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On Israel Hill, Black community pursued pre-Civil War freedoms

Ely stands with a copy of his book, For roughly three generations, as many as 150 free black people lived, worked and mingled with their white neighbors from their homes on a bluff overlooking the Appomattox River in pre-Civil War Prince Edward County.

“Whites and blacks did business with one another, sued each other, worked side by side for equal wages, moved west together, had sex together, had children together,” claims Melvin Patrick Ely, author of the recently released “Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War.” Two of the free blacks joined their white counterparts in co-founding the first Baptist church in Farmville located just a couple of miles away.

However, if relationships among the free blacks of Israel Hill and the white people of the area could be called “harmonious,” it paradoxically may have been because they existed in a society in which the majority of black people were enslaved.

Researching community, uncovering characters
Ely, professor of history and black studies at the College of William and Mary, became interested in the story during the 1980s while looking through the history textbook he had studied in the seventh grade. It contained one sentence referencing Richard Randolph, reporting, in effect, that Randolph had freed his slaves and granted them land in a place called Israel Hill.

“That’s all it said,” Ely recalls, but he realized the transfer of land was unusual. It eventually led him to begin a decade-long search process—“research done the old fashioned way,” he says—that would see him meticulously sort through 60 boxes of grit-covered archives—the documents “still folded and tied up into bundles exactly the way the county court clerk 150 years or more ago bound them”—and take trips to track down descendants of the settlers of Israel Hill.


‘They didn’t carry themselves as if they accepted their second-class citizenship, and they certainly didn’t behave as if they felt slave-like in any way.’

The story that unfolded ultimately was based on court records. The free blacks, after all, remained second-class citizens. Only a handful ever were able to learn to read or to write. In the 60 boxes of archived materials, Ely uncovered “at most a dozen sentences actually written by blacks.” There were no collections of letters; no diaries. There were only fragments—a note attached to a business transaction, a brief letter dictated by a black woman and sent to a brother near Israel Hill from Bedford, which inquired whether “you think anything of me, never has rote a letter to [ask] if I was dead or live.”

But the court records contained abundant information. “Several of the people who were freed by Randolph became very active entrepreneurs,” Ely explains. “They bought boats to carry cargo up and down the Appomattox River; they bought lots in the town of Farmville. Having bought lots, they put buildings on them and sold them, sometimes at a very large profit. They became businesspeople. So, of course, you’re going to find records of the land transactions, you’re going to find tax records, you’re going to find deeds and lawsuits surrounding these financial records.”

In each instance, parties to the cases filed long narratives explaining their side of the story, and some entered all kinds of documents into evidence. Together, these documents formed a “broad set of paper trails,” Ely says. “Of course, it’s largely written down by attorneys; it comes through that lens,” Ely admits, “but there were times when I felt I could really hear the voice of the black plaintiff or the black defendant arguing passionately about some point of dispute.”

Indeed, the words resonated with the researcher to such an extent that he found himself referring to several of the residents not as individuals or personages but as characters.

One such character was a free black Israelite named Phil White. “He bought a lot in Farmville and improved it,” Ely says, “and he sold it at a tremendous profit. The white man whom he sold it to stiffed Phil White for the last bit of money, so Phil did what any free white citizen would have done. He went to court and sued the guy for the remaining money.”

The instance reveals not only how White stood up for his rights, but it is an example of how free blacks “asserted themselves successfully in this society,” Ely says. “They didn’t carry themselves as if they accepted their second-class citizenship, and they certainly didn’t behave as if they felt slave-like in any way.”

Repeatedly Ely was moved by the “solidarity” of the community, and by the “astuteness” and the “intensity” of individuals that enabled “black Israelites not only to make their way in the world but to become prominent people in the bi-racial community.” That being said, Ely in no way wants to become an apologist for the larger society in which such accomplishments took place. Although the free blacks had liberties, they could neither vote nor serve on juries, they had to register with the county court and pay special taxes, and they remained profoundly affected by the “malignant institution of slavery,” he insists. He offers as just one example the plight of Israel Hill resident, Tony White, who was married to an enslaved woman. Eventually he was able to purchase his wife, however he could not afford to liberate their five children. The couple had to watch those children be split among three different masters, one of whom took three of them off to Missouri, never to be seen again.

Maligning Israel Hill; a W&M connection
Although it appears that relationships between free blacks and whites in the area were civil, Israel Hill and its residents were maligned by pro-slavery advocates both near and far. The author of one article was Col. James Madison, a local planter and politician, who submitted his story suggesting that “over a period of 25 years this free black community had degenerated into a clump of lazy, mischievous, thieving, worthless people, and that the idea of black freedom was an illusion,” Ely recounts. It was published in the 1830s in “The Farmer’s Register,” and, as the pending crisis between the North and the South heated up, revived in the 1850s by a Baltimore newspaper and other publications.


