Israel on the Appomattox

Upon his father’s death, Richard Randolph, Jr., cousin of Thomas Jefferson, became a reluctant slave master. The elder Randolph had some ninety slaves and vast land holdings in Cumberland and Prince Edward Counties in south central Virginia. In 1796, soon after he inherited his father’s property, Randolph wrote his last will and testament, which became a heartfelt abolitionist tract. Shortly after executing this document, he died at age twenty- six.

Randolph’s will emancipated the slaves he inherited and bequeathed to them a tract of four hundred acres he owned on the Appomattox River in Prince Edward County. Abolishionists were not uncommon among Virginians, several of whom had freed their slaves, or like George Washington, willed that they be freed upon their masters’ deaths. By 1800, one in eight blacks in Virginia was free.

Randolph’s estate was not closed until 1810, but the slaves he freed then settled on the land he willed them. They called their community Israel Hill and themselves “Israelites,” people who had reached the promised land. They farmed their acreage profitably, raising cash crops like tobacco. In this new community near the thriving agricultural community of Farmville, the black inhabitants lived in relative harmony with their white neighbors. Five generations of these former slaves have remained in Israel Hill.

Melvin Patrick Ely, commendable for his fine writing style, has produced a riveting account with extensive documentation. An appendix reproduces several important documents, including Richard Randolph’s will.