MIT releases findings on relation to slavery, founder William Barton Rogers was a slaveholder

Students research connections between the Institute and slavery in new course

President L. Rafael Reif announced findings about MIT’s connection to slavery Monday.

In an email to the MIT community, Reif wrote that student researchers had found “a range of evidence showing how MIT’s early decades were shaped by the post-Civil War process of [R]econstruction,” and MIT had connections to many industries that “depended directly or indirectly on labor from enslaved people.” 

The findings also revealed how “ugly racial attitudes” penetrated student publications and the curriculum in classes of the time, Reif wrote.

One of the most significant findings was that MIT founder William Barton Rogers and his wife, Emma, owned six slaves when they lived in Virginia in the 1840s and 1850s.

The findings emerged from a new class created last fall, MIT and Slavery, which was led by Professor Craig S. Wilder, a historian with expertise on the topic of race and slavery in American universities.

In an interview with The Tech, Reif, Wilder, SHASS Dean Melissa Nobles, and Institute Archives and Special Collections Archivist Nora Murphy discussed the origins of the class and their findings.

Reif said he originally assumed it was “obvious” that there was no connection between MIT and slavery, but upon reflection, he realized study was needed. He “didn’t want to be left speechless” if asked about the topic, so he contacted Nobles, who brought in Wilder to help.

Wilder wrote Ebony and Ivy, which Nobles called the “standing tome” on the relationship between slavery and elite American universities.

The charge to investigate Rogers specifically resulted from a class discussion on Philip Alexander’s book A Widening Sphere: Evolving Cultures at MIT, in which there was a reference to Rogers’s “negro serving man,” Levi, being mentioned at Rogers’s memorial service. While records of Levi have not been found, it led to further research into census records.

Census records in 1850 showed that Rogers owned slaves, including one child, a 10-year-old boy. Their names have not been found.

Seemingly contradictorily, some publications have pointed out that Rogers had ties to the abolitionist movement.

However, in an interview with The Tech, students Kelvin Green ’21 and Charlotte Minsky ’20 explained that these publications are not incongruent with Rogers’s slave ownership, but instead show the complicated nature of historical figures. Minsky said that instead of weighing Rogers on a “black and white [moral] scale” it is better to think that “all of these pieces are adding to this picture of him as a complicated figure.”

Claire Kim G, the TA for the class and a specialist in the history of the mathematical sciences, wrote in an email to The Tech that people’s understanding of the past changes over time and is affected by the ways in which history gets presented. For instance, she said, Emma Rogers made some “editorial decisions” over the presentation and publication of Rogers’s letters that promote a particular image of him. In sum, she noted that Rogers was a “very complex” figure and that it would take much more work to describe him.

In the class, students each conducted research on topics of their choice. Green studied racial imagery in early volumes of Technique and The Tech; Minsky studied the demographic characteristics of southern students attending MIT during its first fifteen years; Mahi Elango ’20 studied the relationship between slave institutions and MIT courses; and Alaisha Alexander ’18 studied slavery terminology in science at MIT.

Green found that 11 of the 18 racialized images within the first 30 years of The Tech and the first 15 years of Technique depicted black people as waiters, even though research has shown that black people during that time period in Boston had a variety of occupations. One of Green’s most shocking findings was an image on the cover of the Dec. 30, 1897 issue of The Tech, which showed two black waiters conversing with each other, the caption of which assumed they viewed themselves as “nigger[s].”

Minsky found that of the 30 Southern students attending MIT, ten were from Louisville, Kentucky, and many others were from border states. Louisville was a slave trade hub, despite its decreasing number of slaves.

Louisville also had a strong railroad industry, which many students entered after leaving MIT; railroads were tightly tied to Reconstruction. Minsky noted that students from border states had the “unique role of being between two worlds” — the North and the South, which contributed to the variety of their experiences at MIT.

Elango, according to a Facebook post she published Feb. 12, found that in 1874, a fourth year political economy class that was required for many students involved the discussion of slave service in the context of division of labor. She also found that MIT courses took students on field excursions to slave labored sites, like mines.

Alexander found that discussion surrounding J.M.W. Turner's painting “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying,” a depiction of the Zong massacre that was reproduced in MIT's architecture studio, focused primarily on the form and composition. Critics stated virtually nothing about the prominent drowning slaves in the foreground of the painting. 

In an email to The Tech, Alexander reported that she also found slavery terminology and racially charged language in past courses on anatomy and sociology. She strove to understand the context of and influences on this use of language.

Wilder said that he chose to conduct the research through a class because he “wanted … to have MIT students write the history of MIT.” Nobles also noted that the class format is a “pedagogical reflection to [MIT’s commitment to] having students at the center.”

Kim also expressed her support for the class format. “The class actualizes a more democratic approach to how universities grapple with the question of slavery because of its focus on including more constituencies in the discussions from the beginning,” she wrote.

Other schools have also conducted research in this area. Twelve years ago, Brown University first published its groundbreaking report, Slavery and Justice, on the university’s connection to slavery. Other elite universities have since followed, including Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia.

Wilder noted that in contrast to other schools’ grassroots push, MIT has been proactive in its discovery. He plans to continue working with other technical universities to research their ties to slavery.

All parties expressed that a diverse response was expected from the MIT community. Nobles said she expected anger, upset, discomfort, and the “satisfaction that comes from knowing more.”

Minsky said that rather than being shocked, people had simply never thought of these questions before. Green explained that this might stem from MIT’s location in Massachusetts, a generally progressive state that tends not to be thought of in relation to slavery.

All hoped that the new findings would spark dialogue. Reif said, “We just want to share our emotions and our thoughts and our reactions … we need to take our time to absorb this discovery, … [figure] out as a group what does this mean to us and what should we do now.”

Kim said in an interview with The Tech that she hoped that the MIT community would be encouraged to “enter into a discussion that we can all participate in that is not isolated to the Institute itself.”

Green believed that these discoveries will help underscore the importance of history, saying, “Society has a bad case of short term memory loss. History reminds us of who we are.” Alexander wrote, “Institutions are active players in history, not passive observers.”

The History Department will continue to offer the MIT and Slavery class in upcoming semesters.

This Friday, Feb. 16, (1–2:30 p.m., sixth floor of the MIT Media Lab), MIT will hold an event with Murphy, Reif, and Wilder discussing the recent discoveries. During the event, the students in MIT and Slavery will also present their findings.


Update 2/15/18: The article previously contained an inaccurate statement about Roger’s ownership of slaves. The evidence for Roger’s slave ownership was in 1850, not 1860. Of his six slaves, there was only one child, not multiple children. Further, the “negro serving man,” Levi, who sparked the research into Roger’s slave ownership history, according to Nora Murphy, “Was not present at Rogers’ memorial service, but one of the one of the speakers (Jedidiah Hotchkiss) mentioned him twice during his remarks.”