Faculty and Archives Partner on MIT and Slavery Project

One of the newest courses on offer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is “MIT and Slavery,” collaboratively taught by Steven Craig Wilder, Barton L. Weller Professor of History, and Nora Murphy, archivist for reference, outreach, and instruction. The undergraduate class will focus on researching MIT’s historical ties to slavery and the slave trade, as well as the role the slave economy played in other American engineering and science institutions.
One of the newest courses on offer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is “MIT and Slavery,” collaboratively taught by Steven Craig Wilder, Barton L. Weller Professor of History, and Nora Murphy, archivist for reference, outreach, and instruction. The undergraduate class will focus on researching MIT’s historical ties to slavery and the slave trade, as well as the role the slave economy played in other American engineering and science institutions. While many colleges and universities have developed courses studying their institutions’ relationship to slavery, MIT’s is among the first to embed the class directly in the library—“Not sending my students to the library or to the archives to do work,” Wilder explained, “but actually having the archivist and the librarian involved, from the very beginning...to the design of the research agenda and the week-to-week teaching." In the process of working on their research projects, students will, in turn, add valuable historical material to MIT’s archives. “The close partnership between faculty and the library, from the start, is a really powerful aspect of this project,” said MIT director of libraries Chris Bourg. “Archivists are partnering with faculty to teach students how to do archival research, and about the influence of archival practices on how our histories are remembered, studied, and preserved.”


When MIT administration approached Wilder in April about teaching a course on MIT and its connections to slavery, his response was an emphatic yes. He turned to the MIT archives and libraries to put together an outline, and as he did, he said, “One of my first thoughts was that we should partner with the library to [give] the class…a different feel than other history classes we teach." Since the publication of his most recent book, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (Bloomsbury) in 2013, Wilder had visited a number of classrooms across the country where students were exploring the links between slavery and institutional history. One aspect he noticed early on, he told LJ, was that he often sensed a “disconnect” between the research the students were doing and the source material they were working from. “If the expectation was that undergraduate students were going to really push [the] research agenda, and do original research, that would change the way that we think about the history of MIT,” said Wilder, “I felt the right place for creating that atmosphere was the archives." Wilder reached out to Murphy, who was equally enthusiastic. “He found a very willing ear in the libraries,” Murphy said, adding that the course’s mission “aligns very well with the libraries' commitment to diversity, inclusion, and social justice.” The two submitted a proposal and budget to Melissa Nobles, dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, and MIT president L. Rafael Reif. With approval from the administration, Wilder and Murphy created a syllabus and advertised the course over the summer, making sure that it was marketed to African American and African-descended, Latino, Native American, and Asian American student societies as well as campus social justice groups. The class’s focus has resonance for everyone, noted Wilder; international students and the first students of color began arriving at MIT in the late 19th century, which was also a time of racial transitions and tensions in Boston. "These aren't neatly separated histories. They tell a common story at times."


