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Interview with Bancroft Winner Melvin Patrick Ely

In March Melvin Patrick Ely, a professor of history and black studies at the College of William and Mary, was awarded the Bancroft Prize for Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War (Knopf, 2004). The book tells the story of free African Americans in a Virginia county--and their relationship to white people. The Bancroft committee cited the book as a "model work of local history."

This interview was conducted by email.

Who was Richard Randolph, and why did he decide to free his slaves?

Richard Randolph (born 1770) is actually relatively well-known because he was reputed to have impregnated his wife's live-in sister and then to have helped her either abort the fetus or kill their newborn baby.  When Randolph appeared before the county court to try to clear his name, he was represented by a legal "dream team" that included Patrick Henry and future chief justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall.  While he was never indicted, much less convicted, his reputation remained clouded, and three years later, he was dead at the age of 26.

But Randolph was notable for another reason, too.  A child of one Revolution--the American--he became a devotee of a second, the French. He had imbibed the doctrine that all people are endowed with the right to life and liberty; from George Wythe, the great jurist and professor at William and Mary. Richard also absorbed the even more radical doctrine that the races were equally endowed. It followed logically that freed African Americans should not be removed to some other land, but should be given the space to develop their own lives in their homeland--the American South.  That's why Richard wrote a will that called for his many slaves to go free and receive 400 acres of his land. 

What was so unusual about Randolph’s action?

Two things. First, his will is the strongest moral condemnation of slavery I’ve encountered this side of Frederick Douglass or William Lloyd Garrison--yet it flowed from the pen of a southern planter. Second, while hundreds of masters freed some or all of their slaves, it was very unusual to parcel out tracts of land that would become the property of those newly liberated people.

I should add, however, that as far as I can tell Richard Randolph himself never freed a single slave. He said his hands were tied by his father’s having mortgaged the slaves Richard would later inherit; until those debts were paid off, the “collateral” couldn’t be freed. But I find no evidence Richard freed even the five slaves who were not mortgaged. Fully fourteen years after Richard’s death, his widow, Judith, carried out the emancipation and the grant of land in Prince Edward County, Virginia, that her husband had dreamt of.

Randolph’s freed blacks are responsible for giving the name “Israel Hill” to the community they founded on the land he called for them to receive. Interestingly, the residents of the community also called themselves “Israelites.” Can you describe the mission and sense of self this name and identity brought to the community?

I can imagine only one explanation for the name “Israel Hill”--its black settlers were likening themselves to the childen of Israel, delivered out of bondage and settled as free people in a land of their own. For those whom the Randolphs liberated, Israel Hill was the Promised Land. But I don’t think these “Israelites” saw themselves primarily as attempting to make a point to the outside world. Rather, they dedicated themselves to a task that faced all free blacks, not only those who had belonged to the Randolphs. That challenge was to make their freedom count by applying themselves to their occupations and zealously guarding, even expanding, their rights as free people.

How did the free blacks on Israel Hill maintain their freedoms and rights as time went by? What explains their ability to do so? How did Israel Hill function in practice?

These questions go the heart of my book, Israel on the Appomattox--and there are two answers. First, neither the people the Randolphs liberated nor the free black community they joined accepted the idea promoted by some defenders of slavery and by the legal codes of the time that free African Americans were second- or third-rate people incapable of enjoying and making the most of freedom. The Randolph slaves had a history of protesting oppression that extended at least as far back as 1787, when they withdrew their labor until an abusive overseer was discharged or reprimanded.

I find free blacks striving to better themselves economically, farming, plying skilled trades, carrying cargo up and down the Appomattox River in “batteaux,” and buying and developing real estate in the nearby town of Farmville. I find them also defending their interests by filing lawsuits against white people at least from the beginning of the nineteenth century--before the Randolph slaves received their freedom or the land on Israel Hill.

