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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, Shivani Malhotra, a junior economics and business major from Bangalore, India, used the old tax notations to quantify the economic conditions of freed African Americans in Virginia.

A participant in Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, Malhotra is working with Howard N. Bodenhorn, associate professor of economics and business, who was awarded a $65,227 grant from the National Science Foundation for research leading to a book-length manuscript on the economic condition of free African Americans living in the antebellum United States.

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.

“Historians have considered many of the same topics I plan to analyze, but their limited economic training has not permitted them to exploit the census or other data in a systematic way,” says Bodenhorn. “Moreover, historians tend to focus on a particular place, such as New Orleans or Savannah, or on a particular period, such as the post-Revolutionary era, without providing much insight into how or to what extent the population under consideration is representative of the whole. By using a nationally representative sample, my project avoids problems of inference from unrepresentative and small samples.”

Bodenhorn is an expert in American economic and financial history, law, and economics, and industrial organization. He is author of A History of Banking in Antebellum America: Financial Markets and Economic Development in an Age of Nation Building, published last year by Cambridge University Press. He conducted research for the book under a major grant from the John M. Olin Foundation.

A new book, State Banking in Early America: A New Economic History, is scheduled for publication this year by Oxford University Press. Bodenhorn has also published more than 30 papers in peer-reviewed academic journals and serves on the editorial board of the journal Explorations in Economic History.

A Lafayette faculty member since 1993, he holds a Ph.D. and M.A. from Rutgers University and a B.S. from Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

Malhotra says 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,” she 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.”

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.

Malhotra is a resident adviser, president of the Asian Cultural Association, and a member of the International Student Association. She is also an active participant in intramural sports.

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