Each of the students in the course has chosen a research focus. One is examining the influence of the American south on early MIT, and is looking at students from the region. Another is examining the reception of MIT among black Bostonians at the time of its founding. Students are given readings and research instruction on how to use archival materials and secondary sources, and present their work weekly; a graduate student, Clare Kim, leads the reading section, offers advisement, and helps guide projects. They will finish first full drafts of research papers at the end of the fall semester, and will edit and prepare them for publication in the spring. The papers will ultimately be posted to the MIT and Slavery website, and MIT Libraries plans to create an online exhibit of the projects. Both Wilder and Murphy praise the students’ scholarship and engagement. “They're thinking very globally about a lot of the topics and making a lot of interesting connections,” Murphy told LJ. “They're interested in the landscape: How did MIT's founding affect the black community? What was the reaction to MIT? Who were the students who came here? What did they bring from the locations that they came from, and what did they take away? What impact on the curriculum [have there been] over the years?" One hurdle they face is the relative youth of MIT’s archives. Institutions such as Harvard or Yale have deposited and cultivated their records “almost from day one,” noted Wilder. MIT, on the other hand, did not establish a central institutional archive until 1961. "When [MIT was] celebrating the centennial [leadership]realized they didn't have any place that was a central repository,” said Murphy. “So the libraries agreed to steward these materials, and they began to receive things. But it wasn't until the late 1970s that there was a professional archives staff and they began to actively solicit and proactively go out and collect records.” Students have had difficulty finding information on early MIT students’ backgrounds and what happened to them after graduation, for example, as well as curricular data—specialties and courses of study, what types of research were being done, and faculty members’ origins. Often, early records didn’t identify people’s race. "Creating three-dimensional biographies for the people who occupied the campus in its early years, that's probably the biggest challenge,” said Wilder. “Unlike, for instance, Dartmouth, where if you go into their special collections there's a file for almost every early graduate...from birth to death...and every job they ever held, often with photographs, we've been doing a lot more detective work to put that together.” However, there are still rich resources to be found in MIT’s archives: early minutes of faculty meetings, student newspapers and yearbooks, the correspondence of MIT’s founder William Barton Rogers, course catalogs, annual reports, and early published material, along with contemporary resources. Outside the school’s archives students have turned to the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Massachusetts Historical Society, Massachusetts Bay Colony Archives, and Harvard University Archives, among others. As their research grows, the chance to contribute to the institutional record is a valuable experience for the students as well as an opportunity for the school to deepen its archives. Bourg noted, “For institutions like MIT, [which] didn’t start systematically acquiring and preserving our own historical archives and documents until relatively recently, projects that get students working on discovering and describing primary documents are an excellent way to not only fill gaps in our collections, but also instill an appreciation for archives and archival work in the next generation.”


MIT’s ties to the slave economy are less apparent, at least on the surface, than those of older institutions. The school was founded on April 10, 1861, two days before the start of the Civil War, but classes didn’t commence until after the war ended in 1865. Most of MIT’s peer institutions, including seven of the eight Ivy League schools (minus Cornell University, which was founded in 1865) date to the Colonial era, and their relationship to slavery can be easily tracked over the years. However, noted Wilder, MIT’s research reveals links to MIT’s roots as well. From the 1820s to the early 1870s, northeastern manufacturers began pouring money into engineering schools, a national upswing in engineering and technical education that was often referred to as “practical education.” Much of the motivation for this, he explained, was the shift from native industry based on human labor, such as coal mining, to the imported raw products of slave labor that required mechanical processing—cotton coming out of the South into the textile mills of New England or sugar moving from the West Indies to the refineries in New York, for example. “It's families who were building their fortunes in those industries…who were really the sponsors of technical education,” Wilder said. Rogers grew up on the campus of William and Mary—a college that had its own endowment of slaves—where his father was a professor. He replaced his father on the faculty and eventually moved north to establish MIT; many of his primary sponsors were cotton textile manufacturers or otherwise connected to slave economies. "So although we opened after the Civil War the story of MIT is really in fact actually the conclusion of the story of slavery in the United States," Wilder told LJ, noting that for decades the U.S. economy remained tightly tied to that of the West Indies and South America, where slavery continued. The need to follow the trail of influence has deepened the scholarship around the school’s origins. “You know, the old saying ‘Follow the money?’ Where did all of this come from?” asked Murphy. “The mid-19th-century sensibilities in Massachusetts may have been supportive of abolition, but a century before, were those families feeling that way?” MIT administration has expressed a commitment to continuing the project until Wilder feels that the research initiative has run its course. "When we think we have the story right we can stop," he said. "It's been a wonderful opportunity for us in the archives and the libraries to take a chance to think about who we are, and how to be more inclusive of everybody—not just look at a single version of our history,” said Murphy. “It allows us to broaden our view in a way that we don't always, on the staff, have a chance to do." Added Bourg, “This project will help MIT take an honest and rigorous look at the role of slavery and the slave economy in our own founding and in the early development of technology institutions. The student projects will contribute to that understanding.”
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