An illuminating account of the free “Afro-Virginians” who lived and worked in a society and economy dominated by slavery.
“I tremble for my country,” Thomas Jefferson famously remark, “when I reflect that God is just.” Jefferson’s cousin Richard Randolph felt much the same way, and before he died in 1796 he left instructions to emancipate his slaves, begging their forgiveness for his part in the “infamous practice of usurping the rights of our fellow creatures, equally entituled [sic] with ourselves to the enjoyment of Liberty and happiness.” Randolph was not the only emancipator of his day and place, writes Ely (History and Black Studies/College of William and Mary; The Adventures of Amos ’n’ Andy, 1991). Indeed, freed slaves such as Sam White were unusual but not rare; Ely notes that one in eight black Virginians were free in the generation before the Civil War. Ely traces the histories of Sam White, Syphax Brown, Hercules White, Billy Ellis, and their descendants, who banded together to buy and hold the rich farmlands of Israel Hill in Prince Edward Country, then as now a fertile breadbasket. As well as agriculture, they engaged in many trades, including transport, brickmaking, masonry, and carpentry; for, as Ely notes, “paradoxically, to defend and enhance their independence, free blacks had to assert their rights within the white-run institutions under which they lived—and they had to take part in the local economy.” In time they came to form an important part of Virginia’s skilled workforce, laboring alongside whites and usually receiving equal pay. Though their existence in a slaveholding “society whose infinite capacity to oppress differentiates it utterly from our own” was fraught with tension and, Ely warns, can hardly be characterized as friendly, particularly as the Civil War loomed, these free communities and people endured in Virginia, with many of their descendants becoming important figures in the post–Civil War era.
A well-written, noteworthy contribution to African-American history.