . adds a new dimension to the study of the
lives, progress, and agency of free blacks in the South. . . . [A]
wondrous array of primary sources and engaging prose.
--B. A. Wineman, Choice
[An] amazing story . . . . Ely's book shows how various
alliances were built, friendships established, and commerce developed
as whites began putting aside their stereotypical views . . . . To his
credit, Ely makes no attempt at apologies or explanations for the ills
and evils of slavery, and he doesn't downplay or soft-pedal the
brutality and oppression it took to maintain it. . . . Israel on the
Appomattox is an inspiring, informative, and uplifting story, an
example of what can happen when people with heart and courage refuse to
be denied. . . . Thankfully, the Israel Hill community's tale is now
available for everyone to read and savor.
--Ron Wynn, Tennessee Tribune
Melvin Patrick Ely, commendable for his fine writing style, has produced a riveting account.
--R. Baird Shuman, Magill Book Reviews
Through the personal and public stories of the residents of
Israel Hill, Ely reveals this extraordinary settlement where racial
cooperation reigned but was not untarnished by the raging conflicts of
slavery and impending war. . . . A well-researched and absorbing look
at the history of freedmen and race relations from an angle that defies
the conventional wisdom [about] blacks and whites at the time.
--Vernon L. Ford, BookList
There's a risk to writing the kind of history Melvin
Patrick Ely offers . . . --a risk he signals he's ready to take by his
somewhat provocative subtitle, A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom
from the 1790s Through the Civil War. . . . A compelling picture of the
ways in which 'the realities of daily life led whites in Prince Edward
[County] to admit the humanity of blacks routinely in myriad ways. . .
.' An important addition to our understanding of one of the ugliest
components of our heritage as Americans. . . . A remarkable civics
lesson in hope, strength, endurance, and quiet courage that most will
find important and uplifting.
--Duane Davis, Rocky Mountain News
A feat of imaginative scholarship . . . . In carefully
nuanced prose, [Ely] describes the intricate day-to-day social and
personal interactions between blacks and whites. . . . In this
important book, Melvin Ely draws closer to the personal, presenting an
amazing cast of vividly drawn characters, black and white, that
together made some small progress in the difficult and divided world of
the antebellum South and realized to a greater extent than previously
believed the goals of the American Revolution.
--Donald W. Gunter, Virginia Libraries
A vivid portrait [of Richard Randolph, emancipator and
cousin of Thomas Jefferson]. In scrupulous detail, Ely recreates the
lives [of free blacks] and their not-always-acrimonious relationships
with the surrounding whites. . . . Topples . . . stereotypes.
--Philip Walzer, (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot
Ely presents a startling narrative of 'black and white
people relat[ing] to one another in a stunning variety of ways' and of
free blacks' achievements in daily life. Challenging the accepted
historical explanations . . . , his well-written, thoroughly researched
book will appeal to both lay readers and scholars.
--Charles L. Lumpkins, Library Journal (starred review)
The absorbing story of how these former slaves built a
successful community and . . . enjoyed relatively easy business and
social relations with their white neighbors is the focus of this
well-researched book. . . . Certain to generate controversy . . . .
Fresh and provocative . . . . The value of this book lies in the many
stereotypes the author has debunked about slavery.
--Robert Joiner, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Engrossing . . . . [contains] revealing touches of a
Southerner with a reflective man's convoluted emotions about his roots.
. . . [Ely] humanizes while neither minimizing nor negating [slavery's
horrors]; the result is a book that is well-researched and well-rounded.
--Barbara Rich, Daily Progress
One of the many strengths of Ely's book is his ability to
bring historical figures to life, and nowhere is that more evident than
in free blacks such as Sam White. . . . Knowledge of these [black]
Israelites now flows like the Appomattox River at spring flood.
--Ken Woodley, Farmville Herald
An illuminating account of the free 'Afro-Virginians' who
lived and worked in a society and economy dominated by slavery. . . . A
well-written, noteworthy contribution to African American history.
The most unexpectedly fascinating parts of Ely's study
concern not sensational racial conflicts but forgotten ways of life.
Several Israel Hill residents, for example, earned their livelihoods as
river men, transporting goods on the Appomattox River to and from
Petersburg in batteaux, or flat-bottomed boats. . . . Ely's
appreciative, careful investigation of this vocation is particularly
engaging. . . . [Israel on the Appomattox] is academic only in the
sense that it is the work of a thorough historian; its style is not
forbidding but lucid and smooth. It belongs . . . in the hands of any
curious reader of history.
--Richard Gaughran, Daily News-Record
[Ely] explores as few others have done the meaning of independence . . . and the role of faith and brotherly love.
--John Davis, Decatur Daily
Ely accumulates extraordinary detail about everyday life,
encompassing . . . how work was performed, marriages made, houses
built, children reared, English spoken, medicine practiced, crime
punished, names acquired, and the extent to which 'free blacks and
whites interacted, even cooperated, in almost every manner we can
conceive of. . . .' Evidence of interracial marriage and of blacks
bringing and often winning lawsuits against whites are just two