ISRAEL ON THE APPOMATTOX

A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War

By Melvin Patrick Ely. Knopf. 640 pp. $35

Most current discussions of the black experience in America, in slavery and after, stress victimization and are unrelievedly somber. The typical response is outrage -- a reaction that offers us a reassuring superiority to the plots and players of the wicked past. It is an emotion we Americans enjoy.

Now comes Melvin Patrick Ely's Israel on the Appomattox, whose dissonances are likely to shake the usual orthodoxies. In colonial Virginia and across the upper South, slavery always had eminent critics, among them George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other great Virginians. Among their intellectual heirs was young Richard Randolph of Prince Edward County, a member of one of the state's distinguished families who had enjoyed a Northern education at Columbia and Princeton. When he died in 1796, Randolph instructed his executors in a will that Ely calls "a ringing abolitionist manifesto" to free his slaves and settle them on family lands. Some two decades passed before his testamentary wishes were executed, but executed they were, in the face of some difficulty, by his faithful widow, Judith. Former slave families were installed on Randolph properties along the Appomattox River in a settlement called Israel Hill, a promised land. The community endured well into the 20th century until oral memory faded -- it was studied late in the 19th century by a young W. E. B. DuBois -- and many of its members achieved substantial economic independence. They became boatmen, hauling goods between Farmville and Petersburg, tobacco workers in early packing factories, farmers, woodworkers and other craftsmen.

Among them, there was the usual run of ne'er-do-wells, such being by no means limited by race or class. But Israel Hill was, all told, a substantial success. Richard Randolph's heretical experiment nonetheless had its detractors, who denounced it as a haven for drunkards and degenerates and sought to prove that black people were always better off under white ownership and tutelage. The most resolute and expansive of the critics was one Col. James Madison (not, of course, the president and framer of that name but a distant relative). In 1836 Madison, a local planter, wrote a notable "letter" about Israel Hill for Edmund Ruffin's Farmer's Register. He argued that the original settlers born and trained under slavery had been far more successful than their freeborn descendants. QED, according to the colonel's lights. Ely shows, however, that Madison's screed was wrong or misleading in nearly every particular. (Madison himself employed a number of freed "Israelites" in his tobacco-packing factories in Farmville and knew that they worked hard.) The Colonel was a shady character and died insolvent after mismanaging at least one estate entrusted to his care. His article, however, reinforced familiar stereotypes and planted the seed of a myth of failure.

All of this is fascinating mini-history, but it is in some ways merely the background to the story Ely tells. The author, a professor at William and Mary, has combed the legal archives of Prince Edward and neighboring Cumberland counties with a view to seeing how the members of this free settlement actually fared day by day, in a society premised on slavery and its racialist axioms. He discovered, often to his surprise, that in antebellum Prince Edward, at least, racial distinctions often mattered less than personal acquaintance and custom. A culture of neighborly fair play frequently trumped the harsh formalisms of the law. There was play in the joints, even an occasional winking at interracial sex and marriage. In 1806, for instance, the Virginia General Assembly had decreed that freed slaves must quit the state within a year unless granted special exemption. Ely shows that this and other repressive measures were largely ignored or evaded by a local government whose officials knew the people involved personally. The human factor was vital, and justice often prevailed over racial bias -- so much so as to cast doubt on received racial stereotypes.

One limiting factor in Ely's analysis is that old legal records sometimes do not speak clearly, so that conditionals and surmises become indispensable, with many "maybes" and "might have beens." Still, the evidence does seem to support his thesis. "The Old South . . . ," he writes, in golden words that ought to hang over every historian's desk, "is distant from us, and strange. The more we learn about it, the more we realize we do not know." Perhaps we should be less surprised by our surprise. If the horrors of the 20th century taught any lesson, it is that depersonalization is usually the precondition for cruelty. In an intimate rural community where people knew one another face to face, depersonalization was far less likely, even when writers like Col. Madison insisted on impersonal abstractions.

Ely occasionally seems to step on his story. For instance, he describes an 1864 episode during the siege of Petersburg when Union and Confederate troops fraternized until black troops showed up in the Union line. Then the hostile shooting resumed. But the anecdote may be read either way. Racial prejudice being a given, the Johnny Rebs weren't shooting at people but at an abstraction. Had the black Union troops been recognizable figures from the old home place, might the shooting have been less enthusiastic?

Given the author's Herculean efforts and his imaginative surmises and speculations, one can't help wishing he had been better served by his editors. In too many chapters, the story line struggles to escape the clutter of ill-tabulated detail. Prominent names recur disjointedly, appearing and reappearing in the text. The story would be stronger and clearer if it had been organized sequentially around the personal histories of the admirable players who star in the tale of Israel Hill. Apart from that, one despairs of the language monitors now infesting publishing houses who encourage or allow the use of such silly and ahistorical locutions as "Afro-Virginian," "unliterate" and "bondpeople."

Readers of Israel on the Appomattox will need to come up for air more than once. But Ely's story is so rich and compelling -- and so persuasively documented -- that it is sure to leave its mark on Southern history for years to come. *

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author of "The Historical Present: Uses and Abuses of the Past" and a new memoir, "Telling Others What to Think." He may be reached at yoderem@aol.com.