A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War
by Melvin Patrick Ely
This is a review written by the Marsha Melkonian, NAACP Fauquier Branch Secretary
Winner of the Bancroft Prize
This book tells the story of a group of enslaved people who were freed in the will of Richard Randolph, the wealthy son of a Virginia planter’s family. They were given 400 acres so that they could have homes, farms, and shops, to build new lives as independent men and women. Although Randolph died in 1796, the people were not freed until 1810, due to court challenges.
The people named their new home Israel Hill, located in Prince Edward County, near the Appomattox River. A Virginia law enacted in 1806 required all freed blacks to leave the state within the year, but it did not apply to this group since they had actually been freed earlier. There were still many restrictions on their every day life, however, in gun ownership, voting, serving on juries, and joining the militia.
The area near them around Farmville did have surprising success at black/white relations. The first Baptist church in Farmville had both black and white members. Blacks in court cases could defend themselves and sometimes won their cases. They had business interactions, some moved west together, worked on construction sites, or as harvesters. There were interracial families and even legal interracial marriages.
This story has a connection to Fauquier County, as Richard Randolph was a cousin of John Marshall, born in Fauquier. Marshall successfully defended Randolph in a scandalous trial.
The author traces the details of the lives and activities of the enslaved and freed blacks through court notes and letters oof the Randolph family. He shows how much land was given to each of the freed families, how they cleared it, built houses and farms, and how the families grew and developed from there thru the years.
W.E.B DuBois spent the summer of 1897 in Farmville and Israel Hill, studying the education and culture of the families. He found a middle and working class that valued education and had a successful school system and community life. He described the houses and churches as substantial, and found that the economic independence of blacks seemed to be progressing well. Unfortunately, that was just a few years before the disenfranchisement and lynching started up again. The high point of population for the area was in the 1920s, and then in the 30s and onward, young adults moved north for more education and jobs. And in the 1950s and 60s the white officials closed schools rather than integrate them, and the Prince Edward County students were part of the court case that went to the Supreme Court.
The last quarter of the book is information about the sources and documents used, and extensive footnotes. I kept a bookmark in the footnotes and flipped back and forth often to keep up with the historical background facts.