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Lowell Stories : Black History

John Levy (Levi) (1797 – 1871)


Masthead by Hammatt Billings for the abolitionist newspaper “The Liberator”

Masthead by Hammatt Billings for the abolitionist newspaper, “The Liberator” (1831-1861) 1831, p. 97. 


John Levy (Levi) (1797-1871) was born on the Island of Nevis, West Indies.  His father Daniel Levy and his mother Nancy were both free black. The Levys were slaveholding plantation owners, and their ancestors were part of the African Jewish Diasporas to the Island of Nevis.

Initially, John Levy apprenticed as a seaman with one of his father’s friends and eventually worked aboard ships throughout the Caribbean, and then across the Atlantic to the Isle of Man, Liverpool, London, and Greece.

Levy arrived in Boston about 1820 and was working at Harvard College as a waiter when on July 8, 1822 he married Sophia Lewis (1794-1852) daughter of Minor and Peter Lewis.

In 1826, Levy was recruited to move his family to Lowell. Here he opened a hairdresser shop on East Merrimack Street to serve the female textile workers in the new town of Lowell. An advertisement in the Merrimack Journal, Lowell, in 1826 said, “John Levi - Has for sale a large assortment of FASHIONABLE CURLS, at his shop near Kimball’s Hotel, Belvidere.”

John Levy recounts how he “began to discuss the question [of abolition] with my customers, in my shop…I had read much and reflected deeply…” In about 1832, Levy joined the New England Anti-Slavery Society, founded by William Lloyd Garrison, which sponsored lecturers throughout New England. In 1834, John Levy becomes an agent and correspondent for William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist paper “The Liberator.”

The Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society helped arrange annual anti-slavery conventions and organized fundraising fairs. Levy attended and addressed the 1837 Anti-Slavery Convention. He was also a paid organizer for the Annual Boston Anti-Slavery Bazaars.

John Levy Assisted Freedom Seekers throughout his later life.

In 1841 the Amistad Africans visited Lowell.  Joseph Sturge said,

“…we proceeded to Lowell. The heavy rain prevented a general attendance. Only thirty-one dollars was collected, beside some private donations. Mr. John Levi, a colored citizen, rendered important services to us, and several of the clergymen and other inhabitants rendered efficient aid".

The Lowell Courier in 1843 noted, 

“Mr. John Levy received a letter from Zadock Myers of Frederick, Maryland, with the intelligence that he has succeeded in precuring the liberation of his family from slavery. Mr. Myers receiver pecuniary assistance, to enable him to purchase his family, from many citizens of Lowell, who will be glad to hear of his success.”

In March 1843, John Levy worked with Maria Chapman of Boston, and Sarah Clay of Lowell to reestablish the Lowell Woman's Anti-Slavery Society and organize anti-slavery fairs held in City Hall, Merrimack Street.

In the 1840s, along with William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, John Levy and others organized a series of one hundred anti-slavery conventions throughout Massachusetts. In 1843 and 1844, they arranged Frederick Douglas to speak at the Lowell Anti-Slavery Convention. According to historian Charles Cowley, Douglass was hosted by abolitionist and Quaker Royal Southwick, superintendent of the Lowell Carpet Company. (note: University of Massachusetts Lowell, Southwick Hall was funded by his grandson Frederick C. Ayer.)

John Levy, his second wife Henrietta Williams, and their six children moved to the new city of Lawrence in 1846. The Lowell Courier announced the news. “Mr. John Levy has removed to the new city, and opened a barber’s shop there.” Over the next 25 years, Levy continued to work for the civil rights of black citizens – at times living in Steuben, New York, Williamstown, Massachusetts, and returning occasionally to Lowell and Lawrence.

John Levy’s closing remarks in his edited autobiography read,

“And now kind readers, you may find me sitting by my fireside at South Lawrence, at the age of seventy-four years. Were I to enter into a minute detail of my life and career, -- especially in the part I took in the Abolition cause, from the year 1832 to the end of slavery, -- the matter would fill a bulky volume and perhaps exhaust the patience of whom this small work may be, in some degree interesting. I thank God I lived to ratify the Fifteen Amendment in the City of Boston."

John Levy died on March 25, 1879, in North Andover, Massachusetts.

Related Resources:

Life and Adventures of John Levy, 1871 edited by Rachel Levy [his daughter]