Sometimes blacks won those suits--and one didn’t have to be a well-to-do, prominent free African American to prevail before an all-white court or jury. One plantation laborer, later a ditchdigger, named Thomas Bowman twice sued whites successfully--once in a suit for back wages after a wrongful firing, and once in a suit in which Bowman alleged he had been assaulted. Blacks’ rate of success in these lawsuits was lower than that of whites, but not by an awful lot. There were probably instances of free blacks seeking protection from paternalistic whites, but I find self-assertion at least as widespread as self-abasement.

Now, for free black self-advancement generally, and court victories in particular, to be possible, there had to be a body of white opinion that would permit such things. Whites were far more numerous than free blacks, the system was skewed in those whites’ favor, and they could have crushed any attempt at black self-improvement or even driven free blacks out of the community. And indeed, there were hard-nosed whites who caused trouble for free blacks and proclaimed that Israel Hill was sure to fail. But a critical mass of white opinion accepted a sometimes messy form of live-and-let-live.

That mentality produced many civil relationships between white and black in a society whose fundamental assumptions about race seemed to dictate the opposite. Whites and free blacks did business together, worked side by side for equal wages, joined forces to found a Baptist congregation, in one case hitched up wagons together and moved west, and occasionally settled down together as man and wife.

Shared religious assumptions and business ethics, similar dialects, naming practices, and concepts of time and space--all these could bring people together despite differences in color. (One of the most enjoyable parts of researching Israel on the Appomattox was collecting phonetic dialect-spellings from documents written by half-educated whites and using them to reconstruct the local dialect.  White speech was remarkably close in many particulars to the way black Virginians spoke.) And so it was that a society founded firmly on racial subordination never became as ruthlessly discriminatory toward its free black members as it repeatedly proclaimed itself to be.

How do you account for the discrepancies between incendiary anti-free black rhetoric and the way free blacks were actually treated much of the time?

The anti-free black rhetoric and laws were real and important; they’ve been chronicled skillfully and exhaustively by Ira Berlin and others. In Israel Hill’s case, a prominent white neighbor, Col. James Madison (not the former President), published a piece in 1836 in Edmund Ruffin’s Farmers’ Register in which he proclaimed that the blacks of Israel Hill, lacking the white supervision that Africans inherently needed, had degenerated within a single generation into a nest of idlers, thieves, and prostitutes. Others took up, expanded, and embellished Madison’s line in the 1850s. These were salvos against abolitionists--and even more against white Southerners lest they waver at all in their dedication to slavery as a positive good.

Life as it was lived day by day, however, revolved around more practical considerations. It would have been radically inconvenient--and in many whites’ minds, unnecessary--to enforce the many laws restricting free blacks. I think many whites supported anti-free black laws as instruments one could resort to in an emergency, or as devices to control “other people’s free blacks”--while “one’s own” local blacks might be seen as unoffending. Proslavery propagandist Madison, who condemned Israel Hill in print, himself engaged in business transactions with free blacks, including one temporary partnership.

It’s clear from your book that Israel Hill did not exist in isolation. Instead, the community had a variety of contacts or relationships with the outside world. How did this free black settlement affect other communities around it? Conversely, how did outside communities affect Israel Hill?

I’ve already listed some of the ways black Israelites and their white neighbors interacted. But the former Randolph slaves’ relationships with other blacks, both free and enslaved, are no less interesting.

The rise of Israel Hill was bound to affect free black life in Prince Edward County more generally. At least a quarter of all free Afro-Virginians in the county--and more than a third of them in the 1810s--lived on the Hill. Four of the six or seven most prosperous free blacks in the county during the antebellum period were Randolph manumittees. At the same time, however, other people of color had been free for years before Richard Randolph’s idea gave birth to the black Israelites’ experiment. Those pioneering free blacks had been buying land, running boats, accumulating assets, and interacting with whites and slaves in all sorts of ways. They influenced Israel Hill more tellingly than did the Randolphs--all of whom died, became mentally incompetent, or left the county by 1816.

