Illuminating the successes and struggles of MIT Black history
Images: Courtesy of the MIT Black History Project, and the MIT Museum; edited by MIT News
The MIT Black History Project is documenting 150+ years of the Black experience at the Institute and beyond.
When Victor Ransom ’42 arrived at MIT from New York City in 1941, he discovered a campus electrified by the war effort. People scurried between what he described as MIT’s “massive, unsympathetic buildings” as the campus underwent a transformation that took on new urgency after the attacks on Pearl Harbor that December.
During his sophomore year, Ransom took leave from MIT and joined the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of Black pilots who later earned accolades for their performance in combat. But the airmen experienced racism and segregation during the war. In 1945 Ransom, along with a number of other MIT alumni, took part in protests against the discrimination they faced.
Ransom finished his MIT studies after the war and moved to Virginia to work for NACA, the predecessor to NASA, joining a growing group of Black MIT alumni, faculty, and students who would play a vital role in the U.S. space program. NACA paid for Ransom’s graduate studies, but the nearby University of Virginia would not accept Black students, leading him to move to Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended Case Western Reserve University. Despite the hurdles he faced, Ransom would go on to have a successful career at the renowned Bell Laboratories and in the communications industry.
Ransom’s story is one of the many rich histories highlighted by the MIT Black History Project, an ongoing effort to research and tell the stories of MIT’s Black community that first began in 1995. Sponsored by the Office of the Provost, the project has uncovered more than 150 years of the Black experience at MIT.
“This important work illustrates a more complete telling of the MIT story and provides a platform to reflect on and share some of the Institute’s untold stories,” says Provost Cynthia Barnhart.
The project is led by founder and director Clarence Williams SM ’94, who is also an adjunct professor emeritus at MIT and former special assistant to the president.
“The mission of the project, in my view, is to highlight the achievements that these people have made,” Williams says. “We’re trying to document the role and presence of Black students, faculty, and administrators, and to celebrate their significant role in MIT’s history. Their experience is a model that we should use to continue the progress we’ve made.”
Ransom’s story intersects with a number of influential events in MIT’s history, but it is only one perspective in a diverse array of Black experiences captured by the project. The project’s organizers seek to broaden that perspective through a dedicated page on their website, where people are invited to share their own pieces of MIT Black history and contribute to research efforts.
“A vision for the project is that it become more of a collective enterprise — that students, faculty, administrators, and staff contribute through collaborative annotation and citizen archiving,” says Nelly Rosario ’94, an associate professor at Williams College who serves as the project’s assistant director of writing. “There is no single Black history. There is no single history of anything.”
The project takes shape
Williams dates the origins of the Black History Project to 1972, when a group of Black MIT students led by Shirley Jackson ’68, PhD ’73 demanded the Institute do more to increase the number of students, faculty, and administrators of color. That year, Williams was appointed assistant dean of MIT’s graduate school. He went on to serve in a number of positions over the next three decades as he worked to increase support for students of color at MIT.
After receiving support from Institute leadership, Williams officially launched the MIT Black History Project in 1995.
“We’re helping the Institute understand the atmosphere that increased the number of underrepresented minority students, faculty, and administrators in our institution,” Williams says, noting there’s still work to be done to attract and support students from diverse backgrounds. “This history puts that progress into context. Seeing is believing, and it will help us and other Institutions understand MIT’s model.”
Research has involved working with Institute Archives, MIT Libraries, and the MIT Museum as well as gleaning information from reports, newspapers, memoirs, and novels.
“It’s not research centered on any one particular archive,” Rosario says. “Something mentioned on social media might help us make unexpected connections. Using diverse sources, I try to fill in missing qualitative and quantitative data. The research has to be creative and curiosity-driven. You have to take leaps and go in counterintuitive directions.”
The archive on the project’s website is organized into eras, with stories focused around specific subjects like NASA, the Tuskegee Airmen, and the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. at MIT.