MIT class reveals, explores Institute’s connections to slavery

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Findings show founder William Barton Rogers possessed enslaved persons before coming to MIT; research, community dialogue to ensue.

Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office
February 12, 2018

MIT’s first president, William Barton Rogers, possessed enslaved persons in his Virginia household until the early 1850s, roughly a decade before he founded the Institute, according to new research from an MIT history class scholars and administrators designed to examine the legacy of slavery in relationship to the university.

While Massachusetts outlawed slavery in the early 1780s, Rogers lived in Virginia, where slavery was still legal, from 1819 until 1853, mostly on the campuses of the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia. Documents from the time indicate that in those settings, Rogers had enslaved persons in his household in both 1840 and 1850.

MIT was founded in 1861 and began offering classes in 1865, just as the U.S. Civil War was ending the era of legal slavery in the South. But even as the Institute emerged in a new historical period, it bore marks of that older era as well.

“Our founder was a slave owner,” says Craig Steven Wilder, the Barton L. Weller Professor of History at MIT and a leading expert on the links between universities and slavery. Given how often such institutions drew personnel and material support from wealthy families that had profited from slavery, “people shouldn’t be surprised that MIT has these connections,” Wilder notes.

“I think that by looking at MIT’s ties to slavery, what you start to see is the centrality of slavery to the rise of the United States and its institutions,” Wilder adds.

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