Meanwhile, slavery’s long shadow darkened the landscape for free blacks--sometimes in unpredictable ways. One black Israelite, Tony White, married an enslaved woman and then had to watch, powerless, as their children were divided among three different masters, one of whom took three of Tony’s children off to Missouri. Phil Bowman, a free Afro-Virginian miller not of Israel Hill, had to bid for his own enslaved wife at a public auction. After Nat Turner’s slave revolt, county officials confiscated and auctioned off free blacks’ weapons--and then voted to give the proceeds to the blacks themselves.

In the meantime, Israel Hill--or a certain false idea of the Hill--affected the entire South and the nation when proslavery hawks turned their fictionalized idea of a failed free black settlement into an argument for the benign, “civilizing” function of slavery.

One family of free blacks--the White family--seem to have prospered on Israel Hill and played a prominent role in the community. Was this family characteristic of others living on Israel Hill, or are they a group of atypical leaders and achievers?

Hercules White, who apparently was the first to settle on Israel Hill, was aptly named. He tilled his own fields and those of others, slaughtered and dressed hogs, practiced carpentry and coopering, hauled cargo, did business with whites and blacks, and accumulated a sizable estate. Sam, Phil, and John White not only bought and ran batteaux on the Appomattox, but also purchased more than a dozen lots in Farmville, some of which they developed and resold at substantial profit.

No other family on Israel Hill equaled those achievements--but others proved frugal and took pride in their neat, productive farms. Israelite Hampton Giles, for one, told the county court proudly in the early 1830s that he had built “a dwelling house . . . as good and comfortable as almost the best in Israel Hill”--a claim that would have sounded ludicrous if Giles’s house and others on the Hill had not been solid and respectable.

What changes did the Civil War bring to Israel Hill?

Not everyone knows that free black men in Virginia became subject to the military draft more than a year before white men did. The blacks were sent to all sorts of places to perform menial tasks for the Confederate army--building fortifications and the like. Perhaps a dozen men from the little community of Israel Hill were drafted and put to work. Many came back after the war, but at least one member of the White family settled in Richmond and became a respected small businessman there.

Reconstruction brought many challenges--not least of which was the Israelite White family’s quandary over whether to remain in the biracial Baptist Church they had helped to found, or to move with most other blacks into one of the newly-formed all-black congregations. Phil White’s sons made different decisions. Curtis stayed with the church of which his father had been one of the first two members; Curtis White had good reason to feel that the institution rightly belonged to him as much as to any white person. Brother Caesar, meanwhile, became a trustee of the town’s new Afro-Baptist congregation.

With all the changes Israel Hill underwent during and after the Civil War, it remained an essentially unified, vigorous community until well into the twentieth century. W. E. B. Du Bois published a social study of the blacks of Farmville and Israel Hill in 1898, in which he found that a strong black middle class had emerged in both places, while other residents did less well. I had the honor of interviewing two formidable women who grew up on Israel Hill in the 1910s and 1920s; they remembered a sizable, comfortable settlement with a strong spirit of community.

Is Israel Hill an anomaly? What similarities or differences do you see between Israel Hill and other free black communities? What unique insights does Israel Hill provide?

Certainly the sweeping Randolph emancipation accompanied by a substantial grant of land to the freedpeople is unusual. Yet I’ve already said that the black Israelites joined an existing free black community in Prince Edward County, and that they were molded by that community as much as they molded it. I believe that life in the county would have been different had there been no Hill settlement--but not radically so. I certainly reject any notion that the presence of Israel Hill accounts for the flexibility toward free Afro-Virginians that may whites displayed. On the contrary, it was largely the concentration of free blacks on the Hill that drew such acts of repression as did take place, including the post-Nat Turner gun confiscation.

I often asked myself how typical life in Prince Edward County might be of Virginia or of the South. After all, I was discovering, at least locally, a divided southern white mind: a proslavery ideology supported by most whites and a determination to reserve true citizenship exclusively for white males coexisted with considerable openness toward free African Americans in daily life. High-achieving free blacks, and whites who dealt civilly with them, turned out not to be outliers or anomalies in this part of Virginia, but integral players in society.

