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Tax records from the mid-1800s tell much about the payers: not just what land they owned, but the amounts, values, and sources of other property, including animals and gold.

About 150 years after that time, a Lafayette College student is using the old tax notations to quantify the economic conditions of freed black Americans in Virginia in summer research on campus.

Examining the origins of the racial color line, Shivani Malhotra ’03 (Bangalore, India) is comparing what blacks owned from 1830-60 with that of whites in an attempt to make concrete the disparities between the two groups.

A participant in Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholar program, Malhotra is working with Howard Bodenhorn, associate professor of economics and business. In EXCEL, students assist faculty members with research while earning a stipend.

According to Bodenhorn, liberalized slavery laws in the upper part of the South, notably Maryland and Virginia, encouraged private emancipations, boosting the population of freed blacks. But those states faced many of the social and racial pressures experienced by the rest of the South after the Civil War.

“Basically, the project will throw light on what different groups owned and how much they were worth,” says Malhotra, an economics and business major. “So far in this topic, a lot has been done in the area of land ownership. We are trying to expand on that work by including other important sources of income and measures of wealth.”

According to the student, personal property tax records from the period tally up the number of cattle, sheep, and horses a person owned, along with household and kitchen furniture, gold, silver, clocks, watches, and personal income.

“We hope to end this research with a more comprehensive knowledge about disparities between blacks and whites, how large these disparities were, and whether they existed in all spheres or just a few,” the student says. “So far all I can really say is that free blacks, in comparison with the white population, did not own much, especially in the form of land and other physical assets such as gold, horses, etc. But we do see that they did have a reasonable income.”

Malhotra says, however, that she has only so far input the data; once that’s complete “the excitement truly begins. We get to play with the data and find conclusive results.”

The student calls EXCEL “definitely one of Lafayette’s plus points. It offers a unique experience to students and professors.” She says Bodenhorn is very clear about what he wants, yet very helpful, taking time to explain things when the student faces doubts.

“The college as a whole has lived up to my expectations and the professors and facilities are great,” she says.

A graduate of Bishop Cotton Girls High School in Bangalore, India, Malhotra is a resident adviser, president of the Asian Cultural Association, and an active member of the International Student Association, as well as taking part in intramural sports.

Categorized in: Academic News