Illuminating the successes and struggles of MIT Black history

The MIT Black History Project is an ongoing collaborative research effort sponsored by the MIT Office of the Provost working to archive 150+ years of the black experience at MIT.

The MIT Black History Project is documenting 150+ years of the Black experience at the Institute and beyond.

Zach Winn | MIT News Office

February 26, 2023

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. Visitors to the website, which was redesigned in 2018 by developers who also worked on the website of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, can sort publications based on timeframe, type of MIT affiliation, researcher, and more.

“As a writer, I think about how different combinations of artifacts tell specific stories,” Rosario says. “There are infinite ways of recombining and thinking about the information revealed by these artifacts in various contexts. That’s something we hope people can contribute: stories that aren’t already known or apparent.”

Fellow member of the founding group Robert Dunbar has been working to put together films and other presentations based on the stories collected.

Other efforts include expanding on research initiated by course 21H.SO1 (MIT and Slavery), administering the MIT MLK Visiting Professor and Scholars Program website, engaging in various Black Alumni/ae of MIT (BAMIT) endeavors, and presenting at events hosted by entities such as MIT Club of Texas and MIT Haystack Observatory.

“Having direct access to Clarence and his work on the Black History Project were essential onboarding tools for me,” says John Dozier, the Institute Community and Equity Officer, who started at MIT in March 2020. “I came to the Institute with very little experience or knowledge of MIT’s history. Clarence and Nelly’s work bring us stories, perspectives, and details that you just can’t find any other way.”

More recently, organizers curated audio clips from Williams’s 2001 book, “Technology and the Dream,” for an MIT Museum exhibit featuring interviews with Black alumni, faculty, and administrators, along with corresponding pictures and short biographies. The interactive exhibit will be on display for at least another year in the museum.

“While a portion of the interviews Clarence had conducted had been transcribed and published, no one had actually listened to the tapes since a few transcribers did it,” MIT Museum Director of Collections Deborah Douglas explains. “What we learned is that despite being similar to the transcripts, it was a revelation to hear the voices. What’s not in the transcripts is the laughter, the emotion, the asides that get made. It offered a brand new set of insights into this collection that dates back 30 years.”

Weaving history into the present

The project’s organizers say they’ve gotten extremely positive feedback from people who have gone through the stories and learned something or related on a personal level.

“We’ve had almost a million visitors to our website, so it’s clear the world is interested in what MIT is doing in this arena,” Williams says.

Rosario calls her work on the project a “labor of love” as she and other members of the team conduct research on the side of full-time jobs. She hopes future work will be guided by the curiosities and interests of the MIT community.

“We’re not personally on campus, so it’s important to go beyond archival research and engage current students, faculty, and administrators in this conversation,” Rosario says. “Rather than simply document the past, we hope the project will help activate new questions about the MIT Black experience at present.”

Indeed, Rosario says unraveling the threads of history could hold the most value for future generations.

“It’s important to see ourselves as part of a continuous thread,” Rosario says, “to be able to reach back and anchor ourselves for what’s here and what’s coming.”    

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