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An acre in Prince Edward County is better than a principality in Utopia.

Israel on the Appomattox : a southern experiment in Black freedom from the 1790s through the Civil War    New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2004 Melvin Patrick Ely Prince Edward County (Va.) History 19th century Hardcover. 1st ed., later printing. x, 640 p. : ill., maps ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [475]-614) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Thomas Jefferson condemned slavery but denied that whites and liberated blacks could live together in harmony. Jefferson’s cousin Richard Randolph and ninety blacks 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. Freed, they could build new lives there alongside white neighbors and other blacks who had gained their liberty.

The Randolph freed people called their promised land Israel Hill. These black Israelites and other free blacks established farms, plied skilled trades, and navigated the Appomattox River in freight-earning “batteaux.” Hercules White’s son Sam and other free blacks bought and sold boats, land, and buildings, and they won the respect of whites. What they were never granted – and apparently never agitated for – was the franchise.

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.

Yet slavery’s effects darken this utopian experiment 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.

To balance the story anti-emancipation forces depict Israel Hill to the nation as a degenerate place rife with miscegenation whose multiple fail­ures prove blacks are unfit for citizenship. The Confeder­ate Army conscripts freed black men to help in the war effort which is a great scandal to Ely but apparently the blacks were conscripted by the union, and for much the same duties, are all blessed with a special nobility [sic].

Ely tells a story of hope and hardship, of black failure and achievement. He shows us an Old South we are hardly allowed to 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 freed slaves.

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