My cousin Melvin Ely’s most recent book, Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War continues to draw rave reviews; the latest is from James A. Miller in Sunday’s Boston Globe.
Update: Joe Gandelman uncovered the article on his own and has some interesting thoughts (and discussion) on the matter. Comments of my own below the fold.
First: this is too weird. Melvin Patrick Ely is my cousin, a history and African-American studies professor at William and Mary. (Monomer: he's white.)
Second: I'm not sure this was a "single exception"; there were quite a lot of free blacks in the South. Not, by any stretch of the imagination, a majority, but on the order of tens of thousands (out of a population of a few million). Israel Hill was one community of free blacks, but there were many others in Virginia and elsewhere.
Third: I think the history of race in the South is complicated, and I think Melvin's two books have captured that in a way that more simplistic approaches don't. That doesn't mean that we should excuse slavery, torture, mutilation, lynchings, the separated families, and terrorism that typified the South prior to, and after, the Civil War, but it does mean that there's something to learn about how people behaved, not as proscribed by legal codes, but in their day-to-day affairs. Political institutions don't determine behavior, but they do shape it.
As to Dean's point: one thing Melvin has pointed out (if not in the book, then in his discussions of it) is that the civil relationship between the free blacks of Israel Hill and their white neighbors may have only been possible to that extent because the free blacks were a minority who did not have a chance of gaining political power. When they did become (potentially) politically powerful, with the 13th-15th amendments and the “corrupt bargain” that ended Reconstruction, that's when the apparatus of suppression kicked in to a greater degree, and things for previous "free" blacks got worse and things for ex-slaves again became essentially the same as they were under slavery.