Melvin Ely

Israel on the Appomattox

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

Vintage Books 2004

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In Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War (Vintage Books, 2004), Melvin Ely uses...

In Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War (Vintage Books, 2004), Melvin Ely uses a trove of documents primarily found in the county court records of Prince Edward County, Virginia to unravel a rich story about the free blacks who inhabited “the gentle slope of Israel Hill.” The story begins in 1796 when Richard Randolph, a prominent Virginian and cousin to Thomas Jefferson, left a will full of fiery abolitionist sentiment that emancipated his slaves and parceled 350 acres of his land among them. Ely explores the lives of the freed people who used this land to cultivate small farms and launch successful entrepreneurial ventures.

Israel on the Appomattox demonstrates that historians can gain a deep understanding of a society using legal documents as their window into the past. Ely’s research exposes the little known fact that Afro-Virginians could file (and often successfully filed) civil suits, despite not being allowed to testify in criminal courts. While not a perfect check on abuse, Ely explains that civil suits were an inroad free blacks could make against an unjust system. Through Ely’s exploration of the quotidian behavior of Prince Edward’s inhabitants, much is revealed about the relationship between politics, law, and actual behavior in societies past or present.

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