William & Mary

Melvin Patrick Ely wins prestigious Bancroft Prize

Melvin ElyMelvin Patrick Ely, professor of history and black studies at the College of William and Mary, has been awarded the prestigious Bancroft Prize in American History for his book “Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War,” thus becoming the second faculty member to win the award while at the college.

Established at Columbia University in 1948, the Bancroft is one of the highest honors a book of history can receive and is considered by many on par with the Pulitzer Prize. Past winners include some of the nation's most prominent historians, including Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Samuel Eliot Morison.

Ely, who teaches courses at William and Mary about the history of the South and of African Americans, won the award for his most recent book, “Israel on the Appomattox,” which tells the story of free African Americans in one Virginia county and their relations with whites and enslaved blacks.

According to the Bancroft jury, “This model work of local history succeeds in illuminating both individual lives and large structures, both limits and possibilities, and the result is a complex and arresting story that will make us all think harder about the history of race relations in the antebellum South.”

Ely is one of three authors of acclaimed books to receive the Bancroft Prize for 2005. He also joins Philip D. Morgan, who was a professor at William and Mary when he won a Bancroft in 1999 for his book, “Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth Century Chesapeake and Low Country.”

Ely’s “Israel on the Appomattox” has already collected a number of honors. It was named a Best Book of 2004 by the Washington Post Book World and was designated an Editor's Choice by the Atlantic Monthly. It is a selected title of the History Book Club. Melvin Ely has also written “The Adventures of Amos 'n' Andy: A Social History of an American Phenomenon”(1991; 2nd edition, 2001); that book probes the racial ideas and behavior of black and white Americans as reflected in the popular radio and television series and in the ways people of both races responded to it. The work was cited as a Notable Book of 1991 by the New York Times Book Review.

Before coming to William and Mary in 1995, Ely taught for a number of years at Yale University, where he was awarded both the Prize for Outstanding Scholarly Publication and Research and the Prize for Teaching Excellence by Yale College. He served as Fulbright Professor of American Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1998-1999. He recently completed a term as chair of the board of directors of the University of Virginia Press.

Ely received his bachelor’s degree in history from Princeton University in 1973 and received a master's degree in linguistics from the University of Texas in 1978 and a master’s degree in history from Princeton in 1982. Ely received his doctoral degree from Princeton University in 1985.

One of the most coveted honors in the field of history, the Bancroft Prize is awarded annually by the Trustees of Columbia University to authors of books of exceptional merit and distinction in the fields of American history, biography and diplomacy. Past winners include Morison (1949, 1972), C. Vann Woodward (1952), Clinton Rossiter (1954), Schlesinger (1958), Daniel J. Boorstin (1959), Merrill D. Peterson (1961), Carl N. Degler (1972), and Eric Foner (1989).

The Bancroft Prize – established with a bequest from Frederic Bancroft, the historian, author and librarian of the U.S. Department of State -- includes an award of $10,000 to each author. Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger will present the three awards at a formal dinner April 27, 2005.