I don’t doubt that there were localities in Virginia and in other states of the South where whites behaved less tolerantly toward free blacks than they usually did in Prince Edward. Then too, life in rural areas differed from that in cities. But I found evidence that free blacks elsewhere in the state had experiences similar to those of the black Israelites. A number of historians challenge the idea that free Afro-Southerners before the Civil War generally felt that they lived like slaves, and have questioned whether the majority of whites--especially in rural counties, where most Southerners lived--had much real interest in making them feel so from day to day. These historians include, according to my reading, Reginald Butler, Gary Mills, Ellen Katz, James Watkinson, Joshua Rothman, Thomas Buckley, and (in his book on North Carolina that is too often referred to without being read) John Hope Franklin, as well as work in progress from Eva Sheppard Wolf, Kirt von Daacke, and others.

Even if it were unique, the story of Israel Hill and vicinity would have been one I wanted to tell--but I go far beyond that and assert that this story and other recent work give us ample reason to re-evaluate the position and the role of free blacks in the Old South. We’ll see more local studies over the next five to ten years that will go even further toward determining whether the story I tell is typical. I’m more than happy to keep watching and let the chips fall where they may.

You were inspired to write about Israel Hill after looking through an old history textbook in the 1980s. What were you doing with a textbook from your childhood, and how did you manage to find the reference to Richard Randolph so many years after junior high school?

The AHA Perspectives recently credited me with having remembered a textbook reference to Richard Randolph from the seventh grade up to the time I undertook my work on Israel Hill some twenty-five years later. If only my memory were so good!

The real story is different. I taught high school history for several years in the mid-1970s. At one point I moved from the public schools in Richmond to a small town in Massachusetts. I remembered my junior high school textbook as having been slanted toward the white southern viewpoint on slavery, causes of the Civil War, and Reconstruction. It occurred to me that the perfect way to illustrate for my new Yankee students the subjectivity that can color historical writing would be to have them read a white southern “take” on a history they would have learned much differently.

I went back to my old junior high school, once known as Westhampton, in Richmond’s West End. I found Mary Elizabeth Mather, who had been the school librarian during my days as a pupil, still in charge of her domain. She led me to a closet in which reposed what must have been a couple hundred copies of that old textbook and generously allowed me to take one. Ironically, one of the book’s authors turned out to be Francis Butler Simkins, one of the very first white southern historians who offered an unsensationalized view of Reconstruction, gave due credit to the Radicals, and took the “Redeemers” severely to task. The textbook thus wasn’t as extreme as I remembered it, but it was far enough from the Massachusetts line that my students there were as shocked as I had hoped they would be.

Years later, as a graduate student in history at Princeton, idly thumbing through the Simkins book one day, I came upon a single sentence stating that one Richard Randolph had left a will freeing his slaves and leaving them land at a place called Israel Hill in Prince Edward County. The land grant intrigued me tremendously. What, I wondered, became of these freedpeople who attempted to build new lives in the very neighborhood where they had toiled as slaves for half a lifetime? Still more years passed while I prepared and published my book, The Adventures of Amos ’n’ Andy: A Social History of an American Phenomenon.

In 1989, I took a preliminary poke or two into the subject of Israel Hill. I interviewed the two women I spoke of earlier who had grown up there. At the Virginia Historical Society, I read in a single day Richard Randolph’s amazing abolitionist will (which had been published in several places); Colonel James Madison’s slanderous condemnation of Israel Hill, written in 1836; and another local white man’s recollection of Israel Hill as a source of upstanding black citizens who were respected by all. At that point, I knew there was a hell of a story here, if only the records existed that would allow its telling.

They did exist--a remarkable run of county court records for Prince Edward, housed mainly at the Library of Virginia. I spend most of the 1990s reading those records, trying to pull together the countless tiny specks of information I found there, and to weave the whole into what I hoped would be a coherent narrative. There was no other way to work, for I don’t think I found more than ten sentences written by free blacks themselves in all those years of work; most free African Americans, of course, had no opportunity to obtain an education.

