Siobhan Mukerji interviewed William and Mary history professor Melvin Ely recently about his magisterial book Israel on the Appomattox. The podcast, which is a really terrific discussion, is here. Israel on the Appomattox is about a community of free people of African descent who lived near Farmville, Virginia from the early nineteenth century through the early twentieth century (though Ely stops the story around the time of the Civil War). It's social history on a grand scale, which draws largley from legal records, from deed books to records of civil suits and criminal proscutions to reconstruct that community. And it won a great many prizes, including the prestigious Bancroft Prize awarded annually by Columbia University to several books deemed the best in American history.
Israel on the Appomattox inspired a series of other studies that have revisited the lives of free people in the slave-owning south and suggested that their lives were richer than we had previously known. This builds in many ways on work like John Hope Franklin's The Free Negro in North Carolina published during World War II. And it responds to other studies, like Ira Berlin's Slaves Without Masters, which portrayed the challenges of free people in the slave-owning south.
While I very much admire--indeed am in awe of--Ely's extraordinary research and beautiful prose, I wonder about the representativeness of his community. DuBois wrote about the African American community of Farmville in the early twentieth century, which testifies to how strong and resilient this community was. And when I was talking with Kim Forde-Mazrui recently about this he reminded me that the Farmville community generated one of the cases that went into Brown. (This is also the county that closed its schools in the 1960s rather than integrate -- so there's some really intense struggle in that county that's worthy of comment down the road.) But I also have a question about Ely's story beacuse while he's talking about the ways that the free people were able to participate in the community and acquire property and even sue in court, a few counties over in Southampton the free people I study are being run out of the county in the wake of the Nat Turner rebellion. And this is maybe the most important -- I think there's a different perspective depending on whether one is coming from the vantage of social history (where you're recovering the lives of your subjects independent of law) or legal history (where you're interested in the amount of rights that your subjects have and the meaning of the rule of law). On this part of the story -- the meaning of the rule of law -- Kirt von Daacke's Freedom Has a Face does a very nice job of pointing out how the legal system is used both by free people and against them, as he recovers details of the lives of free people, including their property holdings and their work. I have some more thoughts on the rule of law and free people in the old south here, which takes off from Cornelius Sinclair's freedom suit in Tuscaloosa in the 1820s.
The interview is well worth a listen, especially the discussion around minute 16, which engages the power the legal system conferred on white people over free black people. This reminds me a lot of E.P. Thompson's ideas in Whigs and Hunters. Legal historians will really enjoy the conversation.
About the illustration: If you're looking for this historical marker it's at the intersection of Layne Street, West 3rd Street, and Industrial Park Road in Farmville. (Layne Street also intersects West 3rd Street a little further west, but you want where it intersects with Industrial Park Road).