- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 9, 2004

The stereotype of blacks in the antebellum South as universally oppressed in slavery has been shaken up by one historian’s research into a free black community in southern Virginia that predated the Civil War by more than 60 years.

In his new book, “Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom From the 1790s Through the Civil War,” Melvin Ely explores the relationships between black and white, slave and free.

In 1796, William Randolph — Thomas Jefferson’s cousin — died, leaving a will that declared 90 slaves free and gave them 350 acres of land near the Appomattox River in Prince Edward County. The freedmen named their land Israel Hill, called themselves Israelites and carved out a distinct existence.

Mr. Ely, professor of history and black studies at the College of William & Mary, examines the lives and day-to-day interactions between the free blacks and whites of Prince Edward County, basing his account on court records, business logs, other historical documents and interviews with descendants of the Israel Hill settlers.

“The picture we’ve had of free African-Americans has been largely a portrait of utter oppression and exclusion,” Mr. Ely says. “What I’ve uncovered is a combination of discrimination, racial fluidity and free black achievement.”

Free blacks, Mr. Ely shows, managed to live in harmony with white society. They started businesses, founded an interracial church, conducted business with white neighbors and received wages equal to — and sometimes higher than — white people working the same jobs. They occasionally entered into interracial marriages.

“There were legal disabilities that free blacks had to labor under,” Mr. Ely says. “It’s also definitely true that white Southerners worried and talked a lot about free blacks as an aggregate. If you look at the legal codes and the discussion of the free black issue in the legislative halls and newspaper editorials [of the time] you’ll find that many whites did regard free blacks in the abstract as a nuisance.”

Virginia law at that time forbade blacks from voting, testifying against whites in court, serving on juries and, after the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831, owning firearms. Yet such restrictions did not prevent achievement by Israel Hill’s free blacks, or prevent them from having good relationships with their white neighbors.

“It’s difficult to portray both the oppression and the achievement because the two are in tension with one another. What we’ve had, I think, is really a good picture of the oppression without allowing for all of the individual relationships that could be amicable between the races,” Mr. Ely says.

White friendship toward free blacks was possible, Mr. Ely said, because such relationships were not seen as a threat to the institution of slavery.

“Most African-Americans were kept under control by the institution of slavery, so oddly the fluidity that I find [between whites and free blacks] depended partly on the very existence of slavery,” Mr. Ely says. “I think that many whites could afford to treat free blacks relatively fairly, because on a day-to-day basis most whites did not see their free black neighbors as a threat.”

What was true in Prince Edward County, Mr. Ely says, was fairly typical elsewhere in the antebellum South.

“There is a fair amount of research that has been done on other localities [and] more and more is being done all the time,” Mr. Ely says. “By and large historians are finding similar things in other parts of Virginia and other parts of the South.”

However, there was “variation in conditions from place to place,” Mr. Ely says. “I don’t doubt [that] there are places where the lives of free blacks were more constrained than I find. But I also know from the research of others and the research that I’ve done … that there seems to be many places where there is this dichotomy between what the law says and how people believe.”

But Brenda Stevenson, a history professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, says free blacks “were extremely marginalized in the South,” despite Mr. Ely’s findings about Israel Hill.

“If you were black you were supposed to be a slave,” Miss Stevenson says. “There was certainly some enclaves in which people lived better, but the majority of people were on the margins of society.”

The conditions at Israel Hill might have been “something unique” in a particular area, but “it certainly cannot be generalized, particularly for the South but even for the Northeast, with very few exceptions,” Ms. Stevenson says.

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