Home Books E-mail

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 turns.

--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 period.

--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.

--Kirkus Reviews

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 significant finds.

--Publishers Weekly