4 MIT News May/June 2018 www.technologyreview.com
In spring of 2017, President Reif posed a big question about the Institute’s his- tory: 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 memo-
rial 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 con-
text 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
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 peo-
ple 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 con-
tinue 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.
Still looking for Levi
Investigating MIT’s connections to slavery
Nora Murphy with
Professor Craig Wilder