Provisional Notes on Slavery at Roanoke College

Authored by: Jesse Bucher, Ivey Kline, and Ashtyn Porter

Project Description and Process:

In early 2020, the CSSR began a research project called the Genealogy of Slavery. The Genealogy of Slavery project focuses on the specific history of slavery at Roanoke College and the surrounding region.  This research attempts to identify the enslaved people whose labor helped build the College, and were owned by some the College’s founding members.  Moreover, the project supplements larger efforts to think about the epistemic genealogy of Roanoke College, and the role that slavery and institutional racism have played in shaping our college.  Throughout the process, the central goal of this research has been to tell a broader history of Roanoke College, to expand our understanding of the people who created the institution, and to better situate the college within its broader historical and geographical contexts.

The research team – Roanoke College students Ashtyn Porter and Ivey Kline, and CSSR Director Jesse Bucher – have already made important discoveries related to the history of slavery at Roanoke College.  The initial phase of the research primarily focused on identifying rates of ownership of enslaved persons from the college’s Board of Trustees, Administration, and Faculty in the period before 1865.  Additionally, it addressed the use of enslaved labor by the construction firms that the college hired to construct campus buildings (Administration Building and Miller Hall) in the period before 1865.  This initial research informed the plaques unveiled on the administration building in April of 2021.

The second phase of the research, which will continue over the next few years, has attempted to identify the names and history of enslaved people connected with Roanoke College.  In the process of carrying out this work, the research team decided to further document other enslaved people from the region that could be identified so that the information might be shared with other researchers.  This phase of the research is both more challenging and the most important.  Federal Census Records that documented rates of slave ownership (called ‘Slave Schedules’) documented the age and sex of enslaved people, but rarely listed their names.  The Genealogy of Slavery researchers work through companion sources in attempt to identify these people including: Virginia Slave Birth records, tax records, voter rolls, marriage records, and other sources that named enslaved people.

Provisional Results:

Research on the history of slavery at Roanoke College reveals that the institution itself grew in close companionship with forms of 19th century slavery.  Between the College’s founding in 1842 through 1865, approximately 50% of all members of the Board of Trustees owned enslaved people.  Board Members owned enslaved people at varied scales.  Nathaniel Burwell, Board President from 1853-1866 appears in the 1850 census as owning 108 people, in the 1860 census as owning 88 people, and in other records as owning 122 people during the Civil War.[1]  In those same census years, George P. Tayloe, a Board Member owned 67 people in 1850, and 58 in 1860.[2]

Other trustees typically owned less than 15 human beings who worked on farms, in domestic service, in building trades, and in small-scale industry.  The members of the Board, and enslaved humans that they owned, lived in and did business throughout the broader region (Roanoke, Montgomery, Botetourt, Franklin, Floyd, and Augusta Counties).  As such, the history of slavery at Roanoke College is inseparable from a broader regional history of slavery. 

In our initial phases of research, the team focused on the five individuals who lived in this time period that the college continues to recognize with building names: David F. Bittle, Michael Miller, John Trout, Simon Carson Wells, and William D. Yonce all owned or were listed as the owner of enslaved human beings. 

Both Michael Miller and John Trout were leading members of the Board of Trustees (Trout was Board President from 1867-1882; Miller was a Roanoke College board member from 1853-1862, and a member of the board for the Virginia Collegiate Institute starting in 1845), and each gifted Roanoke College $1,000.00 to construct new campus buildings.  Miller Hall was built in 1857, and Trout Hall was constructed in 1867.

Michael Miller is listed as owning five enslaved people in the 1850 census, and 14 enslaved people in the 1860 census.  Companion sources reveal that those persons owned by Michael Miller included: Archy, Edward, Maria, Charles, Armisted, Columbus, Ellen, Peyton and Vera, as well as John and Harriet Ragsdale, and their children James and Thad.

John Trout is listed as owning five enslaved people in the 1850 census, and 22 people during the Civil War.[3]  Among these people owned by John Trout were: Aaron Yerby, Nancy Raford, Mary Willis, Clary Fleming, and Anderson.

Wells and Yonce, both of whom worked as Professors amongst other duties at Roanoke College appear in historical records as owning one person (Yonce)[4] and at least three people (Wells)[5].  Among those owned by Wells were: Ann, Agnes, and Sam. 

The first President of Roanoke College, David F. Bittle, was listed as the owner of an enslaved person named Ambrose who was sent from Salem to Richmond in September of 1863 to construct Confederate defenses.  In multiple records, Bittle is listed as Ambrose’s owner, and he received $41.33 (CSA $) for the work completed by Ambrose for the 62 days Ambrose spent working in Richmond.  The Roanoke County records had valued Ambrose at $2,500.00 (CSA $) prior to his departure.  These records are, to date, the only place where we have found David Bittle listed as an owner of enslaved people.  Scans of the original texts are listed below.

Building Construction:

For Administration Building (Center structure, 1848), James C. and Joseph Deyerle were paid $1,135.00 to complete the brickwork. The Deyerles owned enslaved people. Benjamin and Joseph Deyerle entered into brick construction after purchasing brothers Charles and Peyton Lewis in Richmond ca. 1830.  The Lewis brothers were trained in brick making and construction, and allowed the Deyerle’s to expand their business.  We know that Joseph owned Peyton Lewis when administration building construction started.  He also owned Baldwin Simms, a man who likely worked on the Administration building as an enslaved person, and then likely participated in the construction of Bittle Hall as a free man in 1870s.

Current and Future Research:

The research team has located the names of approximately 500 enslaved persons in local records.  Some of the enslaved human beings were owned by affiliates of Roanoke College.  Our goal in the coming years is to identify as many of these people as possible, create a searchable database, and then continue to research their larger family genealogy. 

[1] Kagey A History of Roanoke County, p.740

[2] Census records only reveal numbers of enslaved people on those specific years (for example, 1850), and it is highly likely that there were more enslaved people bought and sold between census years that are not represented in the census records. 

[3] Kagey, p.742

[4] Kagey, p.742

[5] Kagey, p.742