On Sunday, December 13, at 4:00 PM, the Middlesex County Museum and Historical Society presented a Zoom lecture by Dr. Melvin Patrick Ely. Dr. Ely spoke about his book, Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War. The book tells the story of Israel Hill, a community of liberated African Americans in Prince Edward County, Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson denied that whites and freed blacks could live together in harmony. His cousin, Richard Randolph, not only disagreed, but made it possible for ninety African Americans to prove Jefferson wrong. Israel on the Appomattox tells the story of these liberated blacks and the community they formed, called Israel Hill, in Prince Edward County. There, the formerly enslaved established farms, navigated the Appomattox River, and became entrepreneurs. Free blacks and whites did business with one another, sued each other, worked side by side for equal wages, joined forces to found a Baptist congregation, moved west together, and occasionally settled down as husband and wife. Although slavery cast its grim shadow, even over the lives of the free, Israel Hill’s story is one of hardship and hope that defies expectations of the Old South.
A native of Richmond, Dr. Melvin Patrick Ely is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Humanities at the College of William and Mary. He writes and teaches about the history of African Americans and of the South.