Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War


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Among the most dramatic pages are those where Levy ponders his subject's near-total disappearance from the American consciousness. Unlike Jefferson, Carter "does not soothe us, excuse us or help us explain ourselves," Levy writes. At times, Levy seems not quite at home in the 18th century. He misreads certain facts as evidence of Carter's eccentricity when they were actually quite ordinary in the context of their time. For example, shaving one's head was a frequent safeguard against lice, one-handed pocket watches were not very unusual, and it was commonplace for Virginia gentlemen to employ trusted slaves as boat pilots and messengers.

By contrast, Ely, a historian at William and Mary, appears to have dwelt happily for years in the world of rural antebellum Virginia. His book teems with details often too many of the lives of Randolph's freedmen, particularly those who settled a small community beside the Appomattox called Israel Hill. Teamsters, farmers, boatmen and shoemakers are treated in turn, as Ely mines land deeds, court records and wills to plot the former slaves' slow but steady accumulation of acreage, offspring and civic status. If "Israel on the Appomattox" sometimes plods, it does so in the service of an important argument.

Like Jefferson, many antebellum Americans believed that free blacks could never become productive and well-adjusted members of society, especially in the South. The Israel Hill settlement became a testing ground for their theories; as early as , a pro-slavery author visited and reported with satisfaction that the "idleness, poverty and dissipation" of the liberated slaves "render them wretched in the extreme, as well as a great pest. Ely finds little idleness and wretchedness in the lives of Israel Hill's inhabitants. On the contrary, many of the former slaves and their descendants became solid Virginia yeomen, sturdily self-sufficient members of a dynamic agrarian society.

Israel on the Appomattox

Race aside, theirs was a community strikingly similar to the Jeffersonian ideal. The name Appomattox, of course, became synonymous with something rather different: the culmination of the violent struggle over slavery that Jefferson, in his pessimistic prophecy, foretold. Both these recent books, however, invite us to imagine -- as Carter and Randolph both did -- the more optimistic vision of an America that might have been, one in which "generous energy" prevailed over bloodshed.

As for the young Edward Coles, he spurned Jefferson's advice and freed his slaves. He, too, has been largely forgotten.

Some employed whites to work for them, and a few seem to have owned or hired slaves. Ely's portrait is of a society of "live and let live" rather than onerous repression. Free blacks shared with their white neighbors, including slave owners, common values -- evangelical religion, devotion to their families, the quest for economic independence. The county even witnessed interracial marriages, which did not seem to stir up much resentment. 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. Unfortunately, he sometimes caricatures the views of others to exaggerate the originality of his own findings. He persistently attributes misconceptions to unnamed "modern observers.

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Ely chides Berlin for assuming that repressive laws accurately reflected day-to-day social reality. Yet the broad compass of Berlin's account, which covers free blacks in the entire South from to , allows far more scope for generalizations, regional comparisons and examination of change over time than Ely's investigation of a single county, especially one where their connections with the prominent Randolph family may well have affected the overall treatment of Israel Hill's residents.

Local histories, so valuable in bringing into sharp relief the details of daily life, seem to have an inherent bias toward continuity as opposed to historical change. The rhythms of life in agricultural societies change slowly, and national events seem remote. Indeed, Ely insists that the momentous events of that era -- Nat Turner's rebellion, the growing slavery controversy, even the Civil War itself -- had "astoundingly little effect" on day-to-day race relations. His treatment of the effect of the Civil War and emancipation on free blacks is cursory, to say the least.

Three Historians Awarded Bancroft Prizes | Perspectives on History | AHA

He notes, for example, that in Prince Edward, unlike other parts of the South, formerly free blacks did not step forward during Reconstruction to take positions of political leadership. But he fails to offer an explanation or to consider whether this reticence may have reflected a dependence on white goodwill fostered by the very racial closeness that his book depicts.

