New Book Explores the Black Experience at MIT
Many stories about life as one of the few Black students at MIT are recounted in longtime professor Clarence Williams’ new book, Technology and the Dream: Reflections on the Black Experience at MIT, 1941-1999 (MIT Press, $37.95).
The 1,042-page book is a look at racial issues at MIT and in society in general. It took Williams, a professor of urban studies and planning, five years to complete the book.
Various alumni recount facing discrimination at well-known corporations; growing up in poverty-stricken communities; and being told they should settle for menial jobs instead of pursuing an education and a better future.
Though many of the obstacles they faced have been removed, the book also deals with the problems at MIT — and other academically rigorous institutions — that have yet to be solved. Williams writes that his greatest frustration at MIT has been the school’s limited effort to monitor and promote equal opportunity.
“We identify the best students of color in the country in math and science. That’s our specialty,” Williams says. “We go after them, and we get a large portion of them. I think it’s a failure on our part to not be able to groom those individuals in such a way that we could get a reasonable percentage to consider faculty appointments here or at other institutions on the same level.”
Though only 2 percent of MIT tenure-track professors are Black, the school has a long history of admitting Black students. The first Black student to graduate from MIT was Robert Taylor, in 1892.
“Essentially his community thought it was a useless situation to come to a place like MIT to get a degree — and his was in architecture — because at that time there was nothing that a Black person could do with a degree,” Williams says.
By 1900, Taylor was an instructor and an administrator at Tuskegee University in Alabama.
Others followed Taylor at MIT. There were roughly a dozen Black students at MIT before 1920, and they enrolled at the rate of about one every three years.
In the 1930s and 1940s, however, the number of Black students declined sharply. Only 20 or so Black students graduated from MIT in those 20 years. Paul Gray, a 1950 graduate who was president of MIT from 1980-1990 and who is White, says that when he was a student, he never saw a Black student, even though several were in his class.
“They were invisible. My hunch is that there was no sense of community among them,” Gray says. “Now that they represent 7 percent of the undergrads, they are a genuine community, and they act like one.”
Roughly 46 percent of MIT’s undergraduates are minority students. Asians make up 27 percent of the student body, and 11 percent are Latinos. Only 1.8 percent are American Indian.
The first Black faculty member, assistant professor of modern languages Joseph Applegate, began work in 1956. The number of Black students began to increase in the late 1960s.
In some ways, current Black MIT students have it easier than their predecessors did. An all-male, all-Black living group nicknamed “Chocolate City” was started with eight students 25 years ago; it now has 30.
“Chocolate City is the reason I came to MIT,” says Jonathan White, who will graduate this year. “The people who lived in Chocolate City made me feel that they were a welcoming support system. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them.”
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