The Bancroft jury’s description of your book reads, “This model work of local history succeeds in illuminating both individual lives and large structures, both limits and possibilities . . . .” Can you talk about some of the “limits and possibilities” that your work reveals?

The limits on free blacks are familiar to everyone: they couldn’t vote (except in certain parts of the South during certain periods), serve on juries, or testify against white defendants in courts of law; they had to carry copies of their registration as free persons; they sometimes had to pay special taxes and do unremunerated road maintenance work for the county. And they had to listen as proslavery blowhards told the world that blacks could not survive, much less thrive, without the tutelage of whites.

The “possibilities” open to free blacks include the right to file civil suits against whites; to accumulate, develop, sell, and bequeath property; and to develop the myriad dignified associations with whites that I talked about earlier. In short, the possibility existed for free African Americans to strive and excel, and to win the respect of whites when they did so. More broadly, I suppose my book joins those works that support an important idea suggested by George Fredrickson; he once denied that it’s plausible to "treat 'white supremacy' as a kind of seed planted by the first settlers that was destined to grow at a steady rate into a particular kind of tree. On the contrary, . . . it [is] more plausible to regard it as a fluid, variable, and open-ended process."

How did you go about writing a work of local history that would have implications for a larger national narrative?

I started out with a question: How did these hundred newly freed black Americans build lives as free people on land of their own? My mission was to ferret out that story and try to tell it. Of course, I undertook that task with a passable knowledge of the historical literature on the Old South. I always entertained the possibility that the story of Israel Hill would have broad implications and applications--but if it had turned out not to, I hope I would have had the integrity to say so even as I went ahead to tell the story itself.

As things turned out, every document I read seemed to speak, however modestly or subtly, to one or another major question in southern history. In the end, the problem was how to work all the big implications in without stepping unduly on the storyline and without excluding the general reader. In covering topics ranging from language, diet, and religious faith to criminal justice, politics, and drinking habits, I may have given the reader enough different things that he or she doesn’t necessarily take them all in. But that’s all right--it was important to me to paint as complete a picture of this society as I could.

In your book, you speak about the difficulty your encountered in reading about the horrors of slavery as you researched this book. How does Israel on the Appomattox fit within the chilling history of slavery, and what hope or optimism did you find as you wrote it? How should readers weigh the instances of humanity that come across in your book with the instances of the inhumanity of slavery? How do you yourself weigh them?

I thought I knew a lot about slavery by the time I began the research for Israel on the Appomattox. But I discovered things that made the institution’s horrors more vivid than almost anything I’d ever seen.

There was the coroner’s jury that was reluctant to declare a homicide after it examined the lacerated corpse of an enslaved man; the jurors agreed that they had “seen a great many negroes worse whipped than [they] thought Robin had been,” who were “still living.” In a single sheriff’s sale lasting two days, 120 human beings were sold, “the greater portion boys and Girls.” Slaves changed hands as gifts, collateral for loans, payment of gambling debts; small children were removed from their mothers.

The richest man in Prince Edward County habitually beat a certain slave with a rod, gouged his eyes, chained him to the floor when he lay down to sleep, pulled sound teeth out of the bondman’s mouth as a mode of torture, forced the man to work the harvest in shackles, and then beat him again for failing to keep up with his fellow workers. (Finally, the abused slave snapped and killed his oppressor with a harvesting tool.)

I’ve already spoken of how even the families of free blacks could be broken up if those individuals were married to slaves. As my friend Chris Brown once said, there are times when you feel you need to get up from the table, leave the archives reading room, and go outside to breathe some clean air.

You ask what “hope or optimism” I find in the history of slavery. My answer: I find damned little, with one major exception--the determination of many enslaved people to maintain their dignity and to improve their lives within the limits that the system imposed. Those people exhibited pride, enterprise, and ambition despite a system seemingly designed to kill any incentive to excel.

