Melvin Ely

View on Amazon

[Cross-posted from New Books in Law] In Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War (Vintage Books, 2004), Melvin Ely uses a trove of documents primarily found in the county court records of Prince Edward County, Virginia to unravel a rich story about the free blacks who inhabited “the gentle slope of Israel Hill.” The story begins in 1796 when Richard Randolph, a prominent Virginian and cousin to Thomas Jefferson, left a will full of fiery abolitionist sentiment that emancipated his slaves and parceled 350 acres of his land among them. Ely explores the lives of the freed people who used this land to cultivate small farms and launch successful entrepreneurial ventures.

Israel on the Appomattox demonstrates that historians can gain a deep understanding of a society using legal documents as their window into the past. Ely’s research exposes the little known fact that Afro-Virginians could file (and often successfully filed) civil suits, despite not being allowed to testify in criminal courts. While not a perfect check on abuse, Ely explains that civil suits were an inroad free blacks could make against an unjust system. Through Ely’s exploration of the quotidian behavior of Prince Edward’s inhabitants, much is revealed about the relationship between politics, law, and actual behavior in societies past or present.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Janet Sims-WoodDorothy Porter Wesley at Howard University: Building a Legacy of Black History

October 15, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in Biography] There was once a notion that black people had no meaningful history. It’s a notion Dorothy Porter Wesley spent her entire career debunking. Through her 43 years at Howard University, where she helped create the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, her own publishing endeavors and collecting, and her unfettered support of the researchers [...]

Read the full article →

Adam EwingThe Age Of Garvey: How A Jamaican Activist Created A Mass Movement And Changed Global Black Politics

October 9, 2014

Adam Ewing acknowledges the enduring, if reductive, image of Garveyism – “the parades and shipping lines and colonization schemes” – in its early, Harlem-based incarnation, but focuses The Age Of Garvey: How A Jamaican Activist Created A Mass Movement And Changed Global Black Politics (Princeton University Press, 2014) on tracing the myriad manifestations of this “organic [...]

Read the full article →

Kwasi KonaduTransatlantic Africa, 1440-1888

September 30, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in History] Most of what we know about the trans-Atlantic slave trade–particularly before the nineteenth century–comes from documents produced by slavers and those Europeans and euro-Americans who interacted with them. Most, but, as Kwasi Konadu points out in Transatlantic Africa, 1440-1888 (Oxford University Press, 2014), not all. It is possible, Konadu shows, to construct a narrative [...]

Read the full article →

Lauren AraizaTo March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers

September 24, 2014

Co-founded in 1962 by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, the National Farm Workers Association would eventually become the United Farm Workers (UFW), the landmark labor union dedicated to achieving better wages and working conditions for rural California agricultural workers. In To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers (University of Pennsylvania [...]

Read the full article →

Edward E. BaptistThe Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

September 8, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in American Studies] An unflinching examination of the trauma, violence, opportunism, and vision that combined to create the empire for slavery that was the Old South, Ed Baptist‘s new book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2014) challenges popular conceptions of that region that imagine it [...]

Read the full article →

Gabriel SolisThelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall

September 7, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in Jazz] On November 29, 1957, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holliday, Zoot Sims, Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins, and a multi-talented young R&B player who played jazz that night, Ray Charles, and others played a benefit concert for the Morningside Recreation Center at Carnegie Hall.  Almost a half a century later, these recordings, intended to [...]

Read the full article →

Bruce AckermanWe the People: Volume 3: The Civil Rights Revolution

August 2, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in Law] Bruce Ackerman is the Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University. His book, We the People, Volume 3: The Civil Rights Revolution (Harvard UP, 2013) fills out the constitutional history of America’s “Second Reconstruction” period and makes a powerful argument that traditional understandings of the constitutional canon must be expanded to accurately [...]

Read the full article →

Toby GreenThe Rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Western Africa, 1300-1589

July 30, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in History] Slavery was pervasive in the Ancient World: you can find it in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In Late Antiquity , however, slavery went into decline. It survived and even flourished in the Byzantine Empire and Muslim lands, yet it all but disappeared in Medieval Western and Central Europe. Then, [...]

Read the full article →

Lorena TurnerThe Michael Jacksons

July 23, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in Pop Music] During his lifetime, Michael Jackson became a global icon.  Michael Jackson was beloved by millions; his journey began as he became  a boy star with The Jackson Five and it culminated with his being crowned the King of Pop, While some of the controversy of his later years along [...]

Read the full article →