‘If an Israel Hill could function and prosper, if free black people could strive and excel and accumulate property, and assert themselves and hold their own, then the theory behind slavery was poppy-cock.’

The story was a “concoction,” he continues. “The problem that Israel Hill posed for white defenders of slavery was precisely this: pro-slavery people said that people of African descent were incapable of functioning without white supervision. If an Israel Hill could function and prosper, if free black people could strive and excel and accumulate property, and assert themselves and hold their own, then the theory behind slavery was poppy-cock.”

The intellectual discussion of human bondage, of course, had been ongoing; it is one reason that Ely can call Israel Hill an experiment set into motion by Randolph’s initial decision to free his slaves. That decision, Ely asserts, was influenced by time Randolph spent at the College of William and Mary.

“Richard Randolph studied here awhile,” Ely says, “and the great influence on his life was George Wythe, who was a luminary here.” Wythe, Ely points out, not only thought that slavery was wrong but that the races were equal in ability.

In a side-note, Ely explains that “Wythe even raised a mixed-race boy named Michael Brown, taught him Greek and Latin, and wrote a will leaving a large part of his estate to Brown.” The decision apparently cost Wythe his life; Wythe’s grandnephew, who was white, became so jealous of the boy of color that he poisoned both Brown and Wythe. As it turned out, the nephew was never convicted of the crime because the only potential witness was a woman of color who was barred from testifying against him in court.

Concerning the ultimate success of Israel Hill, Ely reiterates: “There were nine tracts of land given out in 1810. The households of the White family, which is a large extended family, became very prosperous. There were a couple of families who seem to have stayed at the same economic level at which they started—no better and no worse—and there were some in-between, who didn’t become as prosperous as Sam and Phil White but who pretty clearly had improved their farms.” He referred to a court submission by one man “who talked at length and with great pride about what he had achieved on Israel Hill and the buildings he built there, and how his use of the land and his house compared favorably with those of his neighbors.”

Ely’s wet blanket and Pearl’s ending
Ely admits that some who have read “Israel on the Appomattox” seek to find hope for the future. “I tell them,” he says, “it suggests that antipathy between whites and blacks is not in the genes, and yet I don’t know that the society would have been as harmonious as it was among free people had white supremacy not been so entrenched. So I have to throw a little bit of a wet blanket on the optimism.”


‘So the rule by certain whites, which was so secure before the Civil War, had become anything but secure. It’s a whole new ballgame at that point.’

Indeed, it is not lost on Ely that one of the great paradoxes of the story involves the success of Israel Hill in the very county that would in 1959 close its schools rather than submit them to racial segregation.

Commenting on the change, Ely says, “I believe that one of the reasons that many white people felt free to deal fairly with free blacks before the Civil War was because they didn’t see the free blacks of their neighborhood as a threat. There weren’t that many of them; one of every ten free people was black. Most of the African American population was controlled through the institution of slavery, so why should you spend a lot of time and trouble repressing a rather small, non-threatening population? After general emancipation in 1865, all blacks were free. We’re talking about a part of the South where a large majority of the population is black. So the rule by certain whites, which was so secure before the Civil War, had become anything but secure. It’s a whole new ballgame at that point.”

Growing from that white insecurity was the sudden notion that the races had to be segregated physically, he continues. Before the Civil War, when blacks and whites lived in close proximity—sleeping in the same room, tending each other’s illnesses, rubbing ointments on each other’s bodies—they engaged in “any kind of physical contact you can name,” he says.

“It is only after emancipation that even the churches separate into black and white congregations,” he adds. “I grew up in a segregated South in the 1950s and early 1960s, and the idea then was that the system depended on the physical separation of people. During slavery, the system depended on white supremacy as expressed through human bondage; slavery being in place, physical separation was a non-issue.”

Through the changes, however, one thing seems to have remained constant. During the early part of his research, Ely came upon Pearl Hartwill and Elizabeth Watkins, who grew up on Israel Hill early in the 20th century. When Prince Edward County closed its schools, Watkins worked tirelessly in an alternative “freedom school” to ensure that black children received an education. Ms. Hartwill, herself a retired teacher, told Ely, “A black can be just as smart as a white. All you’ve got to do is put your head to it and go for it.”

Ely suggests that sentiment expresses what had motivated blacks in Israel Hill and elsewhere in the South toward success all along. They repeatedly demonstrated a desire to improve their situations: enslaved people sought freedom; free black people sought land and then to expand their holdings and the scope of their freedom. “What Pearl Hartwill said I can almost imagine one of her ancestors 150 years earlier having said,” Ely concludes. “Of course, I can’t document that, but it seems to me that there’s a certain ethic there that existed in 1810 that I heard expressed in 1989 while sitting with Ms. Hartwill in her family home on the crest of Israel Hill. That’s the way I end my book. That was a dramatic moment for me.”