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Israel on the Appomattox

A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War

by Melvin Patrick Ely

Thomas Jefferson condemned slavery but denied that whites and liberated blacks could live together in harmony. Jefferson's young cousin Richard Randolph and ninety African Americans set out to prove the sage of Monticello wrong. When Randolph died in 1796, he left land for his formidable bondman Hercules White and for dozens of other slaves. There they could build new lives as free people alongside white neighbors and other blacks who had gained their liberty earlier.

Fittingly, the Randolph freed people called their promised land Israel Hill. These black Israelites and other free African Americans established farms, plied skilled trades, and navigated the Appomattox River in freight-carrying "batteaux." Hercules White's son Sam and other free blacks bought and sold boats, land, and buildings, and they won the respect of whites.

Melvin Patrick Ely captures a series of remarkable personal and public dramas: free black and white people do business with one another, sue each other, work side by side for equal wages, join forces to found a Baptist congregation, move west together, and occasionally settle down as man and wife. Even still-enslaved blacks who face charges of raping or killing whites sometimes find ardent white defenders.

Yet slavery's long shadow darkens this landscape in unpredictable ways. After Nat Turner's slave revolt, county officials confiscate and auction off free blacks' weapons---and then vote to give the proceeds to the blacks themselves. One black Israelite marries an enslaved woman and watches, powerless, as a white master carries three of their children off to Missouri; a free black miller has to bid for his own wife at a public auction. Proslavery hawks falsely depict Israel Hill to the nation as a degenerate place whose supposed failure proves blacks are unfit for freedom. The Confederate Army compels free black men to build fortifications far from home, until Lee finally surrenders to Grant a few miles from Israel Hill.

Ely tells a moving story of hope and hardship, of black pride and achievement. He shows us an Old South we hardly know, where ties of culture, faith, affection, and economic interest crossed racial barriers---a society in which, ironically, many whites felt secure enough to deal fairly and even cordially with free African Americans partly because slavery still held most blacks firmly in its grip.

  • randomhouse.com: More information, includes a readable excerpt of the book.
  • Boston Globe: A review of Israel on the Appomattox from the Boston Globe.
  • HNN interview: An interview with Prof. Ely about the book.


More Reviews

Rich with new insights on the dimensions of bondage and freedom. 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

Extraordinary---inspiring and heart-breaking, by turns.
--John Demos, author of The Unredeemed Captive

Fascinating . . . . Ely's story is so rich and compelling . . . that it is sure to leave its mark on Southern history for years to come.
--Washington Post Book World

In an astonishing act of historical research and imagination, Melvin Ely has recreated an entire world, [whose people] stand before us in sharp relief.
--Edward L. Ayers, author of In the Presence of Mine Enemies

Extraordinary . . . . A surprising and often heartening story of human struggle, personal dignity, and complex interracial cooperation in the deep shadow of slavery. It poses striking possibilities for America's future.
--James Oliver Horton, co-author of Hard Road to Freedom

Pathbreaking, superbly documented, seminal, and destined for controversy.
--Gerald David Jaynes, author of Branches Without Roots

Invite[s] us to imagine . . . the more optimistic vision of an America that might have been, one in which 'generous energy' prevailed over bloodshed.
--New York Times Book Review

[No one] has examined the quality of [free blacks'] lives in the detail or with the sophistication of Melvin Patrick Ely.
--Eric Foner, Los Angeles Times

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

A remarkably rich story . . . . Accen-tuate[s] the biracial---and tragic---aspects of Southern history.
--Atlantic Monthly

A remarkable civics lesson in hope, strength, endurance, and quiet courage that most will find important and uplifting.
--Rocky Mountain News

Certain to generate controversy. . . . Fresh and provocative.
--St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Masterful . . . . [A] wondrous array of primary sources and engaging prose.

An inspiring, informative, and uplifting story, . . . now available for everyone to read and savor.
--Tennessee Tribune

An amazing cast of vividly drawn characters, black and white.
--Virginia Libraries