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Still looking for Levi

Investigating MIT’s connections to slavery.
April 25, 2018
M. Scott Brauer

In spring of 2017, President Reif posed a big question about the Institute’s history: Did MIT have any ties to slavery? It seemed unlikely, given that its first classes weren’t held until February 1865. But wanting a definitive answer, he consulted with SHASS dean Melissa Nobles and history professor Craig Steven Wilder, whose 2013 book, Ebony and Ivy, explored the connections of Ivy League schools to slavery. Wilder recommended offering an undergraduate course as part of an ongoing research project that would explore that question and publish the findings.

The class launched in the fall, with Professor Wilder serving as the subject expert. Teaching assistant Clare Kim ran the recitations, leading exercises to help students talk about the difficult issues related to slavery. And as an archivist at the MIT Libraries, I shared my expertise on conducting research as well as my deep knowledge of original sources at MIT and elsewhere. Each week I brought different documents to class to teach students how to find, analyze, and use these materials.

In November, Philip Alexander, author of A Widening Sphere: Evolving Cultures at MIT and a research affiliate in comparative media studies and writing, came to class to talk about his research on MIT’s history. He mentioned that at the memorial service for MIT’s founder, William Barton Rogers, the cartographer Major Jedediah Hotchkiss referred to Rogers’s “Negro man-servant Levi.” Philip and I have had many conversations about whether or not Rogers owned slaves, but this was the first I’d heard of Levi. It was a clue I couldn’t pass up.

As the students dove into their research topics, I did some digging of my own. Sure enough, in the pamphlet about the memorial service published by the MIT Society of Arts in October 1882, I found Hotchkiss’s references to Levi: he had accompanied Rogers on his geological survey work in Virginia, and his name came up in the context of a visit by French geologist Charles Daubney. To put dates to these events, I checked Rogers’s correspondence. Life and Letters of William Barton Rogers contained a December 1837 letter to William from his brother Henry saying that Daubney was in Philadelphia and intended to visit William. In a January 1838 letter to Henry, William expressed his delight in hearing about Henry’s conversations with Daubney; in the same letter, he recounted that Levi had come into his laboratory to tell him that one of the horses had died. Finally, I had a reference to all three men, providing an approximate date.

My next stop was the 1840 US Census, where I hoped to find Levi. Unfortunately, it named only heads of households. It listed Rogers as the head of a household in St. Anne’s Parish, Albemarle County, Virginia, that included several other white men close to him in age, along with an enslaved black man and woman. No other names were recorded, and there was no indication of the relationship between the enslaved people and the white men in the household.

I next examined the 1850 US Census, where I found William along with his wife, Emma; his brother, Robert; and Robert’s wife, Fanny. William and Robert were listed as professors at the University of Virginia. Then I found reference to the 1850 Slave Schedule. When I searched it, I was surprised to find William listed as the head of a household with six enslaved people. Three black men were listed, ages 35, 26, and 10, and three black women, ages 30, 25, and 22. No names or occupations were given. Who were these people? What was their relationship to Rogers? Was one of them Levi, and if not, where was he?

I was taken aback; I had never come across evidence of Rogers holding slaves, and what I knew led me to think he would not have done so. Professor Wilder, however, had suspected there was a strong possibility that he had, given that he had lived in Virginia for almost 30 years before the Civil War. The reactions of the students ranged from surprise that no one had discovered this sooner to shock that there was something to find. But as Dean Nobles observed, slavery existed for thousands of years before MIT was established—and we shouldn’t be surprised that MIT was not immune from its legacy. 

The class and the research will continue as we work to piece together the story of Rogers’s relationship to slavery. Meanwhile, I’ll keep looking for Levi.

Nora Murphy, co-teacher of the MIT and Slavery course, is the archivist for researcher services at the MIT Libraries.

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