Opinion letter to the editor

Response to undergraduate course, MIT and Slavery: how should we acknowledge our history?

Why we should interrogate MIT’s complex relationship with slavery

Following the release of the initial findings from the MIT and Slavery course in February 2018, an alum expressed concerns over the significance of the research in a letter to the editor titled “Commentary on MIT’s new course, MIT and Slavery.” The alum’s lament that the course’s research potentially “deprives us of a correct understanding of history, of human nature, and of our own state of being” raises several questions. Among them include: Who is encompassed in that “us” and “we”? What constitutes a “correct understanding” of history? And what is the significance of interrogating MIT’s relationship to slavery? MIT’s engagement with slavery exists in the context of a larger movement of universities researching and writing about their histories with slavery, beginning more than a decade ago and including peer institutions such as Brown, Georgetown, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. As students of the Fall 2017 MIT and Slavery class, we would like to address these questions and the several arguments made in the opinion piece, and affirm our commitment to historical truth.

In order to reach a common understanding of the goals of and results of the class, we must begin with a common understanding of its context and progression. To clarify, the finding that Rogers owned slaves did not, in fact, prompt President Reif to encourage the community to examine Rogers’s actions. Well before the revelation that Rogers was a slaveholder, President Reif had proposed that the MIT community explore the previously unstudied relationship between MIT and slavery through an undergraduate history class. Indeed, the purpose of the class was to grapple with MIT’s place in a nation whose social, political, and economic spheres were inescapably entrenched in the institution of racialized chattel slavery. The class’s goal was not to project “guilt forward or judgment backward in time,” but rather to investigate the nuanced ways in which MIT developed and was connected to the slave economy. While the class led to findings confirming that William Barton Rogers held slaves, MIT’s narrative about slavery neither begins nor ends with him. That Rogers was a slaveholder should not be the only focus of our community discussion, as our research has delved into even more topics regarding MIT’s relationship with slavery. These include: the early attitudes of MIT towards a civic and moral education; the language of enslaved labor and race deployed by students and faculty; the teaching of racialized science in the early curriculum; the relationship between MIT’s students to the South and the Reconstruction economy; the perception of black people through visual representations in late 19th-century student publications. Reducing our work to a “witch hunt” for slaveholders and racist alumni would be to do a grave disservice to both the quality of the class and the nature of historical research.

The opinion piece’s accusation that we are “playing a self-destructive game” amounts to a charge of presentism that historians have heard before. To its extreme, the presentist critique — that it is inappropriate to cast a judgment on the past based on “modern” morality — could be used to rationalize nearly every grossly obvious misdeed in history, across eras and societies. It is a well-oiled excuse that takes for granted the artificial divide between past and present, used time after time to forgive slaveholders and slave-traders because there seemingly was no collective consciousness of the moral implications of slavery. However, history is not a bill of moral accusations to be contested in order to preserve our own comfort. The discovery that William Barton Rogers was a slaveholder is not an indictment. It is a historical fact. It is a historical fact that impels us to interrogate the conditions that made it possible. It is a historical fact that calls us to ask: How could a man like William Barton Rogers, our founder and first President, come to participate in the ownership of human beings?

It is easy and convenient to answer that question by claiming that historical actors could not have “anticipated the prevailing morality of today” — that they did not know what they were doing. They knew exactly what they were doing. The idea that people in the past were somehow ignorant to the moral complexities and wrongs of slavery due to their time is simply not historically accurate. Just as we contemplate moral issues raised by the opinion piece, historical actors contemplated their engagement with slavery. We cannot ignore the history of vocal abolitionist thought, nor can we ignore the voices of enslaved people who clearly objected to the system that brutalized and dehumanized them. Concepts of freedom, liberation, and abolition composed a national discussion that permeated every corner of America; no one is exempt from that context by the virtue of their time, and to exclude aspects of our nation’s history from that context would be ahistorical. We compound the horrors of slavery by draping them in a veil of ignorance, but it is not our founding fathers and forebears we protect by portraying this history as anachronistic — it is only ourselves. We can throw up an artificial barrier between “historical” morality and “modern” morality to ward off confrontation, discomfort, and darkness, but it is our responsibility to investigate the conditions and people that perpetrated slavery, even if it means embracing that discomfort.

The stories of slavery and abolitionism do not lie dormant in the past, and we are accountable in our creations of histories to include them. Until this point, the story of MIT has been presented as one of straightforward innovation and progress. As a class, we sought to complicate that narrative to present a more accurate picture. Communities will always be scared to rewrite heroic and innocent origin stories — scared that slavery taints the perfect picture they have painted in textbooks and the national conscious. We should not be surprised that it has taken so long to probe the Institute’s history in this light; we do a remarkable job at hiding from, covering up, and erasing that which we are afraid of. Yet, this is our history. The examination of MIT in the context of slavery cannot be treated as auxiliary. When we consent to a history that ignores the reality of slavery, we actively participate in the silencing of the same voices that have been expunged from our national story for the last 250 years. But history is made and remade with fact-finding and open dialogue, and that is what we hope this class has enabled.

The slaves who were kidnapped, tortured, brutalized, maimed, and killed — the same slaves whose lives were taken for the foundation and growth of America — deserve to have their place in history included and underlined. And we have an opportunity to write them into history, with our exploration of MIT’s relationship to slavery. Back in February, historian Craig Steven Wilder declared that “[w]e are not held captive by the past.” We may be challenged by the emergence of previously ignored stories and voices to reflect on our past and what it means for us now as an institution, but we trust that this community will rise to the challenge.

Mahalaxmi Elango is a member of the MIT Class of 2020 in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Charlotte Minsky is a member of the MIT Class of 2020 in the Department of Earth, Atmosphere, and Planetary Sciences.