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MIT Black History Project launches new website

Digital archive features never-before-published image of MIT's first black woman student.
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The MIT Black History Project has launched a new website that documents evidence of the role and experience of the black community at MIT since the Institute opened its doors in 1865.

“Look at this project to get a better sense of what happens when you ignore human potential ... based on appearance, which has been much of our country's history,” says Melissa Nobles, professor of political science and Kenan Sahin Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS) at MIT.

The MIT Black History Project was founded and is directed by Clarence G. Williams, adjunct professor emeritus and former special assistant to the president. The project is an ongoing collaborative research effort sponsored by the MIT Office of the Provost.

Since 1995, the project has worked to archive over 150 years of the black experience at MIT and identified six key historical periods along the way: Roots and Exponents (1861-1920), Order of Operations (1921-1945), Potential Output (1946-1954), Critical Mass (1955-1968), Integration and Differentiation (1969-1994), and Rising Voices (1995-present).

At present, the website offers more than 500 illustrations, photographs, and other archival material available for community members, scholars, journalists, and other interested individuals to search. An additional 2,500 items already collected by the project will be included in the future. A major call to action is on the site’s Giving page, where people are invited to share their own pieces of MIT black history.

Williams’ objective has been to place the black experience at MIT in its full and appropriate context by researching and disseminating materials that expose communities both inside and outside MIT to this rich, historically significant legacy.

This effort includes lending research support to other Institute-affiliated entities such as the MIT and Slavery course taught by historian Craig Steven Wilder and archivist Nora Murphy, the MIT MLK Visiting Professor and Scholars Program website, and various Black Alumni/ae of MIT (BAMIT) endeavors.

Via the materials disseminated by the MIT Black History Project, Williams hopes that “future generations may relate to our hopes and disappointments [at MIT], to our struggles and achievements.”

Williams joined the MIT administration in 1972 as assistant dean of the graduate school. Throughout an MIT career spanning over three decades, he served as special assistant to the president and chancellor for minority affairs, acting director of the Office of Minority Education, assistant equal opportunity officer, ombudsperson, and adjunct professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

Williams is the author of "Reflections of the Dream, 1975-1994: Twenty-One Years Celebrating the Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology" (MIT Press, 1996) and "Technology and the Dream: Reflections on the Black Experience at MIT, 1941-1999" (MIT Press, 2003).

A valuable new resource

Website content includes the first visual evidence of the MIT black experience, dating back to 1875, at the early campus in downtown Boston: Jones' Lunch is a small cafeteria owned and operated out of a gymnasium by a black caterer named Jones.

By 1892, the Institute sees its first black graduate, Robert R. Taylor. He goes on to become the first known African-American architect to be accredited in the United States. Taylor also designs most of the pre-1930s buildings at Tuskegee Institute, which models its own curriculum after MIT’s.

The first black woman student to attend MIT is Marie C. Turner. She enrolls in 1905, along with her brother Henry Charles Turner, Jr. They are the second case of black siblings to attend MIT since Charles S. Dixon, Class of 1898, and John B. Dixon, Class of 1899.

It isn’t until 1955 that MIT hires its first black faculty member, linguist Joseph R. Applegate — the same year that both Applegate and Noam Chomsky earn their PhDs from the University of Pennsylvania.

About the project team

The web content team is led by writer and MIT alumna Nelly Rosario and digital humanities producer Robert L. Dunbar. Serving as project consultants is a diverse group of current and retired MIT administrators and staff. Web development, content strategy, and design services were provided by MIT Information Systems and Technology (IS&T), MIT Communications Initiatives, and the MacPhee Design Group, a web design and development firm from the Boston area.

The project has received support from MIT President L. Rafael Reif, MIT Provost Martin A. Schmidt, and two previous presidents in memoriam, Charles M. Vest and Paul E. Gray. Alumni have also contributed to this effort, notably philanthropist Reginald Van Lee and RPI president Shirley Ann Jackson, both of whom serve as the project’s senior advisors.

The MIT Black History Project website launch coincides with Black History Month and with the MIT Black Students’ Union 50th Anniversary year.

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