I took some inspiration, too, from those few Virginia whites who, right up to the eve of the Civil War, endorsed Richard Randolph’s view that slavery was immoral and liberated their own slaves. I was struck, too, by the friendships and loving relationships that I occasionally found, most strikingly those between enslaved blacks and certain whites of very modest means. I’m all but persuaded that the idea that patricians exercised benevolence while coarse “rednecks” mercilessly hounded blacks is a legend the upper crust developed to assert their supposed superiority over both blacks and poor whites.

I’ve never been more stunned in my professional life than I was when the first published review of Israel on the Appomattox imputed to me the idea that “master-slave relations were marked by the same ‘human empathy’ [I find] operated with regard to free blacks.” (I’m glad to say subsequent reviewers have read me very differently.)

In the first place, I had never said that “human empathy” governed relations between free blacks and whites. I did find that free people of different colors interacted in almost every way we can imagine; yet I had also written that, “in many of the black-white relationships I describe . . . , I frankly cannot say whether the parties were ‘friends.’”

As for slavery, I do insist that the institution in Virginia and probably in many other places was both impersonal--as epitomized by the domestic slave trade--and full of the most personal, in-your-face interactions imaginable, ranging all the way from genuine love at one extreme to the pulling out of a slave’s teeth for sadistic gratification at the other. Indeed, I contend that the brutality of slavery is aggravated precisely because whites recognized blacks’ humanity in countless ways--yet proved ready to treat those very people as property, with all that this implied.

One thing that comforts me is that, when I go on the road to talk about Israel on the Appomattox, I find some of my largest, most enthusiastic, and most racially integrated audiences in rural Southside Virginia, where the story I tell in my book takes place. People of both races turn out to be interested in many of the same questions; they’re talking to one another and working, sometimes in concert, to unearth a shared racial past that seems to intrigue members of both groups.

How does Prince Edward County's reaction to Brown v. Board of Education (i.e., closing public schools for five years rather than allow integrated education)  fit with your  revelations about the earlier fluctuations of racial attitudes in Prince Edward?

I've thought a lot about that, and I’ll say a couple of things--even though I haven’t researched the period between Emancipation and the Prince Edward school closings of 1959.

First, in Israel on the Appomattox I depict a creative, assertive African American community.  That still held true in the mid-twentieth century, and it helps explain why black high school students in the county staged a protest against unequal schools, which in turn led to a desegregation suit that was one of four that the U. S. Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education

The second thing I'll say lies at the very heart of Israel on the Appomattox. Historians have long written that whites in the Old South saw free African Americans as walking contradictions of the logic of slavery, and therefore treated them almost as badly as they did enslaved people.  I agree that free blacks were oppressed, but I've found that they interacted with whites in a stunning variety of ways.  It seems to me that slavery ironically helped make such flexible relations possible: before the Civil War, most blacks remained pretty securely in bondage, and that left many whites feeling that decent relations with and accomplishments achieved by free African Americans posed no threat to white supremacy. 

In the 1950s, whites in the South had no such assurance.  All African Americans were free persons, and national institutions seemed more and more sympathetic to the black struggle against segregation.  Blacks now demanded what had been impossible to expect before 1865: equality and political empowerment. Under those conditions, whites circled the wagons and resisted integration in every way short of secession and armed rebellion against the federal government (which had been tried in 1861-1865 and turned out disappointingly). 

Is there anything left of Israel Hill today?

There are still a few African American families who live there, at least one of which, I believe, consists of descendants of the early settlers.  But over the last three generations, many Israelites left to seek opportunities in  Baltimore, New York, and elsewhere.  The Hill's population is very small today, and much of the area is now wooded; parts are even used by contractors as a dump for construction debris, I’m sad to say. I did have the privilege of interviewing Ms. Pearl Walker Hartwill in 1989 in her family home on the crest of Israel Hill--a memorable experience.  My job as a historian is to seek the truth without romanticizing anything, but I won't deny that I feel a connection to the black Israelites throughout the decades and to some of their white neighbors, or that, after years of research and writing, Israel Hill has a permanent place in my heart.