You might think that a school that offered its first classes in 1865, after the end of the Civil War, didn’t have a dog in the “which college can be guiltiest about slavery” fight. But you’d be wrong!
This week I got a letter from Rafael Reif, the president of MIT:
At MIT, we face facts, and we turn passionately toward the future. Today, however, we must attend to some newly uncovered facts from our past. A distinguished member of our history faculty, Professor Craig Steven Wilder is the leading authority on how the emergence and growth of American colleges and universities is entwined with the history of slavery. Last spring, I sought Craig’s advice on how MIT could best explore its historical connections in this realm. Based on our conversation, SHASS Dean Melissa Nobles and I immediately endorsed his proposal: to develop an ongoing undergraduate primary-research course, to be called “MIT and Slavery.”
Already, they have uncovered a range of evidence showing how MIT’s early decades were shaped by the post-Civil War process of reconstruction … Perhaps the most jarring finding: an 1850 Virginia census document, which shows that before William Barton Rogers moved to Boston to found MIT, he and his wife, Emma, held six human beings as slaves.
In the 157 years since MIT’s founding, we have often celebrated William Barton Rogers for his creative vision as an educator and his tenacity in pushing to establish MIT. With this new evidence, and our ongoing commitment to learn more about the links between the institution of slavery and technical institutions like MIT, today we must start thinking together about how to tell a more complete version of our history.
One “bad fact,” as the litigators say, is that the no-longer-known-to-be-neighborly Mr. Rogers’s name is engraved in stone (concrete?) on the main MIT building (funded by George Eastman about 20 years prior to his suicide).
Tomorrow at 1 pm the self-flagellation begins at the MIT Media Lab, 6th floor. The event will be streamed live as well and folks can ask questions, e.g., “How big a memory hole do you need for stuffing in a dead guy like Rogers?”
[In other news, MIT will be hiring professors to teach “Christianity before the birth of Jesus” and “Scientific results from NASA robot exploration of the Planet Vulcan“.]