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Israel Hill on the Appomattox

Israel Hill on the Appomattox was a community in Prince Edward County that was made up of freed slaves who lived, married, were commercial successes, and even sued white members of Prince Edward County, and won the lawsuits at least as frequently as they lost.

Thomas Jefferson himself condemned slavery, but never believed that blacks and whites could live together peacefully. However, his nephew, Richard Randolph, was a socialist and morally opposed to the use of humans as slaves. As was the custom in those days, Richard Randolph inherited his fathers' properties upon his death, but could not afford to free the slaves at that time because of the debts that his father still owed. Richard planned to free the slaves as soon as these debts were paid, yet vowed to free the slaves in his will, should he die first. When Richard Randolph died at a very early age - around 26 years old - it was in his will that the slaves be freed and deeded 50 acres of land to begin their new lives.

Judith Randolph, despite that women were not allowed to make these kinds of decisions in those days, followed her husband's request, and about 10 years after Richards' death, 25 acres was deeded over to these families and they were freed. They chose to call their settlement Israel Hill because it was their promised land.

What makes this particularly impressive, is that all of this occurred within 25 years after the completion of the Revolutionary War. Because the slaves had been told while Richard Randolph lived that this was his desire, this community of blacks was allowed to begin to grow their businesses while still considered slaves. All that they reaped, they were also allowed to retain, which was a hardship on the widow Randolph, as she still had her husbands' fathers debt to pay off. However, this commuity developed a commercial following so that once they were finally free, they already had their customer base well established. These businesses were blacksmithing, dairy or tobacco farming, carpentry, a general store - all the same businesses found in the white community.

It was not all smooth sailing after their freedom was documented. Because the rest of the South continued to rely quite heavily on slavery, there were times when a freed member of Israel Hill might have to buy his wife at an auction, because she was still a slave. Or, a father had to see his children sold off at auction because his wife was still a slave - recall that the children followed the status of their mother.

Freed blacks also owned weapons, which initally caused no concern for their white neighbors - at least not until the famous Nat Turner slave revolt in 1831. Preacher Turner led a revolt where he and other slaves killed many of the white inhabitants of his locality. When news of this reached Prince Edward County, there was suddenly concern that this could happen here. Guns were taken from the freed black community members for fear that they would be used to free the rest of the slaves in the county. However, nothing untoward happened, and within a few years, the black community members were applying for and receiving licenses to own firearms once again.

The former slaves built homes and shops; they married, sued each other over perceived and real issues - they even took on the white community when someone was less than honest with them. They pled their cases in court with white judges and white juries and just as frequently won their cases - all on the merits of the case. It was an amazing time in Prince Edward County, and the sites where all this occur are still here - under new commercial and residential growth.

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