MIT and the Legacy of Slavery

My alma mater, MIT, was founded in 1861, the same year the Civil War began. While the fact that those dates match may be coincidental, there were no institutions of the time unconnected to or unaffected by slavery. Indeed, slavery from 1820 to the start of the Civil War and even through Reconstruction was a core part of the development of industry and engineering.

So, when historians discovered that MIT’s first president, William Barton Rogers, was a slaveowner, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. What MIT did next, though, was interesting. The MIT School of Humanities and Social Sciences (SHASS) actually started a class to set students loose on researching the legacy of slavery in relationship to the university. Here’s a really thoughtful primer.

Today, I went to a panel discussion at MIT, with MIT’s President, the Dean of SHASS, the lead archivist who worked with the class, the professor, the teaching assistant and the four students who did the research. (That’s a lot of people, but it really went very smoothly.) These kids are smarter and more well-spoken than I was as an undergrad. More importantly, it was fascinating research and a rich discussion. It might make some people uncomfortable, and that’s exactly why we need to confront it.

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