But Ely has a larger ambition -- to recast our understanding of slavery itself as a living institution. In this, his reach far exceeds his grasp. He insists that master-slave relations were marked by the same "human empathy" he finds operated with regard to free blacks. This conclusion cannot be sustained by the evidence he offers.

Thanks for telling us about the problem. Return to Book Page. His cousin, Richard Randolph, not only disagreed, but made it possible for ninety African Americans to prove Jefferson wrong.

Israel on the Appomattox tells the story of these liberated blacks and the community they formed, called Israel Hill, in Prince Edward County, Virginia. There, ex-slaves established farms, navigated the Appomattox River, and became entrepreneurs. Free blacks and whites did business with one another, sued each other, worked side by side for equal wages, joined forces to found a Baptist congregation, moved west together, and occasionally settled down as man and wife.


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Slavery cast its grim shadow, even over the lives of the free, yet on Israel Hill we discover a moving story of hardship and hope that defies our expectations of the Old South. Get A Copy. Paperback , pages. Published August 16th by Vintage first published More Details Original Title. Bancroft Prize , Albert J. Other Editions 4. Friend Reviews. To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Israel on the Appomattox

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Sort order. Jul 27, Caroline rated it really liked it Shelves: american-history. In the last decade of the 18th century, a Virginian planter left behind a will emancipating his slaves and providing for their futures by bequeathing to them acres of prime agricultural land. The new free black settlement, known henceforth as Israel Hill and its inhabitants as Israelites, offers historians the fascinating perspective of an entire free black community deep in slave territory, an example that serves to shed a surprising light on slaveholder and free black relations.

Time and ag In the last decade of the 18th century, a Virginian planter left behind a will emancipating his slaves and providing for their futures by bequeathing to them acres of prime agricultural land. Time and again in Prince Edward County, where Israel Hill was located, records demonstrate a stunning array of interaction between whites and free blacks - in business and commerce, farming and artisan workshops, in the court house and the jail house, through contracts and wills and county aid.


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Whilst they were denied any participation in the democratic process, free blacks were not as much as the mercy of the white-decreed laws as might have been expected - justice could be surprisingly even-handed, many of the most repressive laws were often ignored or bypassed and free blacks often showed little hesitation in asserting what rights they did have and bringing frequent suits against their white neighbours. History has all too often fallen back on the traditional supposedly contemporary view of free blacks as neither fish nor fowl, a pariah race, without the 'comfort' and 'security' of slavery or the true freedom of whites.

Taking much of what Southern whites wrote and said about free free blacks at face value has its historical dangers: as Ely repeatedly demonstrates, much of what Southern whites said about the free blacks and ex-slaves in their communities was often directly contradicted by what they did. Despite what it may seem, it was quite easy for whites to denigrate and dismiss an entire race in the abstract whilst continuing often quite friendly relations with its members in the individual. At no point does Ely ever condone slavery, in the individual or the abstract, and he never denies for a moment that the free blacks were very much second-class citizens in Prince Edward County.

But, he argues, insisting on the constant oppression and violation of free black rights denies and disguises the frequent achievements and triumphs of some free blacks - many of whom became relatively prosperous, owning land and business, passing on inheritances to their children and grandchildren, becoming known and respected within their own and the white community. It is all too easy, Ely argues, to make ourselves feel better about our own society by damning and vilifying the past - "things may not be perfect now," we say, "but it's better than it was then.

Indeed, one of Ely's central theses is that Southern whites could quite often treat free blacks with, if not equality, then certain levels of openness and civility precisely because of the existence of slavery, because of their confidence in the inferiority of the blacks and their certainty that those few free blacks in their midst were the aberration, not the rule.

How Black Union Soldiers Went from Slavery to Forever Free

View 2 comments. This is a really wonderful microhistory of a small county in central Virginia where, in the early nineteenth century, a small group of freed slaves set up a community for themselves in a place they called Israel Hill.

Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War
Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War
Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War
Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War
Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War
Